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Poetry by numbers

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By Gerard Benson, Edmund Clerihew Bentley, Andrew Fusek Peters, Marian Swinger and Paul Cookson

These poems have a strong numeric, line or syllable pattern and are examples of specific poetry forms. In every case there is a useful introduction to each form of poetry, followed by examples. The poems are written by a variety of modern and historical poets, including Paul Cookson, and include examples of limericks, clerihews, haikus, tankas, cinquains and sonnets. The beauty, humour and discipline of each poem will appeal to a wide range of children.

These teachers’ notes accompany the PRINT ONLY guided reading leaflet in Literacy Time PLUS Ages 9 to 11 March 2009.


Before reading

Discuss the children’s knowledge of each poetic form. List the features, using terms such as syllables, verse and rhyme. Elicit information about the layout of each text. Compare poem lengths and presentation.

Guided reading

  • Read the introductions. Check the rhyming patterns and syllable counts.
  • Highlight words containing unstressed vowels, eg measure (sonnet) and twinkle (tanka). Make a list and learn the spellings for your next spelling test.
  • Find words with common spelling patterns and meanings and add them to a personal word book, eg twinkle/trickle (tanka) joy/delight (sonnet).
  • Highlight words that are tricky to spell and explore a range of strategies, eg pl/ea/sure, m/ea/sure (sonnet) – identifying common letter patterns; de/sign/ing (clerihew) – looking at words within words.
  • Explore how word meanings change when used in different contexts or historical times – eg, humour means type of character or temperament in the sonnet, whereas now it is used to describe fun or amusement.

Previous learning

Children should: be aware of each poetic form and understand terms such as rhyme, rhythm, metre, verse and syllable.


  • Appraise each text and comment on favourites, giving reasons.
  • Hide the answer to the tanka and see if the children can predict the solution.
  • Compare how these historic and modern poets use language and present experiences. Eg, the sonnet describes people being proud of their ‘hawks and hounds’. This is not something that many of us value today, but people do still find pleasure in wearing designer ‘garments’. Contrast the typical language used with the informal and ‘cheeky’ language used in the limerick.
  • Decide on the underlying themes of each poem.
  • Comment on the different structures used to create impact and coherence – eg, ‘A Spring Haiku’ uses vibrant similes and personification. How does the discipline of writing in such a tight form affect the immediacy and effectiveness of the poem? How does the cinquain structure maintain the coherence of the message? (The enjambment and tight syllable count imposes a rigid structure which heightens the impact of the poem and improves its coherence.)
  • Explore how the different ways the lines of the tanka are constructed add to the rhythm and rhyme. Compare with the lyrical verse of Sonnet 91 which has greater scope for expansion and detail, but which is still constrained by a disciplined structure.
  • How is the common theme of nature explored through the haikus and the tanka? Which is more effective? Why?

Ideas for writing

  • Think of a whole class haiku/tanka title, eg ‘Rainbow’.
  • In groups, write a clerihew about Barack Obama or other topical figures after reading about them.
  • Select a topic and a poetic form and write your own poems, typing them up using appropriate fonts.
  • Answer the questions on the activity sheet below.

Key learning outcomes:

Year 5

  • To explore how writers use language for comic and dramatic effects;
  • To reflect on own writing and edit and improve it;
  • To write poems;
  • To use ICT programs to present texts.

Year 6

  • To understand how writers create coherence and impact;
  • To select words/language drawing on knowledge of literary features;
  • To edit, proof-read and correct spelling in their own words;
  • To use dialogic talk to explore ideas.

Speaking and listening

Hold a poetry reading of the leaflet, or of the children’s own poems. Emphasise the importance of tone, volume and projection and expression, and include drama and musical accompaniments to provide interest.


  • Share the first drafts of the children’s poems. Did they follow all the poetic form rules? Discuss the language and ideas that are effective.
  • Watch the poetry performance and comment on dramatic effectiveness. Were the poems presented in an interesting and visual way?



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