Top Tips for Teaching Unseen Poetry for GCSE

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!

Building resilience

  • 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).

Poem pairings

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:

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