On Investigating Poetry

Alan Gillespie
Jul 18, 2018 · 5 min read

First featured by the Scottish Book Trust.

Poetry has always been a key part of the English curriculum, and has arguably become more prominent with the implementation of National 5 and the New Higher in the senior phase. The expectation that pupils must study one writer from the Scottish Set Text list has led teachers to decide which genre and writer they want to focus on. Through some (admittedly narrow and anecdotal) research, I believe a large proportion of English teachers are choosing to study poetry for this element of the course. This means that classes study six poems throughout the year, need to be fully familiar with each and then answer a textual analysis paper in the final exam. Reading and studying poetry, then, is a big deal.

Colour Coding and Annotating

For me, this is the first step when studying poetry. Pupils need to be able to deconstruct the lines, infer the meanings of phrases and identify the techniques used before considering the bigger picture of the poem as a whole. Highlighter pens and wide margins are useful; I sometimes print poems in regular-sized font on A3 paper, so that pupils have plenty of room around the sides and between verses to make notes and explanations. I prefer not to go through the poem line by line until the class have had a chance to work in pairs on it first, using different colours to highlight, for example, imagery, sound techniques or structural aspects. Once they have done this, and I have talked through the messages I see in the poem myself, each student should have comprehensive and detailed annotations of the poem, from which they can begin to analyse the poet’s meanings and main concerns.

Comparative Question for National 5 and Higher

The National 5 and New Higher exam papers include a question (worth 8 and 10 marks respectively) for which pupils need to identify similarities or differences between poems and write about them in a sort of mini-essay format. The catch, however, is that only one poem is provided in the Critical Reading paper — students must have a working knowledge of the other five poems and be able to summon quotations from these. For me, a key element of preparing pupils for the new qualifications has been working on how best to deal with this question. I have been advocating that we, as a class, choose three pairs from the six poems, and focus on working out the areas of commonality between these (for example, I see the Carol Ann Duffy poetry as being best paired off thus: ‘Havisham’ with ‘Anne Hathaway’; ‘War Photographer’ with ‘Originally’; and ‘Valentine’ with Mrs Midas’). By studying the poems in pairs, and preparing how best to answer the comparative question, there should be no time wasted or surprises in the exam. Students will see the poem they have been given by the SQA and immediately know which of the other Duffy poems they will be comparing it to.

Silent Debates

One of my favourite lessons to use in class is the Silent Debate. This simple technique can be used in a variety of ways, in almost every subject, and it lends itself well to studying poetry. The format is easy to organise: around the room, on perhaps six different tables, place A3 sheets of paper with discussion questions or controversial statements written on them (e.g., The persona in Carol Ann Duffy’s ‘Havisham’ comes across as overly self-indulgent; or King Midas has a right to feel poorly treated by his wife in ‘Mrs Midas’; or ‘War Photographer’ creates a more compelling character than ‘Anne Hathaway’). Then, by projecting your screen onto the smartboard and typing, instruct the class that they must remain silent throughout the activity. No talking is allowed, but they can communicate by writing on the A3 sheets. Once they understand that silence is necessary, you want to get the class to carousel around the room, stopping at each station and recording a reaction to the statement on the paper. This can be agreement, disagreement, suggestion; anything at all. As they move further around, encourage the pupils to respond to one another’s comments as well as the original one. By the end of the lesson, each statement sheet will be filled with comments, arguments and explanations. These can be hung on the wall as a revision aid, or photocopied and handed out to pupils to use when studying at home.


Incorporating ICT into lessons on poetry can be a strong way of developing students’ understanding. I’m a big fan of mindmapping as a general strategy, and there is a website that can do very cool things for students: https://www.text2mindmap.com. On an individual basis, pupils can use this tool to write out important lines from poems and keep a record of their analysis and comments, adding to the picture as they go along. In a classroom situation, however, this has further possibilities. I have had this up on the screen as pupils enter for a lesson, and not allowed them to take their seats until they have each made a relevant contribution to one of the lines from the poem. I’ve also given pupils a topic to study, and then used this website to pull together all of their ideas and thoughts. It’s an improvement on using paper and pens, as you can’t run out of room, and once the mindmap is finished it can be saved as a PDF, which can then be printed or emailed. It’s a very clever and simple piece of technology which I think has lots of potential in the English class.

Poetry as Spoken Word

This may be an obvious thing to point out, but poetry should be considered first and foremost as an oral medium. It is only by hearing it aloud that the nuances and inflections, the rhymes and rhythms, can really be appreciated. I would imagine that most teachers do read poems out to the class, which is fine. But the internet is a great resource for this kind of thing; often, if you are studying a well-known poem, you will even be able to find the actual poets themselves reading their work, at book festivals or as part of audio projects. These are even sometimes followed by commentaries, or question and answer sessions. What better way to invite students into the words, and to get them to appreciate the texts, than for them to hear the writers reading the poems as they should be?

Alan Gillespie

Written by

Pitcoudie boy. Head of English at the best school. I write fiction and non-fiction [Northwords Now, Guardian, Herald, New York Times & more]

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