Promoting Oracy through Poetry

24 January, 2024

Photo of Charlotte BourneCharlotte Bourne, Head of Learning and Engagement at Poetry By Heart looks at the relationship between poetry and oracy and explores how learning a poem by heart and performing it can help young people develop the oracy skills they need to thrive in school and beyond.

Charlotte is a qualified English teacher, examiner, and has a Masters in Education. Before joining Poetry By Heart, she worked as Deputy Head of Learning at Shakespeare’s Globe, and before that was Training Lead at a large Multi Academy Trust. 

Poetry exists to be shared aloud

‘So much schooltime is spent analysing poetry, dismantling it as though it were a car and its parts needed to be revealed. This process can dominate the school curriculum so Poetry By Heart can be a fresh take, a reminder of why poetry exists; that it exists to please, it exists to be read, heard and spoken and above all it exists, and can only survive at its best, if it is shared aloud…’ (Daljit Nagra, Poet, Poetry By Heart Advisor and Judge)

Now in its eleventh year, Poetry by Heart is a free national poetry speaking competition open to all schools and colleges in England. Young people in key stages 2 to 5 are invited to choose one or two poems that speak to them, learn them by heart, and ‘share them aloud’ by performing them in school poetry speaking events. School staff can then select pupils to enter the national round of the competition, submitting videos of their poem performances. The best contestants from each key stage and in every region in England are invited to perform their poems in front of top UK poets at our all-expenses-paid Grand Finale, at Shakespeare’s Globe in London.

The benefits of learning a poem by heart

Poetry by Heart  was set up to help young people and their teachers develop confidence with poetry in an enjoyable, accessible and engaging way. However, the stories and feedback from the many thousands of teachers, librarians and pupils who have taken part over the last ten years tell us that learning and performing a poem by heart brings many more benefits, including greater self-confidence, improved focus and concentration, gains in reading fluency and vocabulary, and key oracy skills.

On the basis of our many conversations with teachers and poets, we are firmly of the view that oracy is integral to poetry, and that poetry is valuable to oracy. We are therefore delighted to be working with oracy education charity Voice 21 to develop that thinking and explore how Poetry by Heart can support schools in their oracy provision.

One of the winners of the Poetry by Heart competition 2023. Photo credit Sam StricklandWhy speak a poem?

Speaking (and listening to) a poem allows us to experience its musicality. Feeling its sound patterns and rhythm help us make sense of it, as these focus our attention in a way that differs from reading the poem on the page:

‘The rhythm and music of each line lifts off the page and into your body, the sense and emotion unlocks and opens up your world.’ (Francesca Beard, Poet)

Furthermore, giving a young person the opportunity to speak the same poem aloud multiple times allows them to develop a relationship with it: to get to know it, like a friend. With each meeting they will notice new things about it, becoming more aware of the language and the choices that the poet has made to communicate their thoughts or feelings.

Speaking a poem allows young people to enjoy and engage with poetry in a more meaningful way. However, Poetry By Heart also invites pupils to perform their poems at school speaking events. Performing a poem requires important communication skills that can be difficult to develop elsewhere: how to manage pace and timing to powerful effect; how to hold a silence; how to use eye contact, body language and gesture.

Poetry by Heart: oracy as process

The physical skills that are developed through performance represent just one strand of the complex set of skills required to communicate effectively through speech. Linguistic, cognitive, and social and emotional skills all play their part. However, if we consider Poetry by Heart as a process (choosing a poem, learning it by heart, polishing its performance, performing it) and not simply as a product (the poem performance), we can identify multiple opportunities to promote those rich discussions that will enable students to develop the full range of oracy skills:

  • Pupils choosing the right poem/s for them, e.g. discussing their choice, hearing others’ choices and reasons, and thinking about their choice in light of this;
  • Pupils understanding which learning strategies work best for them, e.g. reflecting on different strategies, and thinking about which will work best for them and their poem;
  • Pupils discussing what works well as they practise their performances, e.g. what performance choices help to convey what the poem means to them.

Each stage of the Poetry by Heart process provides opportunities to integrate exploratory talk, develop listening skills and help pupils feel that their voice is valued.

Pupils performing at the Poetry by Heart Grand Final, a free poetry speaking competition for primary and secondary schools in England supported by poetry teaching resources

Building a culture of oracy in your school

If you are interested in building a culture of oracy through sharing poetry aloud, there is still time to get involved with this year’s Poetry by Heart.

We recognise that every school is unique – and the competition is designed to celebrate this. Whether you want to run Poetry by Heart for a small group with an informal performance event, or as a whole-school project with an evening showcase for parents and guardians, we can help you tailor the competition in the way that works best for you, your pupils and school context.

To register all you need is your school postcode and email. It’s completely free and does not commit you to entering the national competition (although you will be all set up if you do decide to submit an entry).

Our open access website has hundreds of poems for your students to explore and, once you have registered, you will be able to access our full range of teaching and learning resources. These include a ready-to-use assembly presentation, fully resourced Poem-Learn-Along activities, and templates for certificates and parental consent letters.

We’ll also post you a box of printed resources, including a Poem-a-Month calendar with starter activities to help lift the poems off the page, an A5 poetry anthology to give to a pupil or for your school library, and a beautiful set of 12 A2 poem posters to help create a poetry buzz.

If you have any questions about how Poetry By Heart can work in your school, and support your oracy aims, drop us an email via or call us on 0117 905 5338. We love hearing from teachers and are always available to talk things through.

Poetry by Heart new logo 2023