English KS1 / KS2: How to understand a poem

Poet Joseph Coelho explores how we infer meaning from poems and highlights that the same poem can mean different things to different people.

He also gives the audience the tools to logically justify their response to the poem, such as deduction and reference to evidence within the poem.

He discusses how poetic devices can change the audience's interpretation of a poem and how you can employ these devices to imbue meaning in your own poems.

He even looks at how the specific words the author chooses for the poem can change how the audience interpret it.

Teacher notes

Ideas for the classroom

Before watching:

Key Stage 1 (age 5-7):

Read aloud Give and Take by Roger McGough

Key Stage 2 (age 7-11):

Read aloud Dada’s stories, by Joseph Coelho

Allow time for the children to respond with their likes and any dislikes as well as thinking of questions they have about the poem. Were there any words they didn’t understand? What were these? Read the lines containing these words again to the children and see if they can use the context to work out the meaning of these unknown words, clarifying vocabulary if necessary.

Read the poem aloud again for a second time. What do they think the poem is about? How do they know? Underline words or phrases in the text that help them to work out the meaning of the poem.

After watching:

Now read the poem a third time, looking at the words as they listen. Tell the children they are now going to help you to ‘dig deeper’ -like Joe explains in the video, to work out more about what the poet is saying, and why he might have written the poem. Who do the children think the I is in the poem? Why do they think that? Who or what gives us clean air, mountains, pure snow, spring fountains etc.? Who is the You that the I is speaking to?

Look at how the poem is set out on the page. What do you think the poet has given the poem this title? What messages do you think the poet might be communicating through this poem? Why might he be doing this? Give time for the children to read the poem again for themselves or have it read aloud to them. Give them a range of art materials and some good quality cartridge paper and allow time for them to create art in response to the poem. Display the different interpretations around a copy of the poem.

Curriculum Notes

This short film will be relevant for teaching English at primary school.

More from Understanding Poetry with Joseph Coelho:

How to perform poetry
How to express yourself with poetry
How to have fun writing poetry
How to write poetry about your life
Playing with words
Do poems need to rhyme?
Poetry formats
Making pictures with words
How are music and poetry connected?