Why Reciting Poems Matter

When reading academic literature, I am continually struck by the comparisons between skilled and unskilled readers. The literature suggests we need unskilled readers to take on the same characteristics as the skilled readers. That is my aim, too.

Maya Angelou, raped at the age of seven, did not speak for five years. Within twenty-four hours, her rapist died. In her seven-year-old mind, her words killed him. During this time she read her way through the library for the black children. She read her way through the library for the white children. She read and memorized the works of Shakespeare, Edgar Allan Poe, and Langston Hughes.

“When I decided to talk,” Ms. Angelou said at an after dinner speech, “I had a lot to say.”

As I teach children who have enormous struggles with reading and language, I employ many of Ms. Angelou’s strategies. I want my student’s heads to be filled with language—both simple and great. Fun and exciting. Language they can access again, and again and again. Memorizing gives students access to language. My students do more thinking to memorize poems.

Before reading was considered a universal necessity, oral language was the most important form of communication. Oral language through stories, memorization, and re-telling’s of stories was the major input. Teaching my children who struggle, I revert to this oral tradition. Picking students up to take them from their room to class, we recite poems.

We recite poems in the class. If a line is more challenging to recall, we find pictures, act out the story, and do what needs to be done to make that line, those words more accessible. I feel I am “lining the brain with language.”

The learning is exciting, my students are no longer struggling with individual letters and sounds, rather they are putting words together to create a picture which they can access, again and again and again. As the memorization becomes easier, we turn to reading. My students no longer struggle with the reading. My students continually access the oral language they need to read the poems independently.

They connect the words—again and again.