Getting comfortable with unseen poetry

Getting comfortable with unseen poetry


Of all the different forms of writing that we study in English, poetry often seems to be the one with which students feel the least comfortable.  The fact that it simply doesn’t look like prose creates an instant barrier.  It’s unsurprising then that young people find the requirement to explore an unseen poem in the exam particularly daunting.  With this in mind, it’s important that we consider different strategies that we can use to help our students be more comfortable and successful when analysing unseen poetry.

Familiarity with poetry

I think it’s a good idea, well before we start teaching the poems on the GCSE specification, to get our classes used to poetry.  It’s important to do this in a non-threatening way: just reading and talking about poems, rather than answering specific questions and seeing it as exam preparation.

I like to create a bank of accessible poems to drip-feed to my students over the year.  One of my favourite books for this is ‘Short and Sweet’, edited by Simon Armitage, a collection of 101 poems that are no more than thirteen lines long.  I also add in song lyrics now and again; ‘Obsession’ by Siouxsie and the Banshees worked particularly well and was a fun throwback to my youth.  I give my students one of these poems once a fortnight for their homework, asking them simply to decide what it’s about and highlight one line that they think is good so we can discuss it – first in pairs then as a class – for about fifteen minutes.

Stories and evidence

By the time I start teaching how to approach unseen poetry, most of my students are feeling a little less resistant to the form.  The complaint I’ve heard most often over the years is, ‘But I don’t get what it’s about’, so I alternate between poems where I tell them the ‘story’ and slightly easier poems where I ask them to work it out for themselves.

I don’t mind what they come up with as long as they can evidence it.  We usually highlight lines that support our idea in one colour and lines that might contradict our idea in another colour.  This allows us to work out whether an interpretation is valid as well as how alternative interpretations can be presented.  This is also a good point to talk about tone so it’s important to select a range of poems that allow students to explore happiness, grief, desire, heartbreak, self-doubt, anger, etc.  If you’re ever struggling to find engaging poems to study, the Snap Revision Guide to Unseen Poetry has lots of great suggestions.


With the class hopefully feeling more confident about analysing a poem, I now turn their attention to language.  Using our highlighted lines, we do the typical exploration of words and images, making sure they refer to all those techniques like metaphor, simile, and personification.  But I also ask them to consider what their most significant lines are: ones which have both a clear link to what the poem is ‘about’ and lots of interesting language.  This goes some way to avoiding the scenario where students are constantly just commenting on adjectives.

Sound, structure, and form

I’m a big believer in avoiding empty analysis.  Only once they’ve established meaning through language will I ask my students to start considering the different ways in which that meaning is emphasised.  Lots of fun can be had with sound effects like alliteration, onomatopoeia, and plosives.  I also like to get the class to try to write something with an iambic rhythm to show them how well-crafted a lot of these poems actually are; it can get the point across, and create some laughs, by asking those with polysyllabic names to say their name aloud but with the stress in the wrong place.  Again, to build up their confidence with form, it’s good to expose the class to a range of examples: sonnets (Shakespeare – tried and tested!), dramatic monologues (such as Vicki Feaver’s ‘Girl In Red’), duologues (my favourites is ‘In The Orchard’ by Muriel Stuart), villanelles (‘Twerk Villanelle’ by Porsha Olayiwola is a good modern use of the form), elegies (Ben Jonson’s ‘On My First Sonne’ is beautifully moving), etc.

I know plenty of teachers that lack a bit of confidence when it comes to poetry.  If you’re one of them, don’t feel embarrassed and don’t feel afraid.  Just start immersing yourself in poetry and thinking about the ideas above, then encourage your students to do the same.

Snap Revision: Unseen PoetryIan Kirby has been teaching English for over twenty years.  He is a senior tutor and key stage 5 co-ordinator at a school in Northamptonshire. He is also the author of a number of English textbooks and revision guides, including the popular Snap Revision series.

Snap Revision is a series of bestselling text guides and workbooks for GCSE English. Plus, new editions now include video support for the most popular AQA set texts accessed via QR codes.