2002 Conference Proceedings

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Caroline Ramsey Musselwhite
Special Communications
916 West Castillo Drive
Litchfield Park, AZ 85340
Phone: 623-935-4656


Poetry can be used to support children emotionally, to inspire them, to bring them joy . . . and to help them be successful speakers, readers, and writers. All of these purposes can be incredibly powerful for students who use augmentative and alternative communication (AAC), whether through light tech (e.g., eye gaze), communication devices, and/or computers.

Poetry for Language: Poetry can be a scaffold for language learning, such as:
• poetry performance can be a great vehicle for device use at many levels
• poetry writing can provide a motivating context for learning or practicing vocabulary, icon sequences, location of vocabulary on a device, and other skills

Poetry for Literacy: Poetry can be a springboard for supporting literacy learning. For example:
• listening to poetry can support phonemic awareness
• poems can help children explore onsets and rimes
• the rhythm, rhyme, repetition, and predictability found in many poems makes them accessible to early readers
• choral reading of familiar poems can enhance reading fluency
• poetry is an excellent vehicle for emergent writing, especially for children with limited vocabulary
• poetry helps students think about voice and word choice in their writing

Poetry for Life: At the highest levels, poetry helps students express who they are, a possibility that is especially empowering for students who are nonspeaking.

Poetry Features Many poems have inherent features that make them delightful for children, and excellent vehicles of emergent literacy and AAC learning. These features can also make poetry especially accessible for students with disabilities:

• Rhythm: Poetry offers endless opportunities to introduce students to various types of rhythm. This rhythm may be repeated verse by verse, such as Lewis Carroll's "Jabberwocky."
• Rhyme: It is no longer considered obligatory that a poem have rhyming to be considered a "real" poem. However, as with storytelling, rhyming can help children feel more "connected" to the poem, and can help with emergent literacy skills. Children who are developing language may begin to organize words on the basis of sound similarities as soon as they begin to talk (Bradley, 1988). Bradley (1988) cites studies indicating that the origins of phonological awareness lie in the early word play of children.
• Repeated Lines, Phrases, or Words: Repetition can help children with special needs be a part of the action. Many poems offer one or more repeated lines or phrases.
• Alliteration: Young children enjoy listening to and exploring alliteration, and it serves the educational purpose of putting phonemes "on display." For example, e. e. cummings offers us "maggie and milly and molly and may."

Poetry, Literacy, and AAC - Learning Opportunities

A range of issues are important to interventionists: (1) Guidelines - choosing poetry to promote classroom or individual goals; (2) Listening To Poetry - an important element, with a range of listening approaches and objectives covered; (3) Poetry Exploration - experiencing poetry related to thematic materials or specific poets; (4) Poetry Performance - ". . . a method of learning which uses theatrical techniques to enhance the study of poetry. Using poems as scripts and working primarily in small performance teams, students read, discuss, direct, and dramatize poetry" (Wolf, 1990, p. 3); (5) Responding To Poetry - oral, written, or other forms of response to the ideas and feelings evoked through poetry.


Accommodations may be necessary for successful poetry performance for students with a variety of special needs. Following are some sample adaptations:

Student Needs Help With Timing of Poetry Performance: Many individuals will initially need help in timing their lines so that they "flow" with the poem. For example, students at the emergent literacy level, students with attention deficit disorders, or students with cognitive delays may need prompting.

Student is at the Emergent Literacy Level: For students who do not read independently, props and other visual prompts may help them to participate more fully in poetry performances. For example, symbols or drawings (by adults or children) may be placed in a pocket chart or adhered to a flannelboard or velcro display to represent words, phrases, or poem lines. These materials may be used as reminders to help students memorize their lines, or may be used as a visual cue for timing of poetry performance. Use of color-coding can be another aid to help student's determine who goes next.

Student Is Non Speaking: Use a speech output device, or the speech output of a computer. Sample displays will be shown and described.


A number of poetry forms / structures will be suggested that are especially appropriate for use with students having disabilities (Musselwhite & Wagner, 2001). Samples are presented below:

List Poems
This is the simplest of slot-filler poems. Samples are:

Location: Shells on the beach / in my hand / in the sky / beside the bed Description: Rocks are sharp and bright and big and cool. Actions: I will run / dance / sing / glide / slide at the beach. Issues for Students with Limited Vocabulary: this is a high-success format, and can easily be scaffolded by using word banks, etc.

A number of other poetry forms will be discussed and demonstrated, including:
• Poetry Parody / Innovations
• Wordsmithing (3 word sets, Add-a-Word, Hyphenated Images, Odd Combos, Acrostics) (Denman, 1988)
• Poetry Construction (e.g., word scramble, I love / hate format)
• Language Arts Cinquain
• Poetry Starters (Wishes, Lies, Dreams)
• Comparison Poems (I Used to Be / But Now; I Seem to Be / But Really) (Koch, 1970)
• 3 x 3's
• Asian Poetic Forms (Lunes, Haiku, A Lai, etc.)


Poetry can be used to support children emotionally, to inspire them, to bring them joy . . . and to help them be successful readers and writers. This workshop will explore uses of poetry to support communication, reading, and writing.


Denman, G. (1988). When You've Made It Your Own. . . Teaching poetry to young people. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann. ISBN: 0-435-08462-3

Koch, K. (1970). Wishes, Lies, and Dreams: Teaching children to write poetry. New York: Harper Perennial. ISBN: 0-06-095509-0.

Musselwhite, C. & King-DeBaun, P. (1997). Emergent Literacy Success: Merging whole language and technology. Southeast Augmentative Communicative Conference / Creative Communicating. ISBN: 0-9628290-1-3.

Musselwhite, C. & Wagner, D. (2001). Poetry Power! Jump-Starting Language, Literacy, and Life! Special Communications, 916 West Castillo Drive, Litchfield Park, AZ 85340.

Wolf, A. (1993). It's Show Time! Poetry from the page to the stage. Asheville, NC: Poetry Alive! Productions. ISBN: 1-883731-00-3.

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