Thirty-Three Ways to Read a Poem

“As regards Dumfriesshire, whither both fame and notoriety had preceded the newcomer, the figure of a poetical farmer was rather an object of suspicious curiosity than of neighbourliness.”

Thus wrote Catherine Carswell of the poet Robert Burns when he took over the tenancy of Ellisland Farm near Dumfries in 1788. Fortunately, neighbourliness and hospitality were much more in evidence from the good people of Dumfries and Galloway when I went visiting them this week. First stop, on Tuesday, was the very attractive new Castle Douglas Primary School on Tuesday (I’m sure the heating in your lovely games hall will be working again soon!), to work with primary staff from across the region, before moving on the following day to contribute to the staff development day at Lockerbie Academy, where the secondary staff  and their primary colleagues had come together to discuss Literacy Across Learning, and to begin to lay the foundations for a cluster-wide approach to literacy, which will ensure that their pupils are well prepared to deal with the complexities of life in the 21st century. What impressed me most when talking to the cross-curricular literacy group was the willingness of the staff to get to grips with some very challenging issues, for the sake of the common goal of providing the best possible experience for every young person in their care. I thoroughly enjoyed both sessions and appreciated the very positive response to the workshops.

One promise I made – which is a pleasure to keep, as I think it demonstrates the fact that developing common reading strategies which apply to all media is the way forward – is this one. In Tuesday’s session, after some input from me on reading strategies, the staff were issued with a text which is fairly commonly used in upper primary or lower secondary schools – A Case of Murder by Vernon Scannell – and given the following task:

 “Rather than asking pupils to answer a set of questions on the poem, how many alternative lessons could you come up with, using the seven reading strategies, to develop and demonstrate an understanding of the poem and poetry in general?” 

The results, not surprisingly, were highly creative, rich and varied, so I have collated them (all 33 of them) below. Feel free to add more!

Thirty-Three Ways to Promote Close Reading of A Case of Murder by Vernon Scannell


  • Provide title and first line. Discuss what might follow.
  • Read up to ‘he loathed all that’. Write and/or discuss what might happen.
  • Provide title and last line. Predict what happens.
  • Read poem up to ‘under the stair’. Write possible ending before reading actual ending.

Asking Questions

  • Groups generate own questions which arise from the poem. Groups swap questions for further discussion.
  • Ask pupils to discuss what one single question they would ask each of the characters.
  • Use ‘surprises’ grid to list all the surprises which occur.

Making Comparisons

  • Talk about own ‘guilty secrets’ (could be risky!)
  • List the stories/characters in fiction this reminds you of.
  • Find other poems/stories with the same theme and compare against agreed criteria.

Looking for Patterns

  • List and count the words which are used more than once
  • Use Wordle ( to re-order the poem and pick out most significant words
  • Find all the rhyming words.
  • Use highlighter pens to highlight adjectives (descriptive words)

Making Pictures

  • Draw the cat. Draw the boy.
  • Storyboard the poem in 6 pictures.
  • Create cartoon version of the poem using online cartoon maker such as Comicbrush.
  • Draw character MindMaps for the boy and the cat.
  • Draw the murder scene.
  • Draw something to represent each of the emotions found in the poem. Discuss most appropriate colour for each.


  • Write the boy’s diary/blog entry for that day.
  • Issue the poem with the title removed. Ask pupils to write the best title. Discuss and compare with original.
  • Write the story of the poem in 6 words/50 words/140 characters
  • Write the newspaper headline as it might appear in the local paper.
  • Write the newspaper story.
  • Write the poem as a story in your own words.


  • Make a list of the excuses the boy might use for the cat’s disappearance.
  • Conduct the mock trial of the boy for his crime.
  • Write an alternative ending (in the style of the author?)
  • Stage mini-debate on the reasons for writing the poem.
  • Write the story from the cat’s point of view.


Finally, make a podcast or videocast of the poem. Rehearse and READ IT ALOUD with as much fluency, understanding and expression as possible!


Return to Islay

“I know only one thing about the technologies that await us in the future. We will find ways to tell stories with them.” – Jason Ohlar.

On Friday I had the pleasure to return to the beautiful isle of Islay to lead  a staff development day on Literacy with the staff of Islay High School and its associated primary schools. Like most of the profession in Scotland at the moment they are beginning to realise the significant implications of the  Curriculum for Excellence reforms, and are wrestling with some of the central issues, such as the notion of literacy development as the responsibility of all, and what that might look like in practical terms.

I hope I was able to demonstrate that the development of literacy is quite explicit in all of the curriculum frameworks, so in a sense there is no escaping that responsibility, no matter what sector you work in or what subject you teach, but the challenges for primary and secondary teachers are quite different, something which I will return to in another blog post. In the meantime, however, if people are to embrace that responsibility, the whole school community, including parents, must first come to a common understanding of what it is to be literate in 2010, what it might mean to be literate in 2020 and beyond, and to develop a common language around it. Here is an outline of my initial presentation to the staff – I would welcome your thoughts on it:

  • The definition of  ‘literacy’ in Curriculum for Excellence is “the set of skills which allows an individual to engage fully in society and in learning, through the different forms of language which society values and finds useful.” 
  • The Literacy framework recognises that the meaning of ‘text’ has to include the huge range of texts with which we engage on a daily basis, and that we should use a range of texts to reflect  this in our learning and teaching.
  • We live in a society where the image is becoming the dominant means of communication, and where once we used pictures to illustrate our written texts, increasingly we are using written text to illustrate the pictures.
  • Most of us engage with moving image texts more than any other form of text in any given day, so the development of literacy skills in young people should recognise that fact.
  • What links all of these texts is that they are all a form of narrative, so when we develop literacy skills in young people what we are developing is the set of skills which will enable them to engage critically with the range of narratives which are in the world, and to be able to construct their own effective narratives.
  • As teachers we also learn, and teach, through narratives, and the quality of the narrative will determine the effectiveness of the learning. To put it simply, there is a range of ways to tell a story, and we should use all the tools at our disposal to make it as good a story as possible, whether the story is a fictional one, or the story of Ohm’s Law, or the story of the First World War.

I would like to thank the staff on Islay for engaging so willingly and positively with some tough questions and activities, including subjecting themselves to a spelling test! You are in a very good place, literally and metaphorically,to show the rest of us how collaborative working is the only way we can make progress, how new technologies make it easier for us to share both ideas and information, and how the the new vision of the curriculum is much more dependent on the quality of the relationships in a community and not about mechanical processes. Slainte!

To see all the photographs from the event click here.