On Poetry I: What is this thing we call a poem?

It was a typical day at university for Professor Stanley Fish. He had just finished teaching his linguistics class. Some of the names of linguists he had discussing with his students were still on the board when his next class started to arrive for their literature seminar. Fish decided to make one small change between classes. He drew a box round the assignment details and wrote p43 at the top.
The list now looked something like this:

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Fish’s next move was simple but significant. He told his literature students that there was a religious poem on the board, similar to the ones they had been studying the past few weeks, and he then invited them to interpret its meaning. The students duly obliged and it wasn’t long before they were offering all kinds of interpretations, from initial readings of the poem as a hieroglyph to highly convincing interpretations of the symbolism of the Hebrew names Jacob, Rosenbaum, and Levin.

What Stanley Fish had stumbled on, and what he found on every occasion he repeated the trick, was the reality of how readers tackle the act of interpretation. His little teaching sleight of hand had revealed that readers do not approach literary works as isolated individuals but rather as part of a community of readers. As he writes in Is There a Text in the Class?, ‘it is interpretive communities, rather than either the text or reader, that produce meanings.’

In essence, Fish’s literature students did what literature students do in a classroom situation: they interpret the text put in front of them by looking for allusions and patterns of meaning, regardless of whether they are even there. The more the students interpreted specific parts of the poem, the more they convinced themselves that they had built a coherent sense of its overall meaning. The only problem, of course, was that it was all nonsense. There was no poem and therefore no meaning!

At no point did any of Fish’s students question the validity of the text itself, or whether what they were interpreting was even a poem. Because they were working in the context of a literature class, in the presence of a professor of literature and confronted with what looked like a poem, they assumed it was a poem and without thinking they adopted the rules for interpreting obscure religious verse they had learned – rules they had clearly internalised from years of making inferences about literary texts.

Now, we could lament the way that a bunch of hitherto bright students could be so uncritical in their approach to reading. We could even despair at how cultural relativism has reached such a nadir that a simple list of linguists could be mistaken for a profound religious poem. I think, however, this misses the point. As Fish notes, this is ultimately how we approach reading all texts, literary or not – as a community. Even to interpret a list of linguists as a list requires a shared understanding of the concepts of seriality, hierarchy and subordination. This is the nature of interpreting meaning from text.

I think there are some lessons to draw from Fish’s work in relation to teaching and, more specifically, to curriculum design. The first is to recognise the responsibility we have in selecting the texts we teach. We should make sure that what students will be interpreting has substance, both in terms of its intrinsic value and its utility. Mark Roberts has written about the failure of poems like ‘Tissue’ to do either of these things well. I’ve never taught ‘Tissue’, but as long as I can remember there has always been quite a bit of guff like that in the GCSE anthology, most of it sadly of the contemporary variety.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not against modern verse per se, and I am certainly not suggesting we should avoid all forms of contemporary literature. That said, I don’t think GCSE students should be wasting their time interpreting poems like ‘Tissue’. The funny thing is that most of the students I have taught seem to share a similar view. I always think classes will respond much better to poems like ‘Brendon Gallacher’, ‘Blessing’ and ‘Kid’ but actually when they write about ‘My Last Duchess’ or a Shakespeare sonnet they have much more to say and they say it with much greater conviction.

The second important lesson we can we learn from Stanley Fish’s work on interpretative communities relates to the order in which we teach students the poems that we select. I’m guessing that one of the main reasons that Fish’s students so readily interpreted a list of linguists as a religious poem was because they were used to seeing poems that looked like that, namely without a clear form or discernible structure – they understood the free verse style that characterises much of the poetry of the last century, and which has dominated the contents of many an anthology since.

Whilst Fish’s students may have mistakenly treated his list of names as a poem, they would have probably have understood why a poem that doesn’t rhyme or contain any clear poetic structure could be considered a poem. They would be familiar with poets who broke with formal conventions, like e.e. cummings, Sylvia Plath and William Carlos Williams, and learnt the reasons for these literary developments. In short, they would have in mind some kind of literary chronology, which is perhaps something that we should bear in mind when we are designing the spread of a five-year curriculum.

