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Painting with Words: Teaching Children Poetry

written by: Linda M. Rhinehart Neas • edited by: Donna Cosmato • updated: 1/5/2012

Creating word pictures by constructing parts of speech poems, as well as five W’s poems and haiku, enhances language arts instruction. In addition, haiku is easily combined with science units on weather, seasons, and nature. Painting with words is a metaphor for successful poetry education.

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    What's in a Word?

    Young students who are just getting their head's around the different parts of speech gain practical experience when they write a parts of speech poem. The poem is easy to teach. There are five lines to a parts of speech poem, which makes it a cinquain.

    A parts of speech poem is created by first picking a subject. Then finding words that fit the parts of speech listed as follows:

    • Line 1: one article and one noun
    • Line 2: one adjective, one conjunction and one adjective
    • Line 3: one verb, one conjunction and one verb
    • Line 4: one adverb
    • Line 5: one noun or pronoun that relates to line one

    An example of a parts of speech poem created on the subject of teaching:

    The class

    small but noisy

    investigating and experimenting



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    Five W's Cinquain

    Another cinquain that students enjoy writing is the five w's poem. Very simple to teach and great for scaffolding on social studies or history lessons, the five w's poem asks the questions: who, what, when, where and why, in that order. Younger students may only write one or two words per line, however, older students could utilize metaphor or simile to complete each line, as well as, alliteration or onomatopoeia.

    For instance, an elementary student in a world history class studying a unit on ancient Egypt the five w's poem might write:

    Who - Pharaoh

    What - Built a pyramid

    When - During his reign

    Where - In the desert

    Why - As a final resting place

    Allowing younger students to put the five-w's at the beginning of each line helps keep them focused on what that line is to convey. On the other hand, an older student in middle or high school who does not need such a prompt might write:

    Pharaoh and his queen

    Napped on their barge

    While nightly floating

    Down the Nile

    To escape the heat of land

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    Painting Word Pictures

    Using the metaphor of painting to describe how to write haiku works well with students. Students, especially younger students, should be given a visual prompt to help them through their first few attempts. Doing this scaffolds nicely onto natural science as well as lessons in impressionism, neoclassicism, romanticism or other fine arts periods, since haiku are traditionally written about nature or natural things.

    Haiku uses very few words in only three lines. Traditionally, it is written to a 5,7,5 rhythm or beat; that is, there are five syllables in the first line, seven syllables in the second line and five syllables in the last line. Note that these are syllables i.e., beats, not words. Many modern poets suggest that the 5,7,5 phrases are too difficult to accomplish in English and have opted for teaching that students use as few words as possible to construct their haiku. Teachers should allow students flexibility. In teaching poetry, it is more about the ability to use words creatively than it is about holding to strict forms of construction.

    For young as well as older students, explaining a little about the history of haiku helps them to conceptualize this poetry form. Haiku is an ancient Japanese art form that was written as a way to capture simple, everyday things in a reflective and contemplative manner. Haiku utilizes metaphor or simile.

    Begin by placing the prompt at the front of the class. Brainstorm with the students about what they see. For younger students a list of words can be placed on the board. Ask the student to pick one thing from nature in the picture that they are viewing - a tree, a cat, a bug, the sea, etc. In the first line, they should describe that thing using as few words as possible. In the next line, ask them to write an action for their thing or describe the season in which the picture takes place. In the final line, ask them to compare their first subject to something else (metaphor or simile). Note that the use of a, an, or the is not necessary in haiku.

    Remember that while it is wonderful to challenge students to produce traditional 5,7,5 haiku, it is more important that they get their word pictures on paper in a way that allows others to enjoy them.


    Example of haiku written in traditional 5,7,5 phrasing:

    Like an old wizard

    The Moon watches through the night

    Protector of dreams

    Examples of non-traditional haiku:

    Windowsill violets

    raising faces heavenward

    like sun-worshiping tourists

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    Poetry Can Be Fun

    Teaching poetry to students does not have to be a dreaded task. Lessons plans that include parts of speech poems, five w's poems and haiku are sure to challenge the students into creating beautiful word pictures to share with their families and friends.