This curriculum unit stems from two problems we encounter in the first grade. The first is that too many students enter with low oral language skills, whether lacking the English proficiency or the natural experience found at home or in preschool of playing with words and language conventions. This is especially true for the students in my bilingual classroom, who come from Spanish-speaking homes with little opportunity for English language experience. The second is that while students have been exposed to poetry, they do not fully understand what it is. Most children would be content to tell you that poetry is anything that rhymes; however, as adults we know this is far from the case, and our job is to open the door for students to the magical world created by the sounds and images of well-written poetry, as illustrated in the lines of the Francisco Alarcón poem. This unit will address these two problems in concert, using a variety of quality children's poetry to expand young students' understanding of what poetry is while simultaneously working to help them build up their oral language skills as a precursor to and in support of their early literacy development. In the case of my class, this will mean building English language skills through students' already semi-developed Spanish language skills. By exploring the "sounds" of poems, including rhyme, rhythm, and tone, as well as alliteration, onomatopoeia, and repetition, students will have the opportunity to experience language. They will see how poets carefully select words to create vivid images for their readers and how the way we read these poems affects our reactions to them. Students will interact with poets who speak to them, and who in turn can give them the language they need to communicate their ideas about the world around them. Most importantly, they will "learn to sing with their hearts" through the sounds of poetry.
Poetry is an extremely valuable tool in early literacy teaching. Many students find poetry more accessible than the narrative or informational texts they are expected to read, and are comforted by the short format and relatively low word count. Or as Sara Holbrook puts it in her book
Practical Poetry: A Nonstandard Approach to Meeting Content-Area Standards,
"See, poetry is like candy. Kids gobble it down. They gaggle together, giggle over it, and grind their teeth trying to create their own. Kids love poetry."
The Mondo literacy curriculum used at my school incorporates a number of poems and songs into its instructional materials, following current research showing that young children benefit greatly in their language and literacy development through the use of these repetitive tools.
Many students are excited by poetry's descriptive language or the patterns of rhyme or rhythm. As noted by Dixie Lee Spiegel, "poetry is often used only as a time filler or for a change of pace and not as a unique genre with its own purpose and value."
However, as I have found in my own teaching, its format makes it an incredibly useful tool in terms of teaching important literacy skills from word attack and decoding to reading comprehension. Because poems are short, they can be read and repeated in a single instructional session, and accessed by lower readers. Quality poetry contains all of the elements of literature necessary to help build reading comprehension skills, and students can practice identifying the main idea, making connections, determining author's purpose, and finding evidence in the text to prove a theory, just to name a few of the skills developed in the lower elementary grades. Furthermore, poems are a wonderful way to help students build their reading fluency, as they can read and reread a poem numerous times until they feel completely confident in their recitation of it.
For young children who have not been exposed to rich language in their early development, poetry becomes a way to engage them in their learning and begin to build their vocabulary. Studies have shown that children in impoverished homes do not have the opportunities to develop the same language structure and vocabulary of children growing up in more affluent homes.
This gap is created quite early in a child's life, and as teachers we must try to do our best to fill it in as much as possible in the time we spend with our students in the classroom. I agree with many researchers that using poetry in the classroom is one of the most effective ways to begin to do this.