Poetry Reading Strategies—Use These Techniques To Make Poetry Fun

High school students often don’t like reading poetry because they believe it’s old-fashioned and hard to understand. If you teach them effective poetry reading strategies, you can show them that poetry is, in fact, fun and relevant.

When you ask yourself how you can teach reading to high school students, your first objective should be to make reading fun. While you may feel poetry is the perfect critical reading exercise, your students are probably unlikely to agree. You can’t rely on your students to fall in love with poetry without teaching them the proper strategies they need to understand it.

When diving into the assigned poem, you want your students to use reading comprehension strategies. Students will have to employ different critical reading skills to analyze poetry. Only then can they approach it with an open mindset—ready to dip into all the hidden and apparent motifs and ideas—and be transformed by the beauty and power of poetry itself. 

What Are Strategies for Reading Poetry?

Credit: Nick Fewings

Analyzing poetry improves reading skills, and reading and writing skills are important for your students to possess. When your students learn to analyze poetry, they can also appreciate it, which can only enhance their love for the written word. 

Since students often believe that poetry is impossible to understand, you should inspire them to see past that popular misconception by teaching them poetry reading strategies.

The Survey of Poetry Reading Strategy, conducted by Ebrahimi and Zainal, grouped poetry reading strategies into roughly three categories:

Strategies Characteristics

Global Strategies

  • Defining a purpose for reading
  • Analyzing a poem that fits the lesson objective
  • Relying on background knowledge
  • Skimming poems
  • Deciding which poems to read 
  • Learning the characteristics of poetry
  • Pinpointing contextual clues
  • Guessing the meaning
  • Gathering information
  • Evaluating the understanding of the poem
  • Coming to conclusions and forming opinions

Problem-Solving Strategies

  • Reading the poem slowly
  • Concentrating
  • Determining reading speed
  • Paying attention
  • Making pauses to consider the read poem
  • Visualizing
  • Reading again
  • Predicting meanings of unfamiliar vocabulary
  • Engaging emotionally with the poem

Support Strategies

  • Annotating
  • Reciting out loud
  • Highlighting
  • Rephrasing verses
  • Connecting ideas found in the poems
  • Going over the questions you have about the poems

The purpose of the study was to highlight how students showcase they have understood poetry. Applied appropriately, these strategies ought to inspire your students to:

  • Think about the poetry they read actively
  • Form the emotional and cognitive attachment with the material
  • Express their opinions in word and action

Rosenblatt’s Transactional Theory

Louise Rosenblatt’ Transactional theory of teaching literature affirms the validity of the listed poetry reading strategies. As its name suggests, the theory proposes that the understanding of poetry is achieved at the intersection of the poem with the reader’s mind. The meaning doesn’t exist in the poem itself nor the individual readers’ minds, but it’s derived when the words are understood and connected to one’s background knowledge.

For the transaction to be achieved in the classroom, you need to make sure your students apply the poetry reading strategies that help them:

  • Go over the poems actively
  • Use their background knowledge to make sense of what’s being read
  • Form long-lasting attachment to the material

Applying Poem Reading Strategies—Where To Start?

Credit: Laura Chouette

You should teach your students the existing poetry reading strategies. Students need to know what these strategies are and how to apply them when they read poetry effectively. To achieve that, you will first start with lesson planning. Define the goal, i.e., which strategy you want to teach your students for every poetry lesson you have.

The first poetry lesson you have with your students is probably the most important. How you introduce poetry can affect whether students approach the subject material with an open mind or not.

To apply the poetry reading strategies successfully:

  1. Introduce your students to poetry carefully
  2. Determine how you’ll teach the established poetry devices
  3. Select the poems you’ll teach
  4. Plan your lessons thoroughly

What’s in a Poem?

“Hello, students. Today, we’re going to take a break from studying.” How does this sound as an opener to a poetry lesson? It’s great because it is unexpected and it seizes their attention, while also informing them you will be doing fun activities in the lesson.

