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How to Use Poetry with Your Bilingual Kids (And Why You Should)

January 17, 2014

Poem by Shel Silverstein

How much do you use poetry with your children to nurture the minority language?

My sense is that many parents (myself included) don’t make use of poetry to the extent that they could, and should, beyond the early stage of nursery rhymes.

The fact is, poetry is a highly effective means of promoting language acquisition. Exposing children to the sound and rhythm of your target language, through suitable poetry, can foster deeper sensitivity to that language and help lay the foundation for reading ability—which is ultimately the key to higher and higher levels of proficiency.

And even if every word isn’t understood, poetry adds to a child’s growing vocabulary, introduces the magic of figurative language, like metaphor, and builds awareness for precision in writing and speaking.

At the same time, poetry feeds a child’s intellectual and emotional development. With its compact power, poetry can be a potent way of expressing concepts and emotions—from the silly to the sublime—thereby expanding a child’s insight and imagination.

If all this weren’t enough, poetry can be great fun for both reader and listener!

Good books of poetry

Of course, the use of poetry begins with proper resources, so if you don’t have at least a few good books of poetry for children on your bookshelves, I encourage you to start shopping!

Read-Aloud Rhymes for the Very YoungIf English is your target language, and your kids are small (up to age 8 or so), Read-Aloud Rhymes for the Very Young is a splendid anthology, full of fun, child-friendly verse and charming illustrations. This is the best treasury of poems I’ve seen for small children, and it’s a perfect place to start.

For individual poets, I highly recommend the work of Mary Ann Hoberman (a master of warm wordplay), Shel Silverstein (a genius at comical poems and illustrations), and Jack Prelutsky (the king of inventive and humorous verse). Some of their work has no doubt been translated into other languages as well.

Ideas for using poetry

Now that you have at least a few books of poetry on hand—and have placed them in a handy location in your home—how should you use them? Let me offer a few ideas…

1. Read poetry aloud, anytime
Poetry can be read anytime, not just during regular read-aloud sessions, where fiction and nonfiction are often the focus. I suggest reading poetry in the “cracks” of your day, too, which I’ve found to be very effective.

For me, one of those “cracks” is after the kids take their nightly bath and are getting ready for bed. In the ten minutes or so that it takes them to put on their pajamas and brush their teeth (they’re painfully slow at this), I sit on the sofa and I read poetry.

Poetry, you see, is ideal for these “cracks” in the day because poems are typically short and each one stands alone. Poetry fits itself perfectly into the minutes available to you—when duty calls, you can conveniently stop reading. The same isn’t true of narratives, which generally require more time and attention.

On a personal note, too, let me add that I love reading poetry aloud. Particularly when I’m reading the words of a skilled poet, which flow with such music and grace, the experience deepens my own love for the language. And I strongly suggest that the deeper we love our target language, the deeper our children will come to love it, too.

2. Use poetry for captive reading
If you aren’t familiar with the idea of “captive reading,” this tactic involves getting children to read more in the minority language by posting words, sentences, stories, and other texts in the bathroom. (See If This Isn’t a Big Part of Your Strategy for Raising Bilingual Kids, It Really Should Be for much more on the subject.)

These days, because my kids are now a bit older and have become competent readers, I often make use of poetry as captive reading material for the inside of our bathroom door. (When they sit in there, the text is right in front of their eyes, making it virtually impossible not to read the words.) Copying a page from one of my poetry books is a quick task, and I change the posted material often so they’re continuously staring at fresh verse.

By using poetry for captive reading, you’re again taking advantage of these “cracks” in your day to nurture the minority language. And when you fill these “cracks” daily with language exposure, the many brief periods of input that you’re engineering will add up significantly over time.

3. Memorize short poems
Asking your children to memorize poems of a suitable length and difficulty is another excellent way to deepen their sensitivity to the target language and plant new elements of that language into their little heads. I do this regularly, tempting my kids with a little treat, and they win this prize when they can recite the poem to me from memory.

Almost always, this is enough to stir them into action and they work hard at memorizing the verse—in the process, reading it over and over again, much to my quiet satisfaction—until they can recite it successfully. (Sometimes it takes them several tries, and some frustration, but that’s fine.) Even today, they can still recite poems that they memorized months ago!

I discuss my experience using poetry in this way in How Rats in the Bathroom Can Boost a Child’s Bilingual Ability, so definitely see that post for further details (and a few laughs, too).

A keen kind of joy

I hope this post has inspired you to add to your books of poetry and use poetry more with your children, particularly in the “cracks” of your day. If you do, I expect you’ll not only boost their language development, together you’ll experience a keen kind of joy that only good poetry can bring.

How about you? How do you plan to use more poetry in your daily routine? Any other ideas for using poetry?

1 emilia January 22, 2014 at 6:42 pm

Adam, great post! I was thinking just yesterday that I needed to find your old post about poetry, and here I find a brand new one today! Wonderful! I love your ideas about the usefulness of poetry, so I ordered right away a couple of books on amazon!
Thank you!!!

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2 Adam January 22, 2014 at 8:00 pm

Emilia, you’re welcome! I’m really glad this post inspired you to get some new books! Have fun with your kids! :mrgreen:

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3 Sonja January 13, 2016 at 3:25 am

Thanks for this post! My little one is only 3 months old and I’m already getting a little tired of singing the same baby songs. Poetry is a great solution! Now I just need to find a reliable site for good books in Italian. I’m really finding this to be a challenge in the US.

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4 Adam January 13, 2016 at 9:44 am

You’re welcome, Sonja! Yes, be as proactive as you can about obtaining suitable books in Italian, through online sources, family and friends back in Italy, etc. One key to bilingual success is a regular flow of books into the home and a large home library!

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5 Kelly Canaan April 7, 2016 at 5:23 am

Do you know of any Japanese rhymes or poetry books? Obviously, there’s haiku and tanka, but I’m wondering about rhyming poems…

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6 Adam April 7, 2016 at 8:20 am

Kelly, I’m not really familiar with Japanese poetry but I bet you would get some useful ideas from the “Education in Japan” community. If you’re not familiar with this group, see…

Recommended Resources: The Lively Virtual Community of “Education in Japan”

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