Teachers - College of Social Sciences and International Studies

Ways with Words:
Teachers’ Beliefs and Pedagogical
Practices in the use of
Metalanguage to teach poetry
Anthony Wilson and Debra Myhill
University of Exeter
Background to the study
• Many teachers avoid teaching the writing of poetry and in secondary
(high-school) classrooms; it is more likely to be taught as part of the
reading curriculum than the writing curriculum.
• Teachers in England have been encouraged to develop students’
metalinguistic understanding through explicit teaching of grammar.
• With the teaching of poetry in particular, however, the metalanguage
includes both linguistic metalanguage (eg verbs, clauses, subjects) and
literary metalanguage (eg metaphors, caesura, enjambement).
Writing Poetry
• Writing poetry is a process ‘in which every line, every phrase, may pass the
ordeal of deliberation and deliberate choice’ (Coleridge, 1817:485).
• To make discriminating choices as a writer requires linguistic and
metalinguistic competence.
• This paper demonstrates how teachers’ pedagogical beliefs and practices
about the value of metalanguage in the teaching of poetry is ambivalent
and at times contradictory.
The research question
How do teachers think about literary and linguistic metalanguage in the
teaching of poetry?
How do teachers define the purpose of using literary and linguistic
metalanguage in the teaching of poetry?
Do teachers differentiate between literary and linguistic and
metalanguage in the teaching of poetry?
Theorising Metalinguistics
• Metalinguistic thinking is a part of the wider field of metacognition.
• Metacognition is a noun; but metalinguistic is an adjective, calling for a
following noun: metalinguistic awareness; understanding; knowledge…
(Gombert 1992)
• The ability ‘to take language as the object of observation and the referent
of discourse’ (Camps and Milian1999:6),
• ‘The ability to objectify language and dissect it as an arbitrary linguistic
code independent of meaning’ Roth et al (1996:258).
Metalinguistic knowledge
• Explicit metalinguistic knowledge is defined as ‘knowledge that can
identify and account for connections and distinctions between different
examples of usage, enhance reading and improve writing’ (QCA 1998:20).
• The goal of acquiring such metalinguistic knowledge is to develop a
repertoire of tools for writing: the ability ‘to control and manipulate the
material at hand’ is more significant than the ability ‘to describe a
linguistic feature using grammatical term inology’ (Van Lier 1998:136).
• In classrooms this is supported by the use of metalanguage (e.g.
grammatical and literary terms).
• Metalinguistic discussion can occur without the use of metalanguage.
• RCT investigating the impact of contextualised grammar on students’ writing
• 32 schools from the South-West and the Midlands of England
• One class of 12 year olds in each school as the student sample (n = 855)
• 32 focus students (one per school, stratified by gender)
• 32 participating teachers (one per school)
• 3 schemes of work focusing on writing narrative, argument and poetry
• Intervention group had detailed teaching materials which embedded
grammar purposefully within the teaching
• 32 interviews with teachers about their beliefs and practices in teaching
• 32 lesson observations of poetry writing lessons
• 32 interviews with students about their thinking about writing poetry.
• Open and axial coding using NViVo
• Teachers use literary metalanguage freely when talking about poetry
• There is a lack of confidence or awareness of the possibilities of
addressing linguistic metalanguage in poetry
• Perception that linguistic metalanguage (grammar) imposes rules on
poetry writing
The willingness of teachers to use literary metalanguage freely when talking
about poetry
We teach them from quite an early stage about the importance of focusing on
key words and their effect on the reader, so it comes down to having a technical
vocabulary. I would expect to teach metaphor and simile, and to look at why
they’re effective.
You can show students how to recognise how the poet has crafted his work and
how he’s done it though word choice, punctuation, how you know there’s
repetition for effect, alliteration, can’t remember if I said that, onomatopoeia
all of those things, so you can point those things out if that’s what teaching
poetry is.