If they are typical high school students, your class may harbor some negative feelings toward poetry, such as that it is:

  • Irrelevant
  • Impossible to understand
  • Boring

You must dispel these notions at the beginning of your poetry teaching lessons and turn your student’s attitudes toward poetry from negative to positive.

How you introduce a poetry lesson to your students is key. The first rule is not to give them any definition of the genre. Instead, you want every one of your students to have their individual outlook on poetry.

You can take a page out of John Keating’s book and tell your students that poetry:

  • Isn’t written to be memorized
  • Is relatable
  • Cannot be defined
  • Is to be found in their favorite song lyrics
  • Is written by ‘wackos’ that have a secret to share

Be careful not to promote the popular notion that poetry contains cryptic messages that are nigh on impossible to decipher. Your students are probably already afraid that they will not be able to understand the hidden meanings in verses. When you tell them that poems will let them in on a secret, make sure they understand that poetry can give them an epiphany or something they can relate to.

Give an example from your personal life. Tell them how Yeats’ “Sailing to Byzantium” made you realize you’re no longer a young person who had the whole world at their feet, but that that was all right because no one is for a long time, and you can’t wait to get to “Byzantium” as it is. You can tell them how you were relieved when reading Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale” because you discovered you weren’t the only person who gets a “purple-stained mouth” when drinking wine.

To Teach or Not To Teach Theory—That Is the Question

For your students to understand poetry, they need to be able to recognize the established poetry devices—from meters to figures of speech. Giving textbook definitions of poetry elements with some examples next to them isn’t the best approach.

You need to determine whether you want to teach your students poetry techniques in a separate lesson or make your students notice them as they read and come to love poetry.

Make sure you let your students know why these poetry devices exist. In the past, people didn’t have recording devices, so the poets needed to fit their verses into the structures that would be easy to memorize.

Your students should be able to recognize the following poetry conventions:

Meter Form Figurative Devices Sound Patterns
  • Set number of poetic feet
  • Blank verse
  • Free verse
  • Narrative
  • Descriptive
  • Lyric
  • Metaphor
  • Simile
  • Personification
  • Symbol
  • Allegory
  • Irony
  • Parallel
  • Assonance
  • Repetition
  • Alliteration
  • Onomatopoeia

Use examples to demonstrate to your students how knowing these poetry elements helps them understand and experience poetry more profoundly. For comparison, you can distribute poems where these conventions were followed and where authors broke all the rules to see how your students will respond.

You also want to let your students know you are going to teach them the strategies that will help them analyze and enjoy poetry.

A Carefully Selected Poem Is a Joy Forever

If you want to get your students excited about reading and analyzing poetry, a carefully selected poem will do the job. You can never go wrong with assigning poems with titles that will pique your students’ interest from the get-go. Here are several ideas:

It’s also always a good idea to select poems that are classified by themes, so your students can explore the same ideas while analyzing one set of poems. They can also have a homework assignment to find the poem or song that corresponds to the given theme themselves. They can bring the verses and song lyrics to class and compare how the two are similar or different.

Stop All the Clocks, Cut Off the Telephone, Plan Your Lessons

When you have all the strategies you want to teach your students and the poems to demonstrate them, you want to plan each lesson carefully. Here’s what to do:

  1. Set the objective/s for each lesson
  2. Design a warm-up activity that will get students excited
  3. Tell students the lesson objective to motivate them
  4. Select an activity for each strategy you want to teach
  5. Think of the homework you’ll assign beforehand
  6. Allocate the time for each activity
  7. Design back-up activities
  8. Think of a cool-down activity

Using Reading Strategies for Poetry in Your Classroom

Credit: Thought Catalog

Whether your students apply the poetry reading strategies effectively depends on the activities you assign in your lessons and how well you execute them.

Here are poetry reading activities you can make your own:

  1. Coming up with original poetry definitions
  2. Boosting the students’ background knowledge
  3. Reading poems multiple times
  4. Dealing with unknown vocabulary
  5. Using apps to teach poetry
  6. Acting out poetry

Offer Original Definitions of Poetry

Students don’t like exhaustive definitions as it is, and when it comes to poetry, no textbook definition will make them excited to analyze poems.  

