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By Josie Whitehead

I write this article both as a qualified teacher with 30 years of teaching in colleges behind me, with English language being my number one subject, and as a poet who has grown up to love the poems of the  classic writers of poetry who delighted me in my childhood.  I hope you find it both interesting and instructive because, for myself, I feel that a great deal of the material which I've read in the name of  'modern' poetry, hasn't fitted this criteria, and the children of my local school asked me to write poems for them that delighted them with words that danced across the page and brought them stories and pictures painted in words.  Week by week and year by year I wrote poems they loved and in 2010 my poems were market-researched in many schools across West Yorkshire by a well-known educational publisher who, at the request of teachers and children, published almost all of the 400 poems I'd then written in five books.  I don't think other poets have had this happen to them. 


As a parent, grandparent or teacher, one of the most important things you can do for your children is to find time to have fun with words with them, and fun with words can be found for certain in rhyming poems.  I only have to say the two words: 'Go Slow' with a deep voice to make small children fall about with laughter.  They may not yet have learnt that the words are called rhyming words, but they know that they link together in a fun way.  You try it:  Say: 'Don’t Laugh at a Giraffe' and a child will immediately smile too, for even though they may not know the spelling of the words, they know they are linked by sound.  Adults laugh too.  Go on, discover it for yourself.  


As a poet, I try to find words that will appeal to children.  Goodness knows where some of them come from.  Sometimes I have to invent them.  Recently it was:  'Don't Tango With a Mango' etc.  It is the rhyming of the words that children especially like.  Which is more likely to appeal to a child:  Bill the Penguin or 'Lenguin the Penguin'?  Yes, Lenguin, as far as I know, had never been invented before, but it didn’t mean that there was any reason for not inventing it.  So when I produce my penguin hand-puppet, children readily accept that his name is Lenguin the Penguin for they have met him before and because the name rhymes, they will remember it.  Today, my new poem is: 'It's Nice on Ice.


Poets probably think of alliteration and assonance more than writers of stories.  The words “Lenguin the Penguin” and “Don’t Laugh at a Giraffe” carry assonance:  the repetition of vowel sounds to create inner rhyming.  Children love this and the playing with language in this way creates fun for children who are learning language.  'The Ant and the Grasshopper' is a poem which children love and has been top of my Google Analytics list for a long time.  Try it with your class.


Alliteration is the repeated occurrence of the same consonant sound at the beginning of several words in the same phrase.  Yes, this is fun too and a good poet will use it.  It is used in tongue-twisters in many languages.  I have used it sometimes in whole poems:  'Percy Peckle Pickled a Pear' but he did a lot of other alliterative things in the poem also.  Then 'Penelope Pickle’s Party' is another poem using alliteration for fun and so is 'Penelope Pigglewiggle's Pear' of course


The one big advantage of a poem is  compactness.   My stories are compacted into one page at the most - well . . . .  u s u a l l y!!  This means that parents surely cannot object to fitting a poem in before bed-time, and a teacher surely cannot object to fitting in one small poem into a day.  The other thing is this: children, as you will know, want you to read the same thing over and over again.    Read them a new poem and find time to talk about it. Many of my poems are narrative poems.  Read them to the children and ask them how the character in the story felt, or what did he do etc.  Relate it to things that they can feel or do. Why was the little donkey in my Christmas poem: 'The Best Donkey of Them All', unhappy first of all but happy at the end of the poem?  He was unhappy because he felt tired and useless, but by the end of the poem he felt he had done something really useful, despite the fact that he had felt old and useless before.  He was told that he was the best donkey of them all, so he felt important and loved.  Why did the snowman feel unhappy? He only had one short day in this world.  Why was 'Lilly Loo' happy?  Because she had a little girl who loved her.  Your short poems give you time to ask questions and this encourages children to think for themselves.  


When you read the poems the second time, give the children the chance to supply the rhyming words.  They love doing this.  With older children and ESL students in a classroom, they can write the rhyming words and it is then that they will realize that sounds in the English language are not spelt the same.  For example 'bird' and 'word' – 'laugh' and 'giraffe' and words such as 'through' and 'threw' but look then at 'blue'.  It is the linking together of words that sound alike but are spelt differently that helps them to remember these words.  In the world of education, these sounds are called 'phonemics' and educationalists realize the importance of phonemics in relation to literacy.   This is also the reason why many teachers introduce new phonemics through rhyming poetry, both for English speaking pupils and ESL students also.


It was eight and nine year old children who asked me to put my poems onto the internet so that they could access them at home as well as at school, and it was the same children who asked me to put my voice recordings with them.  I know that some have downloaded them  and just listen to them when they go to bed, but not only children but ESL students have told me the same thing.  It is amazing how comforting it is to listen to rhythmic poetry when you are nodding off to sleep.  Many children associate the end of the day with a story or a poem and it is a comforting thing for them.  It washes away all the problems of the day and fills the mind with pleasant stories.  It is also a time when parents and children can come together and get to know each other and the way they feel, by just talking or commenting on things in the story.  One ESL student told me that his mother had died and how he missed her reading to him at night.  He listened to my poems and I rather think I partly took her place for a time.  It was rather sad but nice for me to know I was able to do something useful for him.


The big link with literacy lies here:  Children will actively seek out poems and stories that they already have heard a few times before.  They may have heard you read words such as 'laugh' and 'giraffe' and 'their' and 'air'. but this time they will be looking at words and they will know very well how they are said but now they will be looking at the spellings, and noticing that the same sounds are not written the same.  This will make an impact on their minds for certain.   Each time they read the same words they will reinforce the spelling of the words on their minds.  I taught skill subjects, and reading was one of them (although I taught Pitman’s shorthand which is a phonetic system of writing), and we knew these principles.  I would read a passage to my class whilst they followed the words.  They would read the same words at least three times themselves, and then copy them.  Then the chances of them writing them correctly without something to copy from would be very high indeed and the chances that they would never forget them high also.  It is the same for any skill.  


Whether you are a parent or a teacher, find a slot for a rhyming poem in each day for your children.  Your children will reap the benefit for certain and you will enjoy the experience also Josie

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