Teaching unseen poetry can seem like a difficult undertaking. This is the most unpredictable part of any exam and can cause the most stress, worry and anxiety. However, by using structured methods and clear steps, you can alleviate some of the pressure on pupils and instil confidence at the same time. Not only does this particular approach help pupils when it comes to understanding, interpreting an analysing an unseen poem, but it also builds important skills that can be used for the anthology poetry section of the exam.
I teach pupils some key steps when it comes to approaching a new poem and repeat these over time. This repetition embeds and strengthens the skills required to be successful, as well as giving pupils a clear method they can follow regardless of the poem.
So where to start? At the beginning…
Steps – I am a huge fans of the step process as it gives pupils a clear framework to work with. It teaches confidence and independence and is the best way of ensuring pupils don’t become ‘stuck’ or overwhelmed. This method also gives pupils a clear starting point and an easy way of remembering how to work through their understanding and interpretation of a poem. I have created a pupil guide sheet, which is attached below, and I ensure pupils refer to this in every lesson. However, they will eventually get to a point where this is no longer needed as much.
Here is a brief overview of the main steps but please do download the resource for a more in-depth version.
Step 1: First of all, I tell pupils to read the question as this will give some clues as to what the poem is about. If you are beginning an unseen unit and are not yet close to an exam, you may want to skip this step until later on.
Step 2: Initial understanding
This is all about looking for clues within the poem – not methods!
Title: what does this reveal; what are the connotations of words; what are your assumptions or predictions?
Read the poem through once and track the language. What kind of words are used? What mood/tone is created? Are there any patterns or semantic fields? Does this help you to understand how the poet/speaker feels?
What is the story of the poem? Make notes next to each stanza if this helps.
Are there any changes, shifts, contrasts or developments? Where? Why at this point?
What do you notice about the first and last lines/stanzas?
Who is the speaker? How do they feel? How do you know?
Once you have read the poem and made your initial highlights/notes, try and work out the message of the poem and the big ideas that are being presented. Think about both the literal and the symbolic meaning.
Step 3: methods
It is very important to explain to students that poetry is not about technique spotting. This is why I do not talk to pupils about techniques until they have a solid understanding of the poem. Without understanding the themes, message and point of view of the speaker/poet, they cannot begin to analyse and interpret the meaning behind the techniques.
I also try to ensure that pupils understand a range of methods for language, structure and form and prompt them to find a variety, rather than just focusing on language.
Step 3: analysis
Once pupils have identified a range of different methods, they should start to think about the effect. This should be done by using the notes they made for step 2. These notes are invaluable when trying to understand why a technique has been used and what effect it has on the reader.
In addition, I like to ask set questions that can be used for a range of techniques so hopefully asking questions also becomes a part of the process for pupils. As always, a range of what - how - why questions are invaluable here. See my set questions below:
Questions: the big 7
What is the technique / method that has been used?
Where? Why here?
What is revealed about the speaker; characters; action; relationships; setting? What is suggested?
Why this particular technique / method? Why is it effective?
How does this reinforce the purpose or message of the poem?
How does this reflect the themes and big ideas?
What is the effect on the reader? Is this the intended effect?
Teaching strategies and activities
Titles: display a range of titles on the board or place them on desks and ask pupils to make predictions on what the poem is about. Ask them to justify their choices by considering language and connotations. Once you have engaged in a meaningful discussion with pupils, reveal the poems and ask pupils to go back to their predictions. This helps pupils to not only understand the significance of titles, but also the ways in which they can offer clues about the poem. It is also a good way of beginning a dialogue about poet intention and craft.
First and last lines: reveal the first and lines of a poem and ask pupils to consider the relationship between the two and make guesses about the part of the poem that is missing. As above, when you reveal the full poem discuss their previous thoughts and consider why the poet has chosen those particular lines as the first and last – what is the relationship to the rest of the poem?
Words from the poem: print out a range of different words from the poem and play around with them. Ask pupils to put them in the order they think they appear in the poem; create a title for a poem that contains these words; group them together into semantic fields; make predictions on what the poem is about; or discuss what the connotations of the words are. Once you reveal the poem to pupils, ask them why language is important and focus on a few of the words: why were these words chosen over others with the same meaning? What is the intended effect? How do they work together to create meaning?
Create a memorable acronym to help pupils remember the different areas to focus on when analysing a poem. Below is the one I use with my pupils:
Help pupils to understand the big ideas in a poem by brainstorming issues that poets may address. Use these headings to aid this process and ask pupils to try and see which category the different poems fit into:
Live modelling how to approach a poem. Talk pupils through your own thought process as you read a poem for the first time and guide them through your own annotations. Explain what you are looking for and why.
Pupils can keep a poetry journal where they log all of the themes and big ideas they have come across. Ask pupils to reflect on this and consider how different poets presented a similar idea but in different way. This kind of activity forces pupils to not only create a bank of themes and ideas that they can draw from when reading a new poem, but also helps them to understand how poets choose to represent these ideas. It is also likely that by the time they see the exam poem, they will have covered the themes already and are much more likely to be able to quickly identify if a poem is about love, family, death etc.
Replace key words in the line with other words to understand how the meaning is altered - this helps pupils to understand the significance of word choice and connotations.
Guiding questions: give pupils a range of guiding questions based on what – how – why. These act as a scaffold until pupils can ask these questions themselves.
Some example questions:
~What is the effect of this simile?
~Why has the caesura been used in this line?
~What is the effect of using quatrains throughout the poem?
~Why has rhyme been used here?
Give pupils the opportunity to write their own guiding questions for other groups.
Ensure pupils are familiar with a range of methods associated with language structure and form. They should have bank of methods that they draw upon whenever they read a poem. If they only understand similes and metaphors, that is all they will be able to identify. I often conduct retrieval quizzes in order to ensure these are retained by pupils.
Choose a range of different types of poems so pupils can experience different forms as well as different styles.
Show pupils how to make their own example essay questions. Talk them through the command words and the focus point of a range of different questions and ask them to consider the thought process behind creating a question for a specific poem. Then hand out a different poem to each group, ask them to read and understand the poem before coming up with a question. You can turn this into a carousel activity by asking pupils to exchange sheets and then make a group plan for one of the questions.
2 – step approach to discussing poet intention + context; or how to double up the analysis of a quotation. See image below:
Create a bank of words and phrases that support academic writing. Encourage pupils to use these verbally as well as in their writing and before long it will become second nature.
With all of these activities, the focus is on encouraging pupils to really think about how a poem is put together; why poets make the choices they do; and what effect this has on the reader. This all works together to ensure they feel confident and are equipped with the skills to interpret and analyse any poem independently.