Reading to the Rhythm: Poetry and Reluctant Readers

National Poetry Month Logo, 2016

April is National Poetry Month in both the U.S. and Canada. First organized by the Academy of American Poets, the first National Poetry Month was celebrated in 1996, making 2016 the 20th anniversary of National Poetry Month.

Booksellers, teachers and librarians all have different ways of celebrating National Poetry Month. For example, in 2015, I ran a Newspaper Blackout Poetry workshop for teens inspired by Austin Kleon’s work. However, this year I’m trying to use National Poetry Month as a platform to engage reluctant readers.

Educators have found that poetry is a great motivator for classroom work. Rhyme and rhythm are great tools for engaging students. The patterns of spoken poetry are easy for students to identify and understand phonics-based principles, especially for early elementary students familiar with common nursery rhymes. However, I’m more interested in using poetry as a means for children to become self-motivated readers. As my high school librarian used to say, “Everybody likes to read; you just don’t know what you like to read, yet.”

Every year there are at least a handful of children and young adult Crank, Ellen Hopkins, Simon & Schuster, 2004books published in verse. It’s the structure of these novels that makes them ideal for building confidence in struggling readers. Generally, novels in verse have wide margins and very little text on the page making them less intimidating for children struggling to read or children who are slow readers. I recently had an interaction with a parent requesting Ellen Hopkins’ Young Adult Crank series hoping the small amount of text per page would help her daughter have more reading confidence.

In addition to reading role models, a crucial component to intrinsic motivation for reading in students is reading confidence. As a youth services librarian, I’m always looking for books formatted in ways that encourage reading confidence. This includes not only novels in verse, but also illustrated novels such as The Diary of a Wimpy Kid series and the Geronimo Stilton series. I’ve included a couple short lists of books in verse for middle grade and teen readers that I’ve found to be both compelling and easy reads.

Eckhart Public Library, 2010
Eckhart Public Library, 2010

Here are a few of my current favorite books in verse for grades four and up:
The Crossover by Kwame Alexander

Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai
My Seneca Village by Marilyn Nelson
Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

Locomotion (and its sequel Peace, Locomotion) by Jacqueline Woodson

And a few for Middle and High School students:
Bronx Masquerade by Nikki Grimes
Crank by Ellen Hopkins
Lies, Knives and Girls in Red Dresses by Ron Koertge 
and Andrea Dezso 
What My Mother Doesn’t Know
by Sonya Sones
Paper Hearts by Meg Wiviott