You’re Never Too Young for Poetry

You’re Never Too Young for Poetry

Local educators say exposing children and even babies to rhyme and rhythm can help develop reading and language skills.

Students at Norwood School participate in Poetry Day, an annual event at the school. Poetry is a way to help children develop essential skills while having fun.

Students at Norwood School participate in Poetry Day, an annual event at the school. Poetry is a way to help children develop essential skills while having fun. Photo courtesy of Norwood School

Though Keith Ward's son is still a baby, the young child is already being exposed to exposed to not just silly stories, but poetry, and a variety of poetic forms at that.

“My son is only 6 months old, but soon I will be challenging him to find, for example, just the right word for the shade of green he is trying to describe — or imagine,” said Ward, who is head of the English department at the Madeira School in McLean. “Maybe it’s a word and a color we have yet to discover. He’s working on it, though.”

Local researchers and educators say that young children enjoy poetry. In fact, hearing rhythms, sounds and language patterns play important roles in a child's literacy development.

“Rhythm and rhyme are some key factors in early literacy, and even something as simple as reading and memorizing nursery rhymes with your children can have a huge impact on their later development as readers,” said Holly Karapetkova, an associate professor of literature at Marymount University in Arlington. “One research study found that the 3-year-olds who knew eight nursery rhymes were the best readers in third grade. Hearing rhyme and rhythm in language can help children develop phonological awareness and predict word patterns and sounds.”

“Without realizing it, students hear poetry and think deeply about sounds and structures in sentences. As a result, they become better readers, thinkers, and writers,” said Blake Howard, an English teacher at The Potomac School in McLean.

Howard’s students recently studied structural elements, “Such as stanza formations, meter and rhyme, and sound devices like consonance and assonance in poems by Shelley, Keats, Dickinson and Frost,” he said. “They practiced scansion of evident rhythms in metrical poems. They learned how and why those devices enhance tone and thematic purpose in the selected poems. Next, they wrote original poems. Some students crafted sonnets with meter and rhyme. They admitted — some reluctantly — that the exercise of reading and writing poetry has made them appreciate the value of precise word choice and balanced syntax.”

Ward also encourages the exploration of a variety of poetic forms. “Many students enjoy haiku, too, which are fun and approachable,” he said. “They often reward the young poet with a profoundly beautiful result, which builds confidence and appreciation.”

THE TYPE OF RHYME doesn’t matter, however. Young students at Grace Episcopal School, in Alexandria, explore a different nursery rhyme each month as part of their Music and Performing Arts class.

“We repeat the verses out loud week after week to internalize the cadence, define any challenging words, pair motions with phrases, and culminate the whole affair by acting out each month's poem — complete with props and costumes,” said Penelope Fleming, the school’s librarian. This [emphasizes] the notion that language has rhythm and also expands students’ vocabulary.”

“A good poem really comes alive when it is read aloud,” said Barbara Vaughan, a sixth grade teacher at Norwood School, in Potomac, Md. “There is such variety in form, length, and subject. Poetry can help readers pause and look at the world in a different way.”

In fact, poetry can be instrumental in a child’s development. “Rhyme is a great way to encourage word play in younger children,” said Vaughan. “With older students, it can be the basis of a more sophisticated structure for a poem. Many poems are wonderful sources of figurative language, creating rich images in the reader’s mind. They can be powerful examples that encourage children to use language in creative and unexpected ways.

Poetry that is written for children is often rich in rhymes. “Rhyming is a wonderful way to develop phonemic awareness,” said Tyffany Mandov, Lower School reading specialist at Norwood School. “Phonemic awareness, or the ability to recognize and manipulate distinct sounds, is the earliest step in learning to decode words."

“The brain loves rhyme and rhythm and children will naturally want to read and reread poems with their parents and caregivers,” said Karapetkova. “The more young children learn to enjoy reading and language, the more likely they are to continue that love throughout their lives.”

READING POETRY TOGETHER, especially funny poems, and asking a child to guess the rhyming word is a way of reinforcing phonemic awareness and introducing letter patterns, said Mandov. “Playing rhyming games is another fun way for preschool and kindergarten children to reinforce these skills. While driving in the car, try a rhyme chain. Ask your child for a word that rhymes with cat. Perhaps your child will say ‘bat.’ Then you give a word that rhymes with bat and continue rhyming back and forth. See how many rhymes you can make."

“A good way to encourage children to create their own poetry is to devise alternate lyrics to the tunes of familiar songs, an easy activity that can be incorporated into bath time, car trips or even a way to pass the time while waiting in line,” said Fleming.

Karapetkova played similar games with her children. “These games are a favorite way to pass our time waiting in line or sitting in the car,” said the Arlington mother of two. “We start with a word — simple words with lots of rhymes for younger children and more complex words for older children — and see how many rhyming words we can come up with. We might also start with a word on a billboard or a word from a product while we’re shopping at the supermarket.”

Poetry games that give children an opportunity to fill in the blank with a rhyming word are another way for parents to bring out their children’s inner poets. “You start a poem and let them fill in the rhyming word,” said Karapetkova. “For example, ‘Star light, star bright, first star I see _.’ Both of my children also enjoy memorizing nursery rhymes and poems, and these nurture a deep appreciation of language and meaning."

Karapetkova says two of her family's favorite poets are Shel Silverstein and Langston Hughes. She encourages her children to try writing their own poems as well. “We often collaborate and write them together," she said. “I might give a suggestion about how to start a poem, or about a topic to write on, and I might also suggest possible rhymes if they get stuck. My daughter, who is 4, makes up nonsensical rhymes about random things that come into her mind and my son, at 9, likes to write poems that are playful and humorous. I let their interests guide what they write.”

Ward says poetry games for children of all ages are plentiful. "There is certainly nothing wrong with those poetry refrigerator magnet kits,” he said. “My wife and I used to carry on a running game of ‘Fridge Laureate.’”

Word salad is another fun way to explore the possibilities of poetry. “Put a single word on a strip of paper, and, when you have enough strips, shake in a hat and pull them out randomly,” said Ward. “The ‘poem’ that results will have an odd beauty and rhythm. Today, I’m sure there’s an app for that.”

Ward believes poetry enables older students to explore the possibilities and play of language. “Gwendolyn Brooks said that ‘poetry is life distilled.’ It is also language distilled, and a good poem allows us to see the deep bones of language clearly,” he said. “A prepositional phrase may take on new character and nuance when a student substitutes another word for the object of the preposition. There is a great shade of difference between ‘down the pond’ and ‘down the mere.’ As we develop our noses for poetry, we become more nimble users of language. We become better.”