Poetry by Heart


British Culture

I’ve always felt that teaching British culture is an essential part of EFL teaching. It might have to do with my background as a history teacher, but I tend to wrangle in as much history and culture as I can in my lessons.

One thing the British do much better than us Dutch is that they seem to have a deep respect for their country’s literature and poetry. In the UK a lot if not most people will have heard of William Shakespeare, Jane Austen, William Wordsworth, Mary Shelley and Robert Burns. Whereas in the Netherlands people might be able to name some famous painters but can’t name a famous Dutch writer or poet.

So as part of teaching our pupils about British culture, I started teaching them about British poetry. At first, I had them practice reciting a poem (tone, rhythm, stresses, pronunciation) and then recording themselves doing it. Most kids really enjoyed it, some mainly saw it as one of those excentric assignments Mr Berkhof has us do. However just reciting the poem didn’t have any lasting effect, as by just reciting it you don’t retain the poem. Then I read about how at Michaela Community School in London students learn to recite poems by heart. This reminded me of myself at the tender age of 16 trying to impress my English teacher by voluntarily learning Hamlet’s soliloquy by heart. And I actually felt quite proud that I could still recite most of it.


Learning Poetry by Heart

So I decided that I would like to give that same feeling of proud accomplishment to my students and picked a poem for them to learn by heart. For my year one students I picked Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf by Roald Dahl. It’s quite a long poem, but it is so much fun, especially when they learn to do the different voices.

Now in order for them to more easily learn the poem, I employ retrieval practice and spaced practice techniques. I start of by reciting the poem (word file) myself. Then we go over it together, this time spending time practicing the pronunciation of words and the rhythm of the poem, with the students repeating the lines multiple times.

Over the next few lessons, I would use retrieval practice to practice the poem at the start of or end of a lesson. We’d start off with a gap text of the poem (word file), changing up the gaps each lesson. Then making it more difficult by only having the first word and the other words only their first letter (word file). I tried it without the first word visible, but that proofed quite hard for the weaker students.

Then after a couple of weeks, the pupils would all recite the poem in front of the class. Now to make sure they etch it into their long-term memory, they revisit the poem after a month and then again six months later.

Students really enjoy learning the poem. All students learned the poem by heart and some even turned it into a whole show doing all the voices and movements. And each year I have former students come back and proudly proclaim that they still know the poem.


Other poems

In year two students learn Jabberwocky by Lewis Carroll. This poem is filled with nonsensical words and lends itself perfectly to learn about word classes (parts of speech). As even though the students might not know the words, they can deduce if they are verbs, nouns, adverbs or adjectives. I’ve also used it as a resource for irregular verbs as it’s chockablock with irregular verbs.

And this year, I’ve started in year three with Invictus by William E. Henley. We analysed the poem, digging deeper to discover the metaphors and similes and the underlining ideas in this poem and making the connection to Henley’s own life. We practiced pronunciation, stress and rhythm and I got to connect the poem to Nelson Mandela and his struggle against apartheid, as Mandela has said that this poem gave him strength during his trying times in jail. And kind of to my surprise they all loved it and happily memorised the poem, loudly applauding each other’s efforts. One girl said that she loved the poem so much and she regularly recited it to herself to give her strength as she was going to a difficult time of her own.

For next year I’m thinking of adding more poems to the list for my year 3 (havo) class, namely The Charge of the Light Brigade by Alfred, Lord Tennyson and Hamlet’s Soliloquy by William Shakespeare. Both are quite long and hard to do. It took me quite a while to learn The Charge of the Light Brigade by heart. So maybe, we’ll just analyse these pieces and practice reciting them or even acting them out (soliloquy) without making learning them by heart the main goal.


Children’s Poems

Now with lower-level students, some of these poems might be quite difficult. I came across this wonderful website http://www.poetrybyheart.org.uk/ where they have tons of great poems to use. Most come with some extra activities as well. But most interesting they have a children’s poetry section with some really fun poems there. So check this site out!



Learning a poem by heart has become a staple in my classes. One that I am always looking forward to. As not only does it improve a student’s confidence in speaking English, poems also provide excellent material to teach grammar, vocabulary, stresses, rhythm and pronunciation. And learning it by heart shows the pupils that using the retrieval and spaced practice techniques helps them learn better and faster.


Free Poetry Posters

Now in order to decorate my new classroom with some much-needed British culture, I’ve created a number of A3-sized posters. They are for the following poems (and a soliloquy).

Invictus – William E. Henley
The Charge of the Light Brigade – Alfred, Lord Tennyson
Jabberwocky – Lewis Carroll
The Lesson – Roger McGough
Hamlet’s soliloquy – William Shakespeare
I’m still working on Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf by Roald Dahl.

You can download them all in both pdf and psd format below.

2 Responses to Poetry by Heart

  1. Edith Boonstra says:

    Thanks for sharing Wilfred ????????????

  2. Edith Boonstra says:

    PS: The question marks were supposed to be thumbs up.

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