Writing poetry improves reluctant readers' literacy skills

June 1, 2012

By Afi Scruggs

Download Story View Transcript
Flickr/Kevin H.
Participating in writing activities engages reluctant teens more than traditional reading.

On a warm Friday evening, Chiara and her friends are huddled over paper and computers. They aren’t distracted by the shouts and laughter drifting in from the playground behind them. These students are deep in their thoughts. As Chiara writes, the light bounces off her shiny grey tam and plays around the rhinestones decorating her dark blue blouse. At a table nearby, another girl rests her chin in her hand. A few seconds later, she, too, picks up a pencil. 

The students have come to the regular open mike at Lake Erie Ink, a nonprofit that promotes writing for young people. When it’s her turn, Chiara steps up confidently and begins her poem, “Fellow with a Cello.” She might only be 12 years old, but Chiara already considers herself a poet.

“Other than school work, I'm not that great at writing stories but apparently with poems, I'm quite good,” she says. “Last year, my English teachers started making us write limericks, and I got very into them so I started trying to write poems from them.”

16-year-old Patrick Warner doesn’t read his poetry; he’s memorized it.

“Dreams, some say it’s not what it seems. Others say you can be who you want to be. I’m just trying to be me...” As he continues, his words flow with the cadences of hip-hop and spoken word.

But ask Warner, Chiara, whether they read poems or any other kind of writing and they’re at a loss for words.

“I don’t know; I'm just not into reading, I guess,” Chiara says nonchalantly.

Arts educator Daniel Gray-Kontar thinks he knows why.

“When you try to teach young people by forcing them to be spectators, they're completely bored. And reading for them, is more a spectator sport,” he says.

Gary-Kontar is a hip-hop performer and a doctoral candidate at UC Berkeley. While he’s in Cleveland writing his dissertation, he's also teaching creative writing, media literacy and performance poetry to students throughout the city. He wonders if adults are asking the right questions.

“Often, if you ask young people if they like to read, they will tell you that they don't like to read. I get this quite frequently, when in fact, they do like to read,” he says. “It's just that, what they associate with reading is the act of picking up a book, or a magazine which for them is, quite frankly, it's outdated. And the reason they don't like it is because it's just boring; it’s just not engaging.”

Writing poetry and performing it, on the other hand, gives kids an audience and purpose. That’s not surprising for kids growing up in a social media world, where young people are writing - and reading - details of their lives through status updates and tweets.

It is challenging adjustment for educators, says Kevin Leander of Vanderbilt University. He’s one of the country’s leading adolescent literacy experts.

“Kids do a lot of reading and writing in everyday social media," he says. "Part of what we’re trying to figure out is how to tap into those practices that are already developed.”

Teachers in many classrooms around the country are using iPads and digital technology to engage students.

But writing lead Warner to books. He says the reading he has done has changed his outlook on life.

"All the good authors read a lot of good books, you know, build their vocabulary, you know. So it really helps your writing. It helps how you tell stories,” he says. “Reading has taught me that writing is powerful and it's a real thing and words are a powerful weapon.”

That's an insight adults might want to reward.