I adore poetry. To me it can often be language at its most beautiful. Sadly a huge majority of students I have taught fail to share this sentiment.

Mention poetry? *groans*. Mention unseen poetry? *louder groans*. Of course this isn’t true of all students, but I think it is fair to say that a majority “dislike” it due to a fear which is the result of a lack of understanding. This is the reason why I think approaches to unseen poetry should be drip fed. In the past I’ve asked far too much of students, throwing them into an essay style question on unseen poetry without equipping them with the necessary tools to reduced their fear. This, in my opinion, is completely the wrong approach and I have adapted my teaching as a result.

So, here are a few approaches I have taken in order to build up their confidence:

  1. Pick a word from the poem and explore it in as much detail as you can.

In order to avoid overwhelming students with the whole poem I always start off by asking them to create a mind map of all ideas and associations they can come up with for just one word. The free choice makes it less intimidating and this task can easily be differentiated. I also find that, more often than not, students end up discussing their word and associations with the person sitting next to them. They then start to shape ideas and make links without even being prompted.

  1. Repeat the activity above with a phrase, line or technique from the poem.

This serves to further develop confidence and reduce fear of the poem. Although these ideas are simple, they can lead to some excellent analysis even before they have a cohesive understanding of the whole poem.

  1. Ask the students to create a mood board (or download one from my free resources here).

They then need to pick out words and phrases from the poem which match the mood in the box. This is best done in pairs to encourage discussion.

  1. Ask the students to play structure detective.

Structure is an element which can again intimidate students, so encourage no-pressure pair discussion using the following prompts:

  • Does the stanza contain a main idea? What is it?
  • Is there anything significant about the length of the lines?
  • Is there any rhyme or rhythm with the poem? Read it out loud to find out!


  1. Now that the students have had a chance to explore some elements of the poem, ask them to discuss the following questions. Again, a no-pressure think / pare / square approach often works well here.


  • What has the poem had you think, feel and imagine?
  • What effect does the poet’s use of language have on you?
  • Does the poem contain any imagery which you think is particularly effective?
  • What is interesting about the poem’s structure?


  1. Ask the students to come up with the title for the poem.

This deceptively simple task is one of my favourites. I remember covering Heaney’s “Digging” once and one of my students suggested it should be called “Digging for Memories” and argued a convincing case. I’ll never forget her smile when she found out how close she was! This task can encourage some great analysis and often the students don’t even realise they are doing it which is, in my opinion, one of the best kinds of leaning.

Ideas for approaching unseen poetry

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