The poetry dilemma: to teach or to elicit?


I have always struggled with teaching poetry. My lessons regularly leave me with a nagging sense of dissatisfaction and an unanswered question: Why didn’t they quite get it? I think the reason lies in a delicate problem that all English teachers face daily.

How much should I tell them and how much should I elicit from them?

There’s no easy answer, but I think there are some serious flaws with a teaching approach that relies too heavily on the elicitation method, especially when starting out on a study of challenging poetry. It’s worth considering how we prepare to teach a new poem. If you are anything like me you will read it a few times, Google a few lines you are unsure about and discuss any tricky bits with your colleagues. This week, as I’ve been preparing to teach Wilfred Owen’s ‘Exposure’, a colleague has helped me grasp the meaning of the poem’s tricky penultimate verse. (Cheers Russ!)

In truth, even as the ‘expert’ in the classroom I look for outside support to help me shape my interpretation.

If it is tough for me, it is likely to be even tougher for very many of my students. The problem with asking for students’ interpretations is that, more often than not, they are either non-existent (I don’t know … ), completely wrong (Ozymandias is about a war in the desert) or over-simplistic (Ozymandias is about time). Too often, one or two bright sparks in the room carry the class while the rest hopelessly try to guess the ideas I am holding back from them.

That said, I think it would be a mistake if students were not to experience the sense of satisfaction that comes from finding truth, meaning and even beauty in a jumble of words that once appeared incomprehensible. A problem we cannot solve taps into our natural sense of curiosity. It’s an itch we need to scratch.

So here are three very simple ways I am trying to solve my dilemma.

1. The first is a must and will come as no surprise. Give them a hook. It could be an introduction to a theme or context. In our department, we are enjoying finding literary fiction and non-fiction texts to act as thematic hooks. This week, however, to introduce ‘Ozymandias’ I used a series of images of Barack Obama, each one a little smaller than the previous, and each labelled with a year from 2015 to 3015. By 3015, the screen was a blank page. The message was clear: given time, Obama’s current power and influence will have fizzled, inevitably, into nothing.

2. Next, I read the poem out loud and, after this, they read it themselves. Their job is to do four things:

1) Circle and label anything of interest – this might be related to language, themes or anything that takes their fancy.
2) Draw a square around anything they do not understand.
3) Write a comment about any patterns they notice.
4) Make a link to another text they have read this year.

Now, of course, this task offers up the possibility of misunderstandings and misconceptions. Students do – modestly – seem to benefit from exlicit modelling of how to approach a new poem. My colleague, Bridget Norman, talks about developing ‘reading resilience’ – or how we get our students to keep going even when syntax and vocabulary are difficult.

Once students have had a go, I find out what they do and do not understand and then, without shame, I tell them what the poem really means – usually through annotating the poem on the board and explaining the finer details. Sometimes I will have to tell students they are completely wrong. Sometimes I will develop their nascent good ideas. Sometimes I will give them more of a say as their initial ideas are strong.

3. My third strategy is to have them answer carefully scaffolded ‘tight questions’ that allow them to think deeply about the text but ensure that their answers are likely to be good.

Take these two questions:

a) What does ‘sneer of cold command’ demonstrate about Ozymandias?
b) How does the phrase ‘sneer of cold command’ demonstrate that Ozymandias was a cruel leader?

Even though the first question is more open and will elicit a wider range of responses, the second question is more likely to lead to accurate and analytical answers. While the first question allows for freedom, question two steers them towards explaining the impact of ‘sneer’ and ‘cold’. Try it. It encourages finely focused language analysis and helps them to hone their critical writing style.

Here’s a few others I have used this week:

How do the words ‘boundless and bare’ show us that Ozymandias’ power and influence have gone?
How does the enjambment in the simile ‘spits like a tame cat/Turned savage’ create a sense of surprise?
Why does the metaphor ‘space is a salvo’ create the sense that the wind is attacking from all angles?


It is very possible that you have read this post and disagreed with me.

Perhaps you think that we need to teach students to develop their own interpretations. I agree – that should be our ultimate goal. But how can you know what a sophisticated interpretation of poetry looks like if you have not studied a number of sophisticated interpretations beforehand?

You might argue that a poem does not have one set meaning and all interpretations are valid. Again, I agree – we should teach alternative interpretations. Nevertheless, it is also true that some interpretations are stronger, more robust and more sophisticated than others.

Another reasonable complaint is that the new GCSE exams require students to read ‘unseen poems’ – shouldn’t we give them as much freedom as possible to prepare them for this? Once again, we share the same end goal. However, a huge factor of reading ability is the knowledge a student brings to their reading. To read a difficult poem successfully, they will need wide background knowledge and strong domain knowledge of the main conventions of poetry. If they do not read poetry in their spare time, they are very unlikely to develop the latter without the experience gleaned from the clear and direct teaching of many, many previous poems.


This is what I’m thinking about at the moment. Please feel free to add your thoughts below.


Related posts:

Can we teach students how to make inferences?

English teaching and the problem with knowledge

Best Bets and Firm Footings – my #rEDEng session

I spent today at the wonderful inaugural English and Literacy Research Ed conference in Swindon. My talk was on ways of using evidence in the English classroom. I looked at the different ways we aquire knowledge about English teaching, why we should embrace evidence and how to combine evidence with ‘trial and error’ and critical reflection. I then looked at some of the evidence-informed ideas I have been trialling and considered how best to encourage others to engage with evidence. Essentially, I am interested in how ordinary teachers can access the evidence themselves, rather than having it foisted upon them by those in positions of power.

I haven’t the time to write a full blog so you have two options:

First, you could download the slides.

Or second you could watch me below in all my bumbling glory. It misses off the very start but the gist of it is all there. Enjoy!