In Defense of Close Reading with Robert Frost

The following guest post, part of our “Teacher’s Corner” series, is by Rebecca Newland, a Fairfax County Public Schools Librarian and former Teacher in Residence at the Library of Congress.

[Robert Frost, half-length portrait, seated, facing left] / World-Telegram photo by F. Palumbo, 1941.

[Robert Frost, half-length portrait, seated, facing left] / World-Telegram photo by F. Palumbo, 1941.

Some of my favorite poems are those I shared with students year after year. These are poems I know as friends through making a personal connection to themes or perceived messages. Additionally, some of my favorites, like Sonnet 116 by William Shakespeare, or “Trickle Drops” by Walt Whitman, I prize because of the way the author uses language and structure to draw me in. I also appreciate them for the way they engage students and prompt discussion and deep thinking. Each year, in each class a new layer to the poem would be revealed because I was different as I read and because each individual student had a different reading experience. I believe a personal connection with a work of literature can be fostered with our students through close reading.

Sometimes I write here about teachers and librarians engaging students with poetry by reading, writing, and listening without the need for explication or formal literary analysis. But I would not be true to my philosophy about the benefits of close reading if I did not also encourage and offer suggestions for guiding students to interact deeply with the language, structure, and poetic devices of poems.

From my every day interactions with teenagers in grades 9-12, I know that critical thinking must be practiced and honed in order to support students in becoming thinkers, creators, and problem solvers.

I recommend beginning with short works such as “Fire and Ice” or “Nothing Gold Can Stay” by Robert Frost. Begin by reading the poem aloud more than once giving students the opportunity to hear the words. Next, students can access the poem visually with an individual copy or through projection. Give students time to record thoughts and impressions perhaps by highlighting thought-provoking passages and ideas. Then, move to a close reading of the poem, asking students to investigate structure, word choice, and poetic language. You might ask:

  • Does the poem have a pattern of rhyme?
  • What effect do the punctuation and line breaks have on the reading experience?
  • Identify uses of simile, metaphor, symbolism, or other poetic devices.
  • What do you think the author is trying to convey with the poem?

When the time is right, challenge students with something longer like Frost’s “The Road Not Taken.” Follow the same method as above by beginning with listening and reading, saving analysis for after students have been offered the opportunity to make a personal connection. Engage students with small group or class discussion of the poem’s content and effect before returning for a close reading, followed by asking students to think critically about the poems.

Once students are comfortable with the process the following may fuel exciting discussion:

  • Did the author use that metaphor, simile, symbol on purpose? The teacher can ask students to reflect on the question by eliciting their views and follow by asking: If these devices are purposeful, why? What might the poet have been trying to convey through the use of poetic language?
  • What about Robert Frost’s poetry makes us keep reading him while others are more obscure?

When students have these sorts of insightful questions, teachers and librarians have the opportunity to talk about writing poetry as well as reading it.

How do you engage your students with analyzing poetry?

2 Comments

  1. Donna
    November 21, 2018 at 2:36 pm

    I thoroughly agree with everything you say, fellow English teacher! I use a method I learned in a poetics class called “grammatical normalization.” You normalize the grammar of a sentence of group of words in a poem that could form a sentence by placing the words in normal subject, very, predicate order with adjectives and adverbs modifying the words the student thinks they should modify. The student can also restore any missing words. This really teaches students how poetry is “badly written prose,” as my professor would facetiously (of course!) say in class. It also shows the economy and sometimes ambiguous nature of poetry and makes them pay close attention to punctuation. Thank you for your input!!

  2. Norma J. Canham
    June 19, 2019 at 9:50 am

    Suggestion: Read John Ciardi’s “How Does a Poem Mean,” a lively and refreshing example of close reading.

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