POETRY painted on grafitti wall

Can you learn a language through poetry?

When we begin to learn a language, we probably don’t envisage entering a poetry competition any time soon. Nonetheless, many of teacher Kate Clanchy’s EAL pupils (that’s children who are learning English as an Additional Language) are poetry champions in their second (or third) language: English. So what’s her secret?

Let’s talk about talking!

Kate, who is herself an award-winning poet as well as teaching English, encourages teachers to develop their own writing practice. She says ‘teachers are all incredible poets’ and just need to unlock some of that creative space and nourish themselves, which brings the confidence to teach children to write down their stories.

Because the truth is, creative writing isn’t valued in our education system. We have lost touch with our oral poetry tradition in the UK. How can we begin to teach something that we don’t fully feel, let alone understand the process enough to teach it? Sure, we teach poetry. We teach poems. But do we actually write poetry ourselves? I see a parallel with teaching languages, where teachers who are not language specialists, nor especially confident linguists, are teaching primary school languages.

I wonder if poetry could teach us to learn a language. Bear with me, while I explain. I am an English and French teacher, and have always been encouraged to separate those two ‘subjects’ by the school education system. Different departments, and all that. I also specialise now in early years language acquisition. Young children learn sounds and they learn what they want to say first, before they learn verbs, nouns, adjectives or (heaven forbid) fronted adverbials. They learn the shortest route for getting their point across, in the form that will be most successful to achieve their end. Of course they will learn verbs and all the rest. But first they learn purpose and form. They desire to communicate, so they do. David Crystal explains more here.

Poetry teaches us

Now a poem, we might argue, is exactly the same. Indeed, Kate argues that the idiom is the most important thing. Stories, images, sounds and shape are vital for communication. Grammar is not. A poem is an immersion booth for language, and language comes in clumps. It is not hierarchical – it doesn’t value the verbs more than the metaphors.

There is something fundamental about the way humans pass stories down from generation to generation, through oral poetry in some cultures. The way humans learn language is to echo their elders, and with poetry teaching we can replicate the process by giving pupils a model (a poem) for the shape and rhythm. If we use call and response, and get pupils to echo what they hear, it is ‘amazing and uncanny what comes back,’ says Kate.

The beauty of poetry is that children who aren’t ‘tuned into the page’ because of dyslexia, new languages, or lost languages, can all tune into sounds, their stories, and their memories. The creative process has so much learning in it.

And there’s not a fronted adverbial in sight.

Illustration refugee child sleeping on ground near tents
Get children to tell you what they don’t remember from their past…
Image credit: Nadine Kaadan

How do we even begin to mark a poem?

We know a good poem when we see one. Marking them often leads to children being switched off from the process. ‘Redrafting’ just ends up being ‘writing out in your best handwriting.’ Kate says that SPAG (spelling, punctuation, and grammar) is ‘just the way it looks on the page’ and does not hamper the process of producing incredible poems. If teachers take some of that burden away by transcribing for very young, EAL, or dyslexic pupils, and doing text-to-text marking, children invest in their story. We can talk to the children about how their writing has changed (let’s make all these verbs present tense, or turn it into rhyming couplets, and see the effect that has?) and they are motivated because they internalise the effect on their writing as a whole. They therefore take the lesson on board for next time.

Talk is also very important. Some EAL children have a strong oral poetry background and have verse in their heads that they cannot yet write down. Kate tells us how she never taught anyone how to write by pointing out their mistakes. If we encourage the composition, learning comes rapidly to the aid of the creative process.

Can not-so-diverse schools embrace multilingualism?

Yes! You do not have to be a multilingual teacher to teach multilingual pupils. And even in a very rural, seemingly monolingual, school, there are all sorts of opportunities to explore language, as Kate explains. It is not about WOW words, as Michael Rosen also argues, and you are never too young or too old.

The key thing is to focus on connection, not direct instruction, and to use your intuition. It’s not about *you* knowing ten languages, it’s about your pupils valuing their own sounds and images. You give them the space and the belief that they can do it.

Make your classroom a place where stories are valued, and where poems are not a ‘little dried up thing in a book.’ Poems are for remembering (it’s how we used to tell the news) and it is built into our system for learning language. And after all, English is a mad pidgin language full of archaic rules and rules that were coined this morning. Our sounds come from across the centuries and the globe. Having (or not having) a second language is never a disadvantage.

If someone recites a good poem, you join in. And you learn a language on the way!

Some Kids I Taught Kate Clanchy Paperback

Kate’s book, Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me, is now available in paperback. It’s a must-read for all teachers! Two of the poems Kate mentions are The Table by Edip Cansever, and Look, Stranger by W H Auden.

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It's time for a little language revolution, n'est-ce pas?

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