Thursday, 22 November 2012

Should we teach rhyme and rhythm?

I expect that I am going to get pilloried for this, by the four people who read this blog (hello mum!), but it is something that has been troubling me for years.  The situation is this: several lessons spent exploring rhyme and rhythm is exciting, ground-breaking ways:  borrowing drums from the music department to patter out a bit of dactylic tetrameter, or whatever; having students scurry around with letters to identify rhyme schemes; students marching around the room to iambic pentameter.  All of this just to get the basic premise in their head.

You then spend time applying it – identifying what effect the various schemes have.  And this is where it all goes wrong.  You tell them that iambic pentameter was used by Shakespeare as it is the closest approximation to normal speech patterns.  You tell them that it echoes the sound of a heartbeat, which links with the tension in Romeo and Juliet.  You tell them that the rhythm of ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ was designed by Tennyson to echo the sound of horses’ hooves.  And all the time, the part of your brain still devoted to your subject is screaming ‘but this is bullshit!’ at the top of its interior voice. 

At an academic level these things can be, and are discussed.  But they are discussed at a complex level – that is their nature.  It is hard to say anything clever about rhythm when you are a C grade GCSE student, and yet we try to foist it on them, believing it to be the only way to get them thinking about that most mysterious spectre-on-the-markscheme: structure.  Trouble is, they invariably write absolute bobbins about rhyme and rhythm.  They spend half the task time on diligently writing ‘ABABCDCD’ next to the lines of the poem, and writing in their essay ‘this poem is written in couplets, which makes it sound like a song’.  No marks for that, fella.  They may approach something approximating insight: ‘Tennyson makes the rhythm sound like horses to make us feel like we are there’, but this is still pretty poor stuff, especially when their work on language is often so detailed and clever.  The contrast can be upsetting.  And it’s our fault.

This over-teaching of rhyme and rhythm is totally unnecessary.  By all means, make them aware of it – do the exciting, kinaesthetic lessons.  Just don’t expect them to analyse these techniques convincingly, especially in your average group.  To get them engaging with structure,  focus on the order of events and key words at the beginning and end of lines.  Caesura and enjambment can be analysed effectively by almost all students, so encourage that.  Discourage slavish identification of rhyme schemes and rhythms, and any attempt to make a bland statement about their use.  They won’t get any marks in the exam, but crucially, wouldn’t be of any use anywhere else either.


  • ·         Rhythm and rhyme can be great fun to teach, but often pay back very little in return.
  • ·         Even the brightest students tend to write obvious and fairly empty comments about them.
  • ·         There are possible ways to engage them with structure:

o   Narrative/event ordering
o   Words in obviously prominent positions
o   Caesura and enjambment
  • ·         Probably time for a cup of tea and a biscuit.

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