Inside Out Poetry

‘Inside Out’ Poetry

I may be speaking for myself here, and if so I apologise, but isn’t it the case that we teachers of English sometimes assume that our pupils ‘know’ how to ‘read’ poetry,  when in fact they haven’t a clue?  The truth is that pupils are terrified when they are confronted with a new poem to analyse. They do not feel equal to the  challenge of  cracking the code of the inscrutable and obscure text in front of them and their response is to shut down.

As a result, I have got into the habit of approaching the poem from the inside out, starting with the  words or lexical items – the linguistic soil out of which the poem grows and only then working towards a reading of the poem as a whole. I have come to think of this approach as ‘inside out’ poetry.  At its most simple, this might involve working with a word cloud as a pre-reading exercise.e one below. The pupils work in groups with the language of the poem – grouping words and anticipating themes; exploring connotations and speculating about style.  This is brilliant because it means that they have rolled up their sleeves and got the linguistic muck beneath their fingernails. It also means that they have formulated theories about the poem and they are keen to test their theories out against the poem itself. As a result,  they have a sense of ownership of the poem; they are no longer intimidated and they have already begun to engage in close analysis before they have even read the text.

If you haven’t tried this approach to and would like to you need to take a look at Wordle and ABCya. Of the two, Wordle is by far the sexiest, but it comes with a health warning: firstly, network firewalls mean that Wordle may not work in school and, secondly, you can’t save the word clouds that you make on Wordle. Instead you have to take a screen shot and paste it into Word. If you want to save it as a Jpeg, you can, but you would need to paste it into ppt and save it in the appropriate format. ABCya is a good alternative. While the word clouds that it generates are less striking than those that you can make on Wordle, it does work in school and you can save the images. Here’s one that I made earlier:

Poetry Word Cloud Made Using ABCya


Using Poetry to Develop Our Psychic Abilities

This is essentially a development of the ‘Inside Out’ approach to poetry and  another example of the benefits of approaching reading through the mindset of a writer (see previous posts). I would also like to think that it is in the spirit of @HYWEL_ROBERTS’ book Oops! – a book which I have found incredibly inspiring and regenerative.  In Oops,  Hwyel stresses the importance of ‘hooking’ your pupils into learning. He argues that the best way to do this is to create an imaginative context for learning and then to introduce a ‘lure’, which pupils can’t resist and which leads them into learning whether they like it or not. He also writes about the impact of ‘altering the status quo’ on pupils learning: a change in venue or routine, or anything out the ordinary tends to engage pupils’ interest and prime them for learning.  I have tried to draw on these excellent  ideas in developing the  lesson, which goes something like this:

When the pupils enter the class room they find a sealed envelope on each chair. As this is unusual, they are intrigued. They are told to place the envelope on the desk in front of them and to leave it alone for the time being. Next, in order to create an appropriately imaginative and engaging context for learning, I introduce my ‘pretend’ learning intentions. The pupils are told that the objective of the lesson is to develop their psychic abilities; the outcome is that they will be able to ‘read’  a poem in a sealed envelope. By this point, they are ‘buzzing’ – another of Hwyel’s favourite concepts.

I then explain that before exercising their psychic powers and using muscles in the mind that we rarely exercise (cross curricular connections with science?),  it is important to limber up our minds, just as they would in PE (another cross curricular link?). I then display the following words on the board:

carrot, cabbage, onion, broccoli, plum.

This is a starter activity that I have pinched from Helen Dunmore and you can find it here. Pupils have to identify the odd one out in the list. The obvious candidate is ‘plum’, because it is the only fruit, but the trick is to get them to think about any other possible odd ones out. For instance, ‘onion’ is the only one that begins with a vowel. The key is that there is no ‘right’ answer. I then display the next list and the pupils go through the same process:

happiness, wedding cake, bride, bouquet, coffin.

Odd ones out could include ‘happiness’, because it is an abstract noun, or ‘wedding cake’, because it is the only one that they can eat. There is usually some bright spark who identifies ‘funeral’ as the odd one out, because all the rest are connected with happiness. At which point, I ask them if any of them have ever been married?