When you introduce poetry to your students, give them an example definition that is unique to you as a person. The sillier this definition is, the better. Now you want your students to do the same. Tell them to define poetry themselves by offering their unique opinions of it. It can be anything from two words to a meticulously memorized textbook definition.

As you go on analyzing poetry with your students, you want them to revise their definitions. This activity should encourage them to:

  • Form a personal attachment to poetry
  • Use their own words to define it
  • Dispel the preconceived negative emotions toward poetry

Equipping Students With the Knowledge They Need

When reading any text, students connect its meaning with what they already know about the world, even if they do it unconsciously. Making connections between a poem’s meaning and one’s background knowledge of the world is a strategy students should use when reading poetry.

You should teach students to activate their background knowledge so that they can:

  • Anticipate what the poem is about
  • Analyze the already-read poem
  • Appreciate the poem more

The problem arises when students don’t possess the necessary prior knowledge to understand a poem fully. Let’s take the example of Sir Thomas Wyatt’s “They Flee From Me.” After reading the poem for the first time—without knowing anything about it—your student would be:

  • Unable to get the gist of the poem
  • Confused at the imagery of birds and the importance they have for the speaker
  • Bored to death at the subject matter that seemingly has no relevance to their own lives

You should work with your students so that they understand the techniques used in the poem. You should also tell them of the time period and the implications the verses in the poem had back then. By doing that, you give them the knowledge about the time period that they need if they want to understand the poem.

Let students know that Wyatt lived in a time when poets were considered the edgiest rock stars of society. Tell them that they should replace the imagery of birds in the poem with that of lovers. Your students will be intrigued enough to get the gist of the poem—before even analyzing it.

Presenting and Reading

Read the selected poems to your students multiple times, if need be. Then, have them read the poems by themselves.

It’s crucial that you don’t stress students out by demanding a certain understanding from them.

Here’s a fun technique you can use—tell your students to jot down one word that best describes what they felt when they:

  1. Heard the poem recited by you
  2. Read the poem by themselves
  3. Recited it
  4. Analyzed and discussed the poem’s meanings

Students now have four different words that exemplify the four different emotional and cognitive stages they went through as they heard, read, recited, and analyzed the poem. The activity teaches students that reading poetry is an immersive experience. It also shows them how they can uncover the hidden meanings when they open themselves to analyzing and discussing the poem.

Highlight the Unknown Words

If certain words in poems hinder your student’s understanding of them, you should have them look the words up. When you recite a poem to your students, make sure they have a printed copy before them. Students can highlight all the unfamiliar words when first hearing the poem from you or reading it themselves.

When you go through with your lesson, you can ask your students whether they can still infer the meaning without knowing these words. Only if they can’t understand the words when they know the context can they look them up.

Install Poetry Reading Apps

One of the best aspects of employing technology in the classroom is that you can use some of the best apps for teaching reading to make your students fall in love with poetry. Instruct your students to install Pocket Poetry, Poetry Everywhere, or Poetry Foundation apps and bring the poems they’ve found using the app to the next lesson.

Act Out Verses

Some of the best fun you can have while analyzing both prose and poetry with your students is to have them read lines as characters. The crucial part of this exercise is not to let your students stay at their desks. Organize an acting session, assign characters to a group of students, and have them recite their lines.

This will only be successful if your students have already understood the poem. Of course, plays are the best reading material for this activity, but you can work with individual poems too. For example, a dialogue between a speaker and the raven in Poe’s “The Raven” can be a blast—especially when your students know that the raven is the speaker’s subconscious. 

What Do You Do To Make Your Students Love Reading?

While poetry should be read and enjoyed for its own sake, there are other reasons you want your students to understand how poetry works. Poetry helps your students develop cognitive, critical reading, and problem-solving skills. It also helps them realize how powerful language can be.

Since poetry is important both for your student’s personal satisfaction and professional growth, you need to implement the right strategies to teach it. If you have any ideas besides the ones mentioned, we are interested in hearing them.

Write to us, and let’s bring poetry closer to our student’s hearts and minds!