How does critical thinking advance through the reading of poetry? How do these two seemingly different skills depend on one another? Simply put: the act of reading poetry develops critical thinking and reading skills in all students, no matter their reading competency.

Reading poetry is difficult. Students who are fast and competent readers often struggle with reading poetry. Why? What is it about poetry that stumps students? And why should reading poetry matter? Poetry demands attention–a hyper-focus, an understanding of punctuation, an ear for the rhythm of words, and a willingness to take time while reading it. This kind of reading is a challenge for students, and even for adults, today. In an age of fast-changing status updates, instant soundbite news, and SnapChat stories, the way we read is changing rapidly. Students are becoming new ‘readers’, or as scholars at University College London term it, students are committing the act of the ‘power browse’–bouncing down a text, hitting the highlights, or surface skimming the text.

Skimming or even browsing is not a new phenomenon. Experienced readers and scholars skim text every day. Many who teach or those who read large portions of texts daily, either literature, long form journalism, lab reports, research studies, legal briefs, or journal articles, have had to learn fairly quickly how to ‘power browse.’ Success in this type of reading is dependent on a knowledge base which many draw on while reading. They are able to fill in the gaps of this skimming with experience with the vocabulary, the subject, the larger argument, or the writing style/previous work of the author. However, students have not yet developed their own knowledge base–that process is still happening. Therefore, when they try to ‘power browse,’ they lose essential parts of the text, often the deeper meaning.

This loss is apparent when reading poetry. Students will try to skim through a poem, reading quickly and trying to capture the meaning of a poem with barely a look. However, it becomes very clear to students that even in a poem of only two lines such as Ezra Pound’s “In the Station of the Metro”–a condensed packed image of despair and loneliness in a modern world–that trying decipher the meaning of that poem is no easy feat. Even at only two lines, skimming this poem will not work. This poem, just like all poetry, requires the reader to be careful, to think about each individual word, its relationship to the words around it, and the multitude of meanings each word can hold. A poem must be read many times–aloud, to a listener, even inside one’s head; and good poems must be read again and again at various times of the day, or at different stages in one’s life because one’s experiences and understanding of the world around them–again, that knowledge base–often influence perception and meaning. Bad poems, on the other hand, also contain good lessons for young poetry readers. Reading to see how a poem does not work, how the lines and words can fail to craft a visual in the reader’s mind, or how the words can miss the mark in creating a sound for the reader’s ear can also help a young reader and writer craft better poems of their own. Once a reader has read the poem literally, only then can a reader begin to piece together a second and third level reading, digging deep into the figurative meaning of a poem.

Here at Morgan Park Academy, our students read poetry for these very reasons: to build their critical reading and thinking skills. Students in Lower, Middle, and Upper School are exposed to different types of poetry from Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming, to the verse of the Bhagavad Gita, to the poetic soliloquies in William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, to Langston Hughes’ Harlem, to the work of American Transcendentalists Ralph Waldo Emerson and Edgar Allan Poe. From these repeated exposures to poetry throughout their education, students begin to develop close reading skills and improve critical thinking.

In the celebration of National Poetry Month in April, students will immerse themselves in reading and analyzing poetry as well as creative and critical writing. Thus, by the end of the month, students will have practiced and improved their skills as critical readers, writers, and thinkers while deepening their knowledge base, allowing them to make critical textual connections, to construct more in-depth analysis, and to increase their own understanding of the texts they read. As this knowledge base continues to grow and the muscles of critical thinking, reading, and writing are flexed, students will be able to apply these skills to longer texts, allowing them to ‘power browse’ with ease and understanding.

By Sandra Burgess

Ms. Burgess teaches Middle School English.