Poetry Festivals and Language Fairs

Apr 18, 2024 | Posted by the IEW Blog Team

April’s theme of “Furnishing the Mind with Poetry” reminds me of my teaching days at Parker Whitney Elementary School in Rocklin, California, and our annual Oral Language Fairs. The events began in our classrooms. Students in grades four, five, and six each chose a poem to memorize and recite. After weeks of preparation and individual classroom recitals to select students to represent their grade level, the culmination was an evening performance in the high school auditorium in front of classmates, families, teachers, and other guests. The recitations were judged, and trophies were presented. Students had the opportunity to shine. Poetry festivals and oral language fairs are excellent ways to not only celebrate poetry in your home, classroom, school, or school district but also to showcase the many benefits of poetry memorization publically. 

Parents and teachers who are familiar with IEW’s methods and materials have likely heard Andrew Pudewa speak of the necessity and importance of memorized poetry in “building a large database in [the] brain of reliably correct and sophisticated language patterns.” In his introduction to Linguistic Development through Poetry Memorization, Andrew describes the power of poetry memorization.

  • Memorization is natural for young children, culturally powerful, and educationally essential.
  • Poems are remembered easily, rich in meaning, sophisticated in vocabulary, and solid in structure.
  • Learning poetry “by heart” not only strengthens the mind, it also strengthens the heart and spirit of the child.
  • Memorizing poetry captures a child’s interest at a young age and prepares him or her to appreciate more serious and meaningful poems in later years.
  • Memorization is the most complete form of internalization. The best way to intimately know something is to know it so well you can communicate it effectively, fluently, and even artistically to another.
  • Memorization and artistic recitation of poetry require a certain level of perfection, which only conscientious effort and consistency can bring.
  • By internalizing the best of poetry, we preserve and nurture the best of ourselves. 

Poetry festivals can take place on a small scale in a classroom, grade-level group, family, or co-op group. They can be medium-sized events for a traditional school, independent study charter school, or local homeschool group. Larger events sponsored by school districts, county boards of education, or county homeschool organizations are also popular. In many communities oral language festivals are sponsored by libraries and civic organizations. There are numerous national and international events, such as Poetry Out Loud, Poem in Your Pocket Day (during National Poetry Month), and even a National Baseball Poetry Festival in Worcester, Massachusetts, the hometown of Ernest Thayer, author of “Casey at the Bat.” 

Typically, poetry festivals have a theme. At my school, fourth graders memorized humorous poems, fifth graders chose poetry about American history, and sixth graders recited poetry about nature and the living world. The Kern County Schools in Bakersfield, California, host an annual oral language festival, where students memorize and present their interpretation of published literary works written by known authors in categories such as Interpretation Serious-Solo, Interpretation Humorous-Solo, Interpretation Serious-Duo, Interpretation Humorous-Duo, and Voice Choir (three to six students). The festival’s rules provide guidelines for presentations and appropriate content. The students compete first at the school level with the winners moving on to regional competitions. The regional finalists in each category advance to the county competition. 

How are the students’ presentations judged or evaluated in poetry recitals and competitions? The age of the students will determine the appropriate criteria, but typically, students are evaluated on their physical presence (good posture, eye contact, and poise), voice and articulation (volume, pace, rhythm, intonation, and proper pronunciation), and accuracy. Each student’s interpretation and understanding of the poem can also be evaluated. 

With younger children and schools implementing poetry festivals for the first time, it isn’t required to have judges or awards. In Linguistic Development through Poetry Memorization, for example, students receive a certificate when they complete each level. The goal is to encourage a love of poetry and confidence in your students rather than competition. However, just as some students excel in math, sports, music, or art, other students will discover a dramatic or comedic talent for reciting poetry. 

To encourage you to celebrate poetry in your home or classroom and to inspire you to launch your own poetry festival, we invite you to check out these resources.

Over time as your students add to their poetry memory banks, they are building a richer, more sophisticated vocabulary. Best of all, to quote Andrew Pudewa, “If children grow up laughing and loving poems, they are much more likely to mature into adults who can pursue and enjoy the classics. Children need broad experience with funny, enjoyable, and dramatic poems so that they can later plumb the minds and hearts of the masters.” 

by Jean Nichols

Live Chat with IEW