Anyway, the activity works well, because of the element of competition and because it gets the pupils’ brains working  thinking about words and the way they can be categorised. It also, as Dunmore points out, nails the Literacy objectives for that lesson.

Next, I ask the pupils to take the sealed envelope, to close their eyes and to press the envelope to their foreheads, while concentrating and trying to visualise the poem. They ALL do this and I am filled with joy at the power I exert over these impressionable young minds ; ) But, seriously – is there anything better than being a teacher?

While they’ve been doing this, my helpers have been giving out envelopes filled with words. They do not know this (though some of them will suspect) , but they are the lexical or ‘content’  words from the poem in the envelope.  There are two ways of doing this. You can laboriously type the words of the poem into a table, leaving out ‘grammar’ words, like conjunctions and prepositions, into a table or you can feed the poem into a text ‘cruncher’ like this one at Teachit. However, you need Teachit works membership to access this. Failing that, I am sure that there are free text crunchers if you google for them.


all alone already away bed believe black blight book
both bottles call clear crime dad dead death disbelief
disconnected distance drop end ends gas get give gone
grief hear hot hour just kept key knew leather
life lock long look love mother name new number
off out pass phone popped raw renew risk rusted
same scrape she’d shopping side slippers soon still such
sure tea there’s time transport warming years


The next stage is for the pupils to gather the words into groups. They do this in pairs. The only rule is that they give their group of words a title. Working with the words in the table, they might identify groups of words with titles like ‘death’, ‘domesticity’ ‘loss’  or ‘time’. However, it also pays to advise them not to look for groups based on spelling or word types (abstract nouns), which they might be inclined to do, depending on how the starter activity panned out. You can differentiate by asking specific pairs to aim for a specific number of groups.

I generally allow ten to fifteen minutes for the completion of this task, after which they go pairs into fours to compare, agree and rank order the groupings that they are most pleased with. Next they feedback and, as a whole class,  we talk about the groupings: are there any surprising groups? Do they all ‘fit’ together?  Finally, we ask what a poem with these groups of words might be about.  Without realising it they are exploring the semantic field of the poem (the real learning intention).

The next step is for the pupils to use the words and their groupings to write at least five lines of ‘the’ poem. They are allowed to add additional words;  they do not have to use all of the words and they can change the tense. However, they must not attempt to rhyme. I allow them ten minutes to write without stopping. This tends to take the pressure off. After all, you can’t be expected to produce a masterpiece in ten minutes (see previous posts). Of course, if the energy is there, I allow it to run on.

Because the pupils are working with a poem ‘concentrate’ – a bit like undiluted orange squash, they write with more confidence and the results are usually very impressive. They get to experience a feeling of success. It is at this point that I ask them to open their envelopes and one pupil reads out:

Long Distance II by Tony Harrison

This poem works well because it is not too long, so the pupils will not be overwhelmed with words and there are a number of clear semantic fields.

I ask the class if any of their poems share similar ideas with the ‘real poem’ and there is always at least one poem that is close to the original. We talk about similarities and differences and then I ask why this should be the case. Is it down to psychic ability? By this time all of the pupils have caught on and it is easy to draw out the ‘real’ learning outcome – the concept of semantic field and the connection between semantic field and theme.

I have used this lesson with all key stages and have found that it delivers engagement, creativity and learning. You can, of course, discard the envelopes and the psychic window dressing and it works just as well.

Cross-posted from Let’s go to work…

1 thought on “Inside Out Poetry

  1. Fiona McGrogan

    I really like this activity, and it would work well with my S3.
    I tried something similar, though much less adventurous, when teaching Blessing by Imtaz Dharkar to S2. After an activity about water in developing countries, they got the poem out with blanks, and they had to find effective words to fill the blanks. It really worked to engage them with the analysis of the poem: by the time we came to do the tough stuff, the close textual analysis, they felt an ownership of the poem which they wouldn’t have done had I just handed it out as a complete poem.

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