[Note from Erica: Last year I intentionally started including poetry in our daily diet of literature. I can't stress enough how much it has enriched our daily life. I am so delighted that Amy of Sunlit Pages is back this month to share her experience memorizing poetry with her kids. Next month is National Poetry Month, the perfect time to start a new poetry tradition. After you read Amy's tips, check out our 8 ways poetry brings joy to family life.]
How to Memorize Poetry With Your Kids
If you had told me a year ago that I would be writing a blog post about how to memorize poetry with your kids, I would have laughed. A lot.
Not because I disliked poetry. I still have fond memories of my dad reading Robert Louis Stevenson's "The Swing" and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's "Paul Revere's Ride" when I was a child. And my husband basically won my heart when he gave me a few original poems proclaiming his undying love (or something like that). But with my own children, poetry seemed both vague and daunting.
I could handle it if it was a story told in verse, but I honestly didn't know what to do with a poetry collection. What interest would they have in a bunch of seemingly disconnected poems?
But then . . .
Something gave me a gentle nudge (Erica's poetry challenge from last year; a podcast episode about memorizing Shakespeare; a presentation about Shel Silverstein in my son's first grade class), and I thought, Hmmmm. Would my kids enjoy listening to poetry? Would they enjoy memorizing it? Would I enjoy it, too? The answer, as it turned out, was a resounding yes.
But first the question, How do you read poetry with young children? The answer is far simpler than I could have imagined and follows this simple cycle: flip, choose, read; my kids flip through the pages, they choose a poem, I read it to them.
Jumping around like that actually helps them grasp the idea that a poem is a self-contained work and not necessarily connected in any way with what we read before or what we'll read after. Each poem is different and unique. Some are short, some are long; some rhyme, some do not; some follow a predictable meter, others are more free flowing; and they can be funny, instructive, serious, silly, or contemplative.
Once I saw how much my kids loved listening to poetry, the next natural step was to memorize one. That first poem was such a success that we memorized another. Now, several months later, my kids are the ones who remind me, "Let's say our poem!" and ask, "Which one should we memorize next?"
My prediction for how my kids would react to poetry was completely wrong. If you've been toying with the idea of memorizing a poem together as a family, let me assure you that it is easy and fun. Here are seven tips we've learned over the last few months:
If you are singing to your child, then you are already introducing him/her to the wonderful world of poetry. Lyrics have a natural cadence and rhythm that children love, and being paired with a melody makes it easier for kids to memorize them.
Start with something basic and simple
Nothing will scare away your kids faster than making them memorize something really abstract and sophisticated. Choose something with a predictable meter that rhymes. Erica will hate me for saying it, but Dr. Seuss would be a great source for a first poem. [Note from Erica: Ha, ha! If you love Dr. Seuss, go for it.]
Choose a poem they love
The very first poem we officially learned was "Spaghetti, Spaghetti" by Shel Silverstein. I chose it because it was short and descriptive. But mostly, I chose it because it was funny. None of my kids can say the last line without cracking up. In order to be loved, a poem doesn't have to be funny. However, it does have to strike the right chord. More than other genres, poetry is all about connecting to the words on an emotional level. You'll be able to tell within a few repetitions if it hits its mark or not. And if it doesn't, it's not a big deal. Just choose something else.
Look in unlikely places
The perfect poem might not be in that Best-Loved Children's Poems anthology. Many picture books are told in verse, so you might just want to pick a few stanzas from your favorite story (or tackle the entire thing, if you're ambitious) and memorize that. Songs, as mentioned above, are another great source of poetry. Or we've also found some great poems tucked within a longer story (I've long been tempted to have my kids memorize the Oompa-Loompa's song about the dangers of TV in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory).
Display in a visible place
Once you've chosen what you want to memorize, write it up and post it in a visible place. For us, that's on the wall right next to the kitchen table. This might be the biggest key to actually learning it. Because it's right there, you'll remember to practice it. Also, it's great for kids who can read because without even realizing it, they'll read through it a few times while eating their breakfast. And finally, it's extremely helpful for you as a parent because it's easy to slip a glance at it if you forget a word when you're saying it for your kids.
Recite the whole thing and then break it down
Here's our routine for learning a poem: I recite the entire poem as expressively as possible. Then we break it down to just a couple of lines. I say the small segment three times in a row, inviting them to join in with me and try it. It doesn't matter if they get all the words or not. Then I ask, "Would anyone like to try it alone?" Sometimes someone wants to and sometimes not, but that's usually the end of our practice for that moment. Later in the day (or the next day), we try again, following basically the same steps.
Use hand gestures
I could have included this with the tip above, but I think it deserves its own special space. For younger kids especially, it is extremely helpful for them to have a way to anchor the words in their memory, and using their hands is a perfect way to do it. It really doesn't matter whether or not you find the perfect way to show "swing" or "running" or "night," so long as you are consistent and use the same gesture every time.
Great poetry books
We are still very much in the exploring phase, but here are a few of our favorite poetry anthologies to date: (Note: titles are affiliate links.)
- The Bill Martin Jr Big Book of Poetry (This is a really great collection of well-know, classic poems.)
- Where the Sidewalk Ends: Poems and Drawings (I don't know of a kid who doesn't love Shel Silverstein's poems. They're just wacky.)
- Poetry for Young People series (There are dozens of books in this series; some focus on the work of a specific poet while others group poems together according to a certain theme. I've loved the ones we've looked at so far because at the top of every poem, it gives a little background about it, which I find fascinating.)
- Around the World on Eighty Legs: Animal Poems (There is nothing particularly special about this little collection, but I found it at the school book sale, and my kids love it.)
- The Random House Book of Poetry for Children
(This is another wonderful collection if you're looking for a good mix of tried and true poems.)
- Red Sings from Treetops: A Year in Colors (Anything by Joyce Sidman is a winner.)
In the space of just a few months, poetry has become an important part of our family culture. It does my heart good to hear my boys ask for "just one more" or to hear their little voices recite these time-tested words. Does your family have a favorite poem? I'd love to hear about it!
Amy is an avid reader and the mother of four rambunctious boys. Her life goal is to make them as obsessed with books as she is. (Judging from the dozens of books scattered all over her house, she has been successful so far.) She blogs at Sunlit Pages where she writes about a variety of books – from what she is currently reading to her kids’ favorite picture books.