Teaching Poetry: Vocabulary Matters

Several months ago, I was observing a colleague within the English Department. The class was studying poetry from world war one. Their books were immaculate and showed real engagement with some difficult poems. It was clear from observing their behaviour and looking at the quality of work that they had been taught very well.

After around 10 minutes of the lesson recapping previous work, the teacher asked the class a fairly open-ended question:

So, what did Siegfried Sassoon feel about the war?

To my great surprise, the students seemed dumfounded. I’d seen their books and knew they had read several of his poems and were able to analyse them in-depth. After some further questioning, the teacher was able to elicit a few basic responses:  he felt the war was ‘bad’ or ‘unfair’.

Only a couple of days later I found myself having an incredibly similar experience in my own lesson, this time with a year 11 class. We had read Vernon Scannell’s poem The Apple Raid to practise responding to unseen poetry. After a lesson or two, I threw a similar open-ended question towards my class:

What sort of memory does Vernon Scannell have about stealing apples?

And, yet again, the students struggled. Eventually, we got to the point of being able to say the memory was ‘happy’ or ‘good’. Needless to say, I didn’t feel particular ‘happy’ or ‘good’ about this.

So, what was the problem? Perhaps the students were tired, maybe it was first thing on a Monday, or period 5 on a Friday. Maybe both myself and my colleague could have asked our questions slightly differently in order to generate more interesting responses. Or, could the problem be that are students simply didn’t possess the range of vocabulary needed to answer our questions sufficiently? If students are to discuss or write about poetry in a sophisticated fashion, they needed the vocabulary to do so. Words like ‘happy’ simply lack the nuance or subtlety to accurately interpret the vast range of emotions presented to us through poetry. For the rest of this blog, I’ll discuss a few different methods I have experimented with to help students use sophisticated vocabulary when responding to poetry.

In his post The poetry dilemma: to teach or to elicit? Andy Tharby discusses a problem which I’m sure is familiar to all English teachers: ‘How much should I tell them and how much should I elicit from them?’ For some poems, particularly some challenging ones, I have directly taught specific words to anchor students’  interpretations. One example of this is the word ‘apathy’, which I taught explicitly to my year 7 class when they studied Musee de Beaux Arts. by W.H Auden. With this class, I began by discussing the idea of ‘pathos’ and compared apathy with more familiar feelings, like empathy and sympathy. I’ve found using images helpful with this too. Take the image at the top of this blog, which was very useful in explicitly teaching the word nostalgia to my year 11s studying Scannell’s The Apple Raid. Whilst being quite didactic, I’m sure this approach has enabled students to understand poems in a more complex way.

Often I feel my students could be more expressive with their vocabulary, but for some reason they choose not to. It may be about my classroom routines, or that there are a great many words that students do understand, but don’t actually use as part of their every day vocabularies. To try to jolt some of this dormant vocabulary to the front of their minds, I regularly present a list of vocabulary and get students to select the words which most aptly link to a poem. An example of this comes from studying Ozymandias with my year 7 class. Students were presented with this list of words, most of which we’d studied in relation to Greek Myths:

Tyrannical  Oppressive    Devious  Malicious    Vindictive  Cruel       Spiteful   Controlling    Arrogant

Students would then be asked to select the 2-3 words which best represented the character in a poem. What I like about this approach is that it prioritises a personal response to the poem, whilst forcing students to work with complex vocabulary. This also provides a nice launchpad into more extended pieces of writing.

Once students are thinking with more complex words in mind, they can begin to use these words to explore the poem. Typically, I’d incorporate the more complex vocabulary into a question, which may form part or whole of a lesson. For example:

  1. Which line in Musee de Beaux Arts conveys the greatest sense of apathy?
  2. Ozymandias is a wholly tyrannical leader. To what extent do you agree?
  3. Think of the poems you have studied in the anthology. Which do you feel has the greatest sense of nostalgia?
  4. Does the poem remain melancholic throughout, or are there moments of change?

One final tweak I’ve tried to introduce is through how I model Academic language. In the past, I may have provided quite open sentence structures to being modelling writing, such as:

  • Scannell’s poem conjures a ………. tone by…. 
  • A sense of ……….. is created by….
  • The poet clearly feels that…

Of course, there are times when students should be using sentences like this (or no starting sentences at all!) but consider these slight tweaks:

  • Scannell’s poem conjures a romantically nostalgic tone through…
  • A sense of apathy is created by Auden’s description of….
  • The poet’s feeling of melancholy is apparent when….

Not only do such sentences help focus students’ thinking, they also force students to engage with a wider range of more complex vocabulary. Ideally, repetition and practice would eventually leave such thinking as second nature.

Many of these techniques don’t necessarily involve teaching new vocabulary. What they do, I hope, is bring expressive vocabulary to the forefront of students’ minds when studying poetry. If words like ‘nostalgic’ or ‘apathetic’ are widely understood by students, but not used when discussing or writing about poetry, then the understanding is wasted. Vocabulary matters when exploring poetry, so next year when I teach poetry, I’ll ensure that using a wide range of emotive and expressive vocabulary is part of the students’ routine.

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One thought on “Teaching Poetry: Vocabulary Matters

  1. Flummoxed,
    Banjaxed,
    Bewildered.

    Reaching for meaning,
    Feeling for something,
    To communicate understanding.

    Fuzzy feelings,
    Fuzzy thoughts,
    Fuzzy-ness.

    Oh, for the Words!!!

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