The benefits to children of learning a poem by heart
Published on: 18 January 2023
Co-founder and director Julie Blake of Poetry By Heart explains just why learning a poem by heart is so beneficial for children.
Tell people you’re asking children to learn a poem by heart and you get very mixed reactions. Some people will immediately start saying a few lines of verse they learned as a child; these lines usually come with a warm story, perhaps a memory of a family member who shared the poem with them or a particular teacher who brought poetry alive for them. Other people will tell a moving story of a loved relative able to recite a poem whole and intact through the ravages of dementia. A very small number of older people will shudder and remember being punished for faulty memorisation of a poem assigned to the class to learn. And others, like me, have no such stories: learning a poem by heart just wasn’t something we encountered as children, in school or at home.
Those with warm memories are often ardent, lifelong advocates of learning a poem by heart, but their experience can be so embedded in particular relationships and contexts that it can be harder to tease out a more generalisable set of ideas about the value to children’s learning. What exactly are the benefits to children of learning a poem by heart? In ten years of running Poetry By Heart we’ve listened avidly to the stories and testament of many thousands of teachers, librarians and pupils who have taken part, in every school type and every corner of the country. Here are nine things we’ve learned.
Pupils who succeed in learning and performing a poem by heart, however short, feel an incredible sense of achievement. We think it’s to do with a tangible sense of mastery: the child either gets to the end of their poem or they don’t, and they can measure for themselves how well they’ve done it. This can be especially powerful for children with Special Educational Needs, low literacy levels and those who otherwise struggle to access the curriculum.
Children consistently tell us that learning a poem is fun. That can mean many things but includes the freedom to choose a poem for themselves, the difficulty of the challenge, the risk and the dare of performing their poem, and the immediate gratification of the respect of their friends and relatives when they take that risk.
We know that certain kinds of digital interaction encourage scattered modes of thinking. Learning a poem by heart requires the complete opposite in a sustained focus on just one thing; pupils tell us it helps with their concentration and we’re increasingly curious about the potential wellbeing benefits of stiller, calmer minds.
No one can learn a poem by heart for you. You have to create your own relationship with the poem, discover what memory tactics work best for you, and keep going when it seems too difficult. More managed curriculum activities don’t always have this scope and teachers are often delighted by the gains in learning independence.
Teachers also tell us about younger children’s gains in reading fluency, vocabulary enrichment and the musicality of English. I prefer the description a teenager gave of the value to them of being able to articulate what they know they don’t yet have the words for and of trying out different adult voices to explore where they might fit.
Adults are regularly surprised by the facility children seem to have for learning by heart, with varied reasons proposed such as less fear, the pliability of young brains, and more time to devote to it. There’s a general consensus that once you’ve learned one thing it’s easier to learn more things, a poem being a very good place to begin.
Learning a poem is not the same as performing it but if one leads to the other, distinctive gains to oracy seem to be made. Performing a poem requires skills that can be difficult to develop otherwise, including how to manage pace and timing to powerful effect; how to hold a silence; eye contact, body language and gesture. See how effective this is in the videos of children and young people reciting their chosen poems in our galleries (7+ and 11+).
When you learn a poem by heart, it becomes part of you; anytime, anywhere, you can breathe it into being again. Children tell us about ‘my’ poem; our judges praise how well they have ‘owned’ the poem. If the poems we offer for learning are diverse and inclusive, this ownership offers a powerful form of participation in cultural life.
In Poetry By Heart children choosing to learn a poem with others usually think they’re taking the easier option. In fact, speaking a poem with others demands cooperation, trust and coordination – and to do it well involves breathing together, being in the moment together and becoming part of something beyond yourself.
Poetry is often taught through the rather mystifying lens of Latinate terminology. Fun for some but many children need more experience of poems to make sense of it. Learning a poem by heart seems to develop that experience in an accessible and embodied way through children feeling rhythm on their pulses, noticing how rhymes knit a pattern and hearing the music of sequences of words.
We hope this will tempt you to take part if you haven’t before, and we’re sure you’ll enjoy it! Find out more about Poetry By Heart on our website and sign up to receive our Poem of the Week.
Dr Julie Blake, FEA, FRSL(Hon), co-directs Poetry By Heart, the national poetry speaking competition for schools. She researches and writes about the history of poetry for children, creates digital and print anthologies of poems for children and young people, teaches poetry pedagogy and has an encyclopaedic knowledge of poetry in the school English curriculum.
The Poetry By Heart competition is open now to all schools in England, primary and secondary. Children and young people are invited to choose poems they love, to learn them by heart and perform them in a school performance event. Teachers can then select students to enter the national round of the competition, submitting videos of their poem performances, with winners invited to take part in a celebration event at The Globe Theatre. Poetry By Heart is funded with the support of the Department for Education.
The Poetry and Memory Project provides further reading on the value and experience of poetry in the memory, and the relationship between memorisation and understanding.
If you’d also like to explore writing poems with children, do check out the Waterstones Children’s Laureate Joseph Coelho’s Poetry Prompts.
Bookbuzz is a reading programme from BookTrust that aims to help schools inspire a love of reading in 11 to 13-year-olds. Participating schools give their students the opportunity to choose their own book to take home and keep from a list of 17 titles.