Back when I was in school, poetry recitation was something that was explicitly taught in the classroom. From what I’ve heard, it’s not a top priority in most schools these days. That’s too bad because there is a lot to be gained from this practice. Learning to memorize and recite poems can be a wonderful way to develop public speaking skills. Recitation also helps you understand a poem on a deeper level than if you just read it. Reciting a poem also helps you internalize a lot of what makes good writing.
So why not practice this at home with your children? Encourage everyone in the family (grownups too!) to pick a poem to memorize. It’s important to let each person pick a poem that he/she connects with. Not only will it make your children more likely to participate, but it will make them more successfully recite the poem. Go to the library and gather several books of poetry. It’s important to pick a variety of poetry styles so as to give all members of the family a chance to find something they love. Children often get most excited about humorous poetry or poetry about a favorite subject, so that might be good entry points.
Once everyone has picked a poem, take time with the poem. Make sure each family member really understands his/her poem. After all, if you don’t understand the poem, it will be impossible to convey the meaning to your audience. Discuss with your children their poetry selections to make sure they comprehend what is going on. There shouldn’t be any words they don’t understand. Talk about the main idea of the poem as well as some of the smaller details.
In terms of actual memorization, allow at least a week to memorize the poem. Many people find it helpful to write by hand the poem several times as a way to internalize it. Reading it aloud many times also helps with this as well. Copy each poem onto an index card so that you can carry it with you everywhere and practice when you have some free time. Practice reciting the poem aloud in front of your mirror, with the index card nearby to help as needed. It may also help to partner with another member of your family to practice in front of someone else. They can hold your index card to check on how you’re doing.
Of course memorizing isn’t all there is to a good recitation. There is an art to reciting a poem. Get your hands on some video or audio of poems read by professionals. After listening to a few, discuss as a family what makes a good recitation. It may even help to make a list. Some of the elements you should discuss are volume, inflection, eye contact, speed and dramatic pauses. To further enforce this, model a “bad”recitation of a poem and have your children name all the things you did wrong. (For example, you could mumble your way through a poem, at low volume and with no particular emphasis on any words or phrases.) Kids love to point out what parents do wrong!
After plenty of practice, it’s time for the recitation. Wouldn’t it be fun to make it an event! Invite friends over for a Poetry Party. Have poetry books on hand for your guests to leaf through. Serve refreshments. When it’s time for the recitation, explain to your audience the process that went into this. Also talk to them about what is appropriate audience etiquette for a poetry reading. Have the index cards on hand in case your child need a quick prompting. And of course applaud wildly after each recitation. Who knows—maybe these poetry parties will become commonplace among your group of friends!