When your child was a baby, you marveled at how she responded to nursery rhymes. Something about the rhythm and cadence just excited her.
The good news is that this love of poetry doesn’t end when children outgrow Mother Goose. Most kids continue to relate to poetry even into later elementary school and beyond if they are exposed to it. They gravitate toward rich language, imagery, and rhyming. Parents can take advantage of their child’s natural affinity for poetry and use it to help them love reading.
“Poems are short, and the rhyme and reason are easy to learn,” says Tim Rasinski, professor of literacy education at Kent State University. “They are meant to be performed. We know one of the best ways to develop fluency is through repeated practice, and that works well with the idea of rehearsing for a poetry performance.”
Rasinski says poetry is “almost perfect” for helping children struggling with sounding out words. “It helps kids develop an awareness of language fundamentals,” he says, adding that because it’s fun and a little different, kids learn without realizing it.
Poems are embedded with word families, such as “cat,” “hat,” “rat,” and “mat,” where one sound is different and the other sounds are the same. Poems also tend to be short, making them more accessible than chapter books for struggling readers or kids burned out on traditional books.
Rasinski has teamed with poet Brod Bagert in creating books of poems written from a child’s point of view and accompanied by lesson plans. Rasinski and Bagert share their ideas for parents who want to use poetry to inspire their kids to read:
Alternate lines when reading a rhyming poem. You read one line and your child reads the next. As you repeat the poem and your child gets more familiar with the words, she’ll enjoy reading it more.
Work with your child to rewrite the words to a beloved song. Rasinski recommends “Yankee Doodle Dandy.”
Write a poem together, then set it to music. Or write original rap songs with your child. Years ago, families entertained themselves by singing songs together, Rasinski says. “We’re trying to bring that tradition back.”
Look for poems that reflect your child’s interests. There is a large body of contemporary poetry available as well as traditional poems your child might be interested in, even if you think she’ll perceive them as outdated. A children’s librarian can help you find poetry your child will enjoy.
Talk about the poem with your child before reading it, especially if it’s a traditional poem. Provide some of the context that will help her relate to it.
Seek out poems written in a child’s voice, recommends Bagert, who specializes in such poems.
Talk about the poem after reading it with your child. Many poems, even those for children, have rich layers of meaning beneath the surface, even though they are easy to read.
Become the poem’s main character. “Be over the top, not subtle,” Bagert says. Poems are meant to be read out loud.
Use facial expressions and gestures to convey the meaning of the poem.
Look for funny poems and use your voice and inflection to bring out the humor.
When your child finds a poem she really relates to, help her memorize it, write it down in her most attractive handwriting, illustrate it, frame it, and display it.
Encourage your child to read a poem in character, using voice, expression and gestures. “When you teach children to put expressions on their faces, they become the language,” Bagert says. “When their identity is merged with the language, this is the most powerful language experience a child can have. It’s real, and it’s complete.”
When you find books of poetry, read them first to make sure they are appropriate for your child. You want to expose your child to the best poetry you can find, so you don’t turn him off to the idea of poetry.
Practice reading the verses ahead of time to get a feel for the rhythm and timing.
Come up with short, funny poems with your child about everyday events such as losing a soccer game or burning the pot roast.
Not all parents enjoyed poetry as a child or relate to it as adults. But you can still learn to love it with your child by seeking out a wide variety of poetry and seeing what your family likes. When you’re reciting and acting out poems, it may not seem like you are teaching your child. But you are, Bagert says.
“You are creating the desire to write and to read,” he explains. “Reading and performing poetry with your child lights a fire under all the things teachers are trying to do.”