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


13 thoughts on “The poetry dilemma: to teach or to elicit?

  1. Thanks Andy. This approach makes a lot of sense to me. The other thing I would try and draw out with poetry is the impact of speaking the poem (or some images from the poem) out loud. So often the imagery/meaning is enhanced or even contained within the sound of the piece, as much as within the notion of ‘what is going on here?’. So I would perhaps get students to experiment with saying different parts out loud to see how that impacts on their interpretation of meaning (although not in the exam, obviously!).

    Do you see a role for students writing their own poetry in helping them analyse the poems of others? I was wondering the other day how much time is still available for creative writing at secondary level.

    • I see your point about reading out loud. I suppose we want them to develop an inner voice too so that they can ‘hear’ the poem. Lots of hearing poetry read aloud should help that too.

      I think that one of the advantages of the new GCSEs in English is that now we do not have to worry about coursework/controlled assessment we have more time for creative approaches. I will probably ask my students to respond to at least one of the anthology poems through writing their own poetry. You can learn a lot about a poet’s technique by emulating or subverting it. We’re also using poetry as a stimulus for creative writing. Contrary to what some suggest, there is room in the new GCSE for this kind of approach.

  2. Thanks Andy. You make it all so clear and it’s reassuringly straightforward. I fear I have been guilty of over-eliciting and now am reinvigorated by your sensible advice. My students too will be thankful!

  3. I’m an nqt and teaching – I use the term loosely – to top and bottom set year 11. I am yet to find an approach to engage and make them excitied about poetry… thanks for the tips 🙂

    • There are no magic bullets I’m afraid. My only advice would be to aim to help them to understand the poetry. Often the reason they don’t like it is that they don’t get it. Don’t be frightened of explaining it simply and clearly.

  4. Thank you – this is very helpful for me. While I don’t teach poetry I do teach Theory of Knowledge and I see a lot of similarities in the issue of teaching v. eliciting in TOK. Ideally you want to elicit views from students but in truth when students first start the subject they just don’t have enough background knowledge. The quality of the questions so important, and it’s my focus for the year, so this is great food for thought.

  5. Thanks Andy. Another excellent and helpful blog about something we all struggle with – especially in the context of worrying about misconceptions for texts.

    One thing I have found helpful that could assist as well, is something I thought of after reading a post from Toby French ( It can be used to elicit student responses, yet still give them direction. An example of something I adapted from his idea was at the end of a learning cycle on Follower by Seamus Heaney. The students have to choose which they agree with most, and justify their decision:

    1) The poem is about the importance of a relationship between father and son
    2) The importance of tradition and changing traditions over time
    3) Expectations and failure to fulfil these

    Useful if you have them all paste their responses onto a google doc for comparison and further discussion.

  6. I agree with this. The balance of support and coaxing out their own response. I stay away from ‘fixed ideas’…. but always give starting points. A sophisticated argument comes from deep knowledge and interpretation. I will often use the decomposition method, it helps to locate patterns within. Find four X and explore the implied meanings of those …. then come the what, how, why questions…

    An interesting and helpful piece. Thank you for sharing.

  7. Pingback: To Teach or to Elicit | manyanaed

  8. Pingback: Teaching Poetry: Vocabulary Matters | mrbunkeredu

  9. Pingback: Question templates – an approach to improving analysis | Reflecting English

  10. Pingback: What happens when we teach literary interpretations as facts? | Reflecting English

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s