The relatively limited repertoire of literary metalanguage used
Iambic pentameter
The Schemes of Work explicitly
addressed enjambement,
caesura, personification and
Some teachers express uncertainty with literary metalanguage
My biggest struggle with poetry is kind of like metre and rhythm
One of the things that I’d really have to go over is…iambic pentameter
I feel less confident at what I would consider to be, maybe the more technical
poetry, things like enjambment…I can teach what it is…but I find it difficult to
explain how they should use it
I worry about the fact that, in some respects, I worry about the terminology
and getting it right and, is this the right terminology…I sort of get het up on all
the kind of terminology, and trying to get that over because, that’s what I
always worried about when I was at uni
Some express concern that literary metalanguage is used without links to
The creativity with poetry…is always a hard balance because if you want
them to be successful with language…how far do they need to know the
I have done work with them on creating metaphors and similes and
onomatopoeia…I think I’ve always found teaching poetry… by doing it that
way, I find it slightly stifling to creativity.
They’ve either got it or they haven’t…and although you can teach them
certain techniques, you just can’t teach creativity…you can prompt it, but I
don’t know if you can teach it.
When I was teaching personification…I really wanted them not to see it as an
effect…I talked about the definition of it at the beginning but I wanted them
to see it in the context of a poem, and appreciate the effect it had, not ‘this is
a personification poem’.
Some teachers display a ‘formulaic’ attitude to literary metalanguage
We used to use ‘The Highwayman’…and it was great for teaching
onomatopoeia, metaphor, simile, blah blah blah, metaphor.
I told them…they had to use the techniques that we’d…explored in the poetry so
I wanted them to use imagery and I wanted metaphor in there and I wanted
simile and personification.
Very descriptive or…long words and it’s got to…have caesura in it
and…enjambement and it’s got to have metaphor, somewhere it’s got to have a
Lack of confidence or lack of awareness of the possibilities addressing
linguistic metalanguage in poetry
I’ve never usually done it for poetry apart from obviously say add in
adjectives and things like that for the poetry.
[I’ve looked at] the imagery and the different techniques…that have been
used … I’ve not gone into the line order and the noun phrases because I don’t
really…understand them. Normally I would have been quite confident with
doing poetry.
I suppose I never really thought about sentence level as much in poetry
because…it’s almost there isn’t it.
You wouldn’t teach [punctuation] in the same way that you would
teach…sentence patterns in writing to argue…because if they didn’t have any
punctuation in it, you wouldn’t necessarily say that’s a bad thing.
Rejection of linguistic metalanguage because it imposes rules – poetry
gives freedom from rules
I think it’s important to know the order in which things come usually, so
that when you’re writing a poem, you can break out of those rules, and
when you’re writing a creative story, you can break out of those rules, and
make different word and sentence choices
I think in lots of things, in the teaching of English, probably from primary
school up to since the Strategy’s been there, has worked against, kind of
real freedom of expression because they’ve been taught a lot of rules and
they associate the subject with a lot more rules than perhaps it was when I
was at school.
What I wanted them to learn, I think, it was all about just the variety and
the fact that they can have that freedom to create things themselves and
not to just be rigid in their selection and to follow a formula
Subject Knowledge Issues
Maybe it’s more to do with the fact that I feel more confident teaching
those [literary metalanguage], or that they’re more accepted, and so there
are different resources that I can use to teach those than actually breaking
it down to a word, or like a metaphor can be like an extended piece of
writing can contain metaphors and similes we’re not looking at an isolated
I: So what for you is the difference between the terminology of caesura
and enjambment as specialist meta language and grammatical meta
A: Because I’m more secure with that than I am with my grammar…I
can teach caesura and enjambement much better than I can subordinate
clause and complex sentence
Preliminary Conclusions
Is the apparent preference for using literary metalanguage over linguistic
metalanguage an indication of a crisis of confidence
• In terms of subject knowledge?
• In terms of understanding the purpose and value of linguistic
Why do teachers appear not to see the connection between poetry and
linguistic metalanguage?
Is the apparent preference for using literary metalanguage an indication of
a lack of trust in linguistic metalanguage?
In spite of the potential for using metalanguage in teaching poetry reading
and writing, do teachers unconsciously describe poetry as a ‘grammarfree’ zone?
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