Perhaps most importantly, I think Fish’s example highlights a need for us to consider how we approach teaching poetry, particularly in a clear and systematic way that builds upon the work of KS2 teachers. I wonder if one of the reasons why Fish’s students were misled by a mere list, is that they had never really been encouraged to take a step back whenever they approach a new text – to appreciate its overall beauty; to consider it at a conceptual or formal level before diving straight in to try and account for it and locate its meaning. Maybe whenever they were ever presented with a poem at school, they were immediately asked to interpret or provide some kind of emotional response.

This is all well and good, and I do this kind of thing regularly. This year, however, I have been teaching a year 7 class for the first time in ages, which has given me the opportunity to begin to think through how I might teach things like poetry a little differently, by which I mean to teach students a conceptual appreciation of poetry as well as an emotional and technical understanding. I want them to be able to infer meaning, but also to comment on different forms and how these might be linked to developments in artistic expression and philosophy. A more holistic approach to understanding.

This is obviously hard. It is so tempting to introduce a poem and start to elicit ideas about its meaning, but this might be putting the cart before the horse, particularly with poems where the structural and/or formal features are absolutely central to understanding what the poem is trying to achieve. I wonder that whilst many of us are reviewing our KS3 assessments, we should recognise that here we have a unique opportunity to influence the workings of literary interpretation from within that interpretative community. There are enough of us and we have sufficient time to significantly improve they way we teach our students to read and approach poetry, or indeed any text for that matter.

Who knows, if we got things right from the off, by the time they were in year 11, our students might even be able to understand the difference between a metaphor and a simile.



very much



Raising Kids Who Read – a review


It is hard not to really like Daniel Willingham. Here is an academic and psychologist who has helped a great many educators, including this one, to understand a range of complex cognitive processes and given practical advice about how to apply insights from the field for the benefit of student learning. His 2011 book Why Don’t Students Like School? is regularly cited by enthusiastic teachers in their blogs who value the explanations and examples he has provided, particularly around dispelling some of the myths about the way people learn and the importance of knowledge acquisition in the learning process. He is not the only name in town, but he is certainly a leading figure who I suspect has made a significant impression on a great many classrooms up and down the country.

One of the reasons why I think Willingham has become so popular is due to the clarity of his writing: it is engaging, warm and so obviously on the side of the teacher. His latest publication Raising Kids Who Read continues in the same vein. The book is not primarily aimed at teachers, though there is much that I think most teachers can take from it, particularly if they have children of their own. Raising Kids Who Read is aimed more at parents, specifically parents who want to help their children to develop a love of reading and create a home environment where reading is part of their son or daughter’s ‘self-conception’ – something that they do, see as part of who they are and, crucially, something they enjoy.

Establishing the self-concept of the child as reader is the central thesis of the book and there is a great deal of practical and actionable guidance on how to make this possible. For Willingham, ‘reading motivation is fragile and difficult to bring back once its gone’. As such, any parent eager to help his or her child to improve their reading, whether through developing their ability to hear different sounds, to make sense of the marks on the page or to understand the significance of what they are reading, must not lose sight of the enjoyment first principle. Whilst by hook or by crook teachers are responsible for ensuring every student learns to read, mothers and fathers who want to support their child’s journey to fluency and understanding have to resist the urge to create classrooms at home.

Raising Kids Who Read is organised in a clear and methodical way, beginning with a brief overview of the science of reading before moving on to the tripartite structure that underpins the rest of the book. These three sections broadly cohere to the different phases a child goes through as they learn to read: the preschool years of preparing to decode by learning speech sounds and the relationship between sounds and letters; the early years focus on learning to decode and acquiring necessary background knowledge; the move towards increased fluency and enhanced comprehension. At each turn there is a short research overview followed by helpful practical steps on what this actually means for a parent looking to support their child’s reading development.

There is much food for thought, even for the most knowledgeable of parents. Those unfamiliar with the technicalities of learning to read will likely learn a lot, such as the idiosyncrasies of the English alphabetic code, the role that background knowledge plays (particularly how it enables the drawing of inferences from texts), the arguments for and against phonics teaching, and the ineffectiveness of teaching general reading strategies. Willingham remains clear and accessible throughout and places emphasis as and when required, such as stressing how ‘you need knowledge to read, and reading gives you knowledge’.

Throughout Willingham’s preferred style is to present evidence about what is most likely to lead to successful reading in a clear and reasoned way, one that allows readers to draw the conclusions he has reached but without ever feeling that they have been made to do so. Willingham acknowledges where evidence is inconclusive and is big enough to concede ground to views he does not seem to share, such as the arguments put forward by supporters of whole word learning. He points out that evidence can be presented to support either camp and that ‘the advantage conferred by using phonics instead of whole-word learning is moderate, not huge.’ Rather than assessing who is right, Willingham focuses instead on the consequences of following each method. This way the conclusion that ‘systematic phonics instruction maximises the odds that everyone in the class will learn to read’ appears obvious and necessary.

Despite Raising Kids Who Read being largely an advice manual for proactive parents, I found it impossible not to read it from the dual perspective of both parent and teacher. I nodded along at the parts that sang to me as a father, such as the sections where Willingham emphasises the importance of being able to distinguish between the different sounds in words when learning to read. As with many other children, my eldest daughter suffered from glue ear when she was in her reception year and her inability to hear sounds properly had a marked effect on her early reading progress. She could not hear the sounds, so found it hard to discern them in print or say them out loud.

At other times, the teacher in me came more to the fore. For instance, my week day persona fully understood the importance of Willingham’s explanation of the distinction between given information and new information, and the way that meaning is built across sentences that assume a certain level of reader knowledge. Whilst this is essentially a recasting of E.D. Hirsch’s contention that reading is more about teaching background knowledge than pushing redundant comprehension strategies, it was useful to see the point expressed here in a very clear and concise way. I am sure many readers will find it incredibly helpful to see the problem of comprehension as boiling down to the distance between ‘stuff you have already been told in the text’ and ‘stuff you haven’t’ yet learned about which the text relies upon to make its meaning.

This is a good book with a laudable aim. But there is a problem, or rather a cruel irony – one that Willingham himself recognises and that anyone with even a basic understanding of issues in education will hone in on. The irony is, of course, that the parents who will buy Raising Kids Who Read are not really the ones who need to read it. If you are going to go to the trouble of buying a book about helping your child to improve their reading, you are likely to be the type of parent who already reads regularly to your children, encourages them through library visits and talks to them in a rich and engaging way that models effective speech and builds their vocabulary. Most parents I know already limit their children’s online activity and provide them with the kinds of experience that develop the background knowledge required to be a successful reader.

As much as I enjoyed Raising Kids Who Read – and believe me I really did – I couldn’t shake this thought out of my mind. If we acknowledge that parents play a pivotal role in the development of their children’s reading, whether directly or indirectly, how do we ensure that all parents are suitably equipped to do so? How do we ensure that the excellent ideas and approaches in this book get to where there are really needed? Reading this book will make me a slightly better teacher; it will definitely make me a much better, more aware father. The trouble is I already knew the importance of building a positive reading environment at home, as do all of the people I know who also have children.

If Willingham is right that attitudes towards reading are extremely important and that these are rooted in our early emotional responses, our job as parents is to do what we can to ensure that we foster the right kind of environment that creates the right kind of emotional response. Helping our children see themselves as readers is vital: it is a virtuous circle that starts with the ability to read well and leads to an enjoyment of reading which in turn increases the attitude and means that we read more. This is the Matthew Effect by another name. I just hope that those that read this book can find a way to close the gap between the word and rich and the word poor – between those that enjoy reading and are good at it and those that don’t and cant’.

I’ve taken some good ideas from Raising Kids Who Read, but (touch wood) my children are not likely to be the ones that struggle most to read.