Resources on poetry by the poets themselves

Syllables

A syllable is the beat in the word, but it is not that simple. Some syllables stamp, some just touch down and lift off. There are strong ones and weak ones, stressed and unstressed ones.

PRESENTATION

The poems below are all by children from Years 5 and 6 at a primary school in Cheshire. The school