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Understanding Poetry Meter in the Classroom

By Linda M. Rhinehart Neas

Poetry has a rhythm. This rhythm or meter can be tapped, rapped or clapped out as the poem is read. Use percussion instruments to test students' understanding of meter. Who said testing could not be fun? This test will have students actively participating.

Finding the Rhythm

When teaching kids poetry, it is important to discuss the rhythm in poetry, which is called meter. Like a song, each poem has its own meter, which can be felt by the reader or speaker as they recite the poem. Each meter is made up of feet. The feet are how the syllables or stresses of the poem are arranged. For instance, most nursery rhymes are written in iambic metric feet. Say the following lines, tapping out the meter as your read:

Mary had a little lamb, (iambic tetrameter or four feet to the line)

its fleece was white as snow. (iambic trimeter or three feet to the line)

You can feel the "da-DAH, da-DAH, da-DAH, da-DAH" as you read. These are the "syllables" of the line. The "da" is unstressed and the "DAH" is stressed. Often you will find the feet of poems represented by dashes and slashes. An iambic foot would look like this -/.

Mnemonics

The ability to remember poetry comes from the use of mnemonic devices, such as the rhythm or meter of a poem. The word, mnemonic, actually has its roots in the name of the Greek goddess of memory, Mnemosyne.

The writer Samuel Taylor Coleridge actually wrote a mnemonic poem to help students remember the various types of metric feet in poetry.

Trochee trips from long to short. (Trochee = /-)

From long to long in solemn sort.

Slow Spondee stalks, strong foot!, yea ill-able. (Spondee = //)

Ever to keep up with Dactyl's trisyllable.. (Dactyl = /--)

Iambics march from short to long,.(Iambic = -/)

With a leap and a bound the swift Anapests throng..(Anapests = --/)

The "long" and "short" referred to in the poem are the same as the stressed and unstressed syllables mentioned above.

Interactive, and Fun!

Creating an interactive poetry meter quiz is actually easier than it seems. In addition, it is fun and challenging for students. Supplies needed for the quiz are limited to percussion instruments; however, they are not necessary, as students can tap or clap the meter of the poems.

A test handout with various stanzas of poems showing different metrical feet is attached here. Ask students to read the poems through silently, first. Then, ask students, one at a time, to play, tap or clap out the poem. Finally, have the class tap out a poem together. (HINT: It is very enjoyable for the students if the teacher can find a popular song to tap out. This not only shows that music is poetry, but also that poetry is music in that it has a beat!)

If the class is too large or the environment not conducive to students playing, tapping or clapping out meter, then a quiet alternative can be found online. Several sites offer interactive poetry meter quizzes, which teachers can have students utilize in order to test their knowledge on meter. While it may not be as much fun as playing, tapping or clapping, it is a convenient alternative.

Resources:

  • Cooney, Seamus, Interactive Quiz on Meter - http://unix.cc.wmich.edu/~cooneys/tchg/quiz/meter/q2/quiz.html
  • Web English Teacher - http://www.webenglishteacher.com/shakesonnets.html