Sunday, 11 April 2021

The first read is the deepest – moving away from spotting and pushing the thinking

 We are currently working with our Year 11s to help them prepare for an assessment on unseen poetry and for me it has, yet again, made me think about how we teach poetry or texts of any kind.

When we first introduce a text to a class, we often don’t let them sniff the wine. We don’t let them experience the bouquet. The aromas. The experience. The flavours. The hints. Instead we attack it. It is red wine. It is from France. It is a Shiraz. There’s much more to the things we enjoy. There is beauty in knowledge, but there is beauty in the experience. That chocolate egg you devoured slowly in front of the telly happened because you enjoyed the experience. It isn’t because you liked the pattern on the egg. It was the experience that gave you pleasure.

I don’t think we put the pleasure in texts enough in lessons. Now, I don’t want to come across as some Children TV presenter and suggest we make everything fun: no, I mean we put pleasure in the driving seat for once and we put what the text does to a person first. All too often, techniques are in the driving seat and lead things in lessons. That’s why Tim can spot seventeen examples of alliteration yet can’t tell you a single thing about what the poet is saying about a beach. Tim, what is the poem saying about the beach? ‘It is saying that alliteration is a really effective way to describe a beach, sir.’

When I read, I enjoy the experience. And, contrary to popular belief, I am not analysing as a I read. I am not. Instead, I am relishing the flavours, the bouquet, the hints, the aromas. I might even like it much that I want me more of it.

Okay, Xris. Cut to the chase. What does this actually mean in the classroom? Well, first of all, it does not mean you have to put a cravat on and start lighting scented candles to create the right ambience to ensure feelings happen. It means putting the impact on the reader at the front of discussions and analysis. Instead of making it an after thought. We’ve all stood there when we’ve asked a student about the effect something has in the poem. They look at you blankly as they search their internal memory cabinet so they can bluff their way through. Ummm – make the reader want to read on.  

To be honest, I have been conditioned to focus on analysis first and then explore the impact. I am not saying that analysis is bad, but I think how we structure the analysis in a lesson is problematic. What came first: the chicken or the egg? In English lessons, what comes first: the impact or the technique? For students, and most readers, it is the impact and not the technique. For English teachers, it is largely the technique and not the impact. This structure is problematic. I hate alliteration for this thing alone. How blooming hard is it to explain the effect of alliteration after you have spotted it? Pretty hard. That’s why students tend to default to an explanation of alliteration. It is much easier after you have spotted the effect to attach the mood to alliteration and a number of different techniques.

That links to another issue we have with this internalised structure of poetry teaching. Writers don’t use one thing to create a particular effect. A poet will use several methods to convey a mood. Yet, when isolating methods and linking to the impact, students miss out the connections and the interconnectivity of things in a poem. Moods are spider webs in poems. They have delicate silken threads to a number of things. Seeing those webs are what good students do. They gentle lift a thread and see all the different ways it is attached to things.

Therefore, we need to put impact in a higher position in the English lesson. Yes, there will be time for analysis and ensuring comprehension, but let’s not neglect our first reaction to any text. The feelings. The thoughts. The connections. The recollections. The questions.  

 As we work through unseen poetry, I start each lesson with me reading the poem and then they underline the bits they like. Yes, a simple question: what bits do you like in the poem?

Here’s a poem we have recently looked at:

Hard Frost


Frost called to the water Halt 
And crusted the moist snow with sparkling salt;
Brooks, their one bridges, stop, 
And icicles in long stalactites drop. 
And tench in water-holes 
Lurk under gluey glass like fish in bowls. 

In the hard-rutted lane 
At every footstep breaks a brittle pane, 
And tinkling trees ice-bound, 
Changed into weeping willows, sweep the ground
Dead boughs take root in ponds 
And ferns on windows shoot their ghostly fronds. 

But vainly the fierce frost 
Interns poor fish, ranks trees in an armed host, 
Hangs daggers from house-eaves 
And on the windows ferny ambush weaves; 
In the long war grown warmer 
The sun will strike him dead and strip his armour.


                                                                                                     Andrew John Young


It is interesting to see what students like. I get students to tell me what they like and we annotate a copy of the poem together with those bits. If students are confident enough, they might explain why they like it. I have highlighted on the poem some things students have liked. Unanimously, they all liked the last line. The fact that it was the last line straightaway addresses a structural point. We offered ideas why we all liked it. Some suggested it was the pace. Others suggested it was the fact that it was the sun appearing and how we prefer the sun to the frost. We then analysed the poem in more depth.  Students had a grounded understanding of the personal impact the poem had on them.  They knew how they felt and their reaction to the text at certain points. They pick up on the sounds, effects, patterns and structural things without going near a darn technique. The first reading is always the deepest!

For over a year, I have been really interesting in how we teach impact and effect in texts in the English classroom. For years, I have always been a big believer of teaching effect first in writing (Sexy Sprouts), but more so now am I seeing its relevance to literature. It boosts confidence in students and it enables discussion in lessons far more than narrow questions on techniques or big questions about life. Everybody can tell you whether they like or dislike something. In fact, that is where passion stems a lot of the time. Take Marmite. People can tell me with passion or aggression why they like or dislike Marmite. Why don’t we channel this ability to be passionate with texts we study?


Here are some approaches to being more focused on effect / impact in lessons.

[1] Getting students to ground their understanding with a connection to their personal world

What does this remind you of?

What does this make you think about?

[2] Getting students to identify themselves in the text

Whose side am I on?

Who represents me in the text?

Where are you in this situation?

Who is the victim? Who is the villain?

[3] Getting students explore things in terms of positive and negative

Students identify whether the text is positive or negative. Then explore why it is negative or positive. Often texts present different parties in the text differently. They might present a boat positively and the sea negatively. Looking at the relationship between positive and negative elements is really meaningful.

[4] Getting students to how positive or negative something becomes

This is particularly important for AQA Paper 1. Often, the texts start negatively and get even more negative as the text goes on. We look at how the negative effect is amplified through the text. What structural choices add to this negativity?

[5] Getting students to explore what the like and dislike about characters

It’s easy to see texts with a pantomime googles: people are either victims or villains. Seeing that characters have relatable aspects is really key. Students might not like Mrs Birling but they could at least identify with her determination to do what is right for her family. Seeing characters are complex things are relatable is important.

[6] Getting students to articulate their first impression, reaction or feelings

What do you like?

What don’t you like?

What is your opinion of…?

What would you do if it was you?


We all like shared experiences. How many of us chat about shared experiences of books, films or TV? Every text we study is a ‘Line of Duty’ watercooler moment. It is a shared experience and not just shared analysis. The two go hand in hand. One is made even better by the other. We enjoy the experience so we analyse it more.   

Let’s help students feel and experience the brilliant literature we study and not just know them. It doesn’t take a lot to do this. No fancy costumes. No special effects. No props. No special guest.

Get your nose in a poem. Swirl it around. Savour it. Spit it out. What do you notice?  

Thanks for reading. I am now off to get myself drunk on poetry. Hiccup. Hiccup.


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