The unseen section of the GCSE exams in English Literature is a bugbear for many, becoming a coda to teaching the anthology poetry rather than a meaningful unit of work in itself. I often submit to time pressure and forget that teaching unseen poetry is a fabulous opportunity to introduce students to a diverse range of poems.
Below are some of twitter’s top tips for teaching unseen poetry – hopefully this will spark some ideas!
- Keep it simple: explicitly teach students how you would like them to approach unseen poems and the exam question (see KO) – then repeat this process with new poems. The joy and interest in the lesson comes from the text, whilst repeating the method of approach builds confidence.
- Build in opportunities to explore a wide range of unseen poems from various time periods throughout KS3 and KS4.
- When looking at any new text, scaffold the students to form their own impressions and inferences first (even if you develop these further for set Literature texts).
- If possible and appropriate, use websites such as Poetry by Heart and resources on MASSOLIT to allow students to explore poetry independently at home.
- Model how you read a poem for the first time – e.g. use the “random poem generator” on Poetry by Heart to select a poem you haven’t prepared. Work it out together as a class, and explore different possible meanings and how to discount invalid interpretations.
- From Year 7, introduce students to a number of “big picture” concepts and practice relating these to new reading. (E.g. politics, gender, aesthetics, class, morality, economics, psychology, philosophy, power and conflict, society and the individual.)
- Explicitly teach poetic methods (language and structure) when exploring anthology poetry – then approach unseen poetry after this.
- Continue teaching the writing of poetry at KS4 (see Kate Clanchy’s “How to grow your own poem”).
Reading for meaning
- When reading any text for the first time, teach students to read for meaning using the same set of questions (e.g. the 5 Ws).
- Use the title to make predictions and inferences about the poem.
- Look at just the first and final lines: what has changed? How has the poem progressed? What is the difference in tone?
- Model how to read with expression and with tone. Ask students to read the poem aloud themselves, perhaps with different tones of voice to explore a range of interpretations.
- Group reading – students read up to a piece of punctuation, and then “pass on” to another student. This helps students consider the effect of pauses.
- Use Jennifer Webb’s 3×3 method: students identify 3 words, symbols, or phrases to talk about in a poem, and must make 3 comments on each phrase.
- Identify a turning point in the poem. What changes, how does it change, and why does it change?
Pitfalls to avoid
- Technique-spotting rather than reading for meaning. Analysis of methods and techniques should be used to support exploration of meaning.
- Failing to read the poems thoroughly before answering the question.
- Misreading the question.
- Writing too much/too little.
- For the AQA comparative question, failing to mention methods.
- “Empty phrases” e.g. “the enjambment helps the poem to flow better” (see the download below).
Ensure selection of a wide range of poems which showcase different methods, voices, characters, themes, and are from a variety of time periods.
- Family conflict: David Kitchen’s “Dress Sense” and William Carlos Williams’ “This is just to say”.
- World War One: Siegfried Sassoon’s “The Rear-Guard” and Wilfred Owen’s “Futility”.
- Civil Rights: Maya Angelou’s “Awaking in New York” and Langston Hughes’ “Dreams”.
- Aging: Leontia Flynn’s “My Father’s Language” and WB Yeats’s “When you are Old”.
- Rejection: Jenny Sullivan’s “Rejection” and Steve Turner’s “Declaration of Intent”.
- Parents: Simon Armitage’s “My Father Thought it Bloody Queer” and Fleur Adcock’s “For Heidi, with Blue Hair”.
- Romantic love: Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “Sonnet 43” and Edna St Vincent Millay “Sonnet 30”
Links and reading:
- Kate Clanchy – “How to Grow a Poem”