Our participants were from middle- to upper-middle class backgrounds and attended two private schools. Both of these schools had an explicit, detailed poetry curriculum and extremely low student attrition rates so that almost all students had experienced the prescribed curriculum. We asked students in Grades 4, 8 and 12 at these schools to “think aloud” as they read poem-shaped and prose-shaped texts.
The 12th Graders spent significantly longer processing the texts in poetic form than prose, thinking aloud about their expectations, and observing textual devices associated with the genre of poetry. For instance, they talked about the poems as expressing a significant attitude to some issue related to the human condition, and as involving multiple meanings and metaphoric content. These older students paid attention not only to what the poem was saying, but how the author was saying it; how the subject matter is amplified by the sounds, the contrasts, and other textual devices.
The responses of both the Grade 8 and the Grade 4 students, however, were most surprising: The 8th Graders had experienced more than four years of a poetry curriculum, yet, even after these years of literary training, they read the poem-shaped texts no differently from the prose versions. They spent no longer processing the literary texts, and these texts did not appear to trigger any expectations about the reading of literature or provoke any feelings or thoughts about the role of textual devices.
The responses of children at the beginning of Grade 4 were even more surprising. Although these children had not yet begun formal poetry instruction, they had had many informal experiences with poetic texts both at home and at school. However, they did not even appear to categorize a poem as a poem. Some of them even referred to the poems as prose extracts, such as a “paragraph.” For instance, when reading the poem, “Like they say,” by Robert Creeley, a poem of 29 words graphically portrayed in 8 lines divided into four separate stanzas, one young student thought aloud, “it’s a nice kind of little paragraph, and you can tell a lot about this thing, this story.” These students did not seem to have a conscious representation of a text in poetic form, as a “poem.”
The students were also asked to rate each text in terms of enjoyment, emotion engendered, imagery, and challenge, and a similar developmental pattern emerged. Grade 12 students rated their enjoyment of the poems higher than the prose versions and also rated the poetic texts higher on emotion and imagery. Their positive personal responses to the poetic texts may have been a result of their greater understanding of the culturally attuned conventions and their aesthetic appreciation of the textual devices. On the other hand the Grade 8 students rated the texts in poetic format no higher on any of the measures, and the children in Grade 4 not only did not rate the poems any higher than the prose versions, but, in terms of emotion engendered, actually rated the prose versions higher than the poetic counterparts.
As James Gee (2001) noted, the development of literary competence appears to be tied up with the acquisition of societal practices through enculturation. Developing the structure of knowledge needed for poetic literacy seems to require a long process of formal literary education.
Gee, J. P. (2001). Literacy, discourse, and linguistics: Introduction and what is literacy? In E. Cushman, E. R. Kintgen, B. M. Kroll & M. Rose (Eds.), Literacy: A critical sourcebook (pp. 525-544). Boston: Bedford.
Peskin, J (in press). The development of poetic literacy through the school years. Discourse Processes.
Peskin, J. (2007). The genre of poetry: Secondary school students’ conventional expectations and interpretive operations. English in Education, 41, 20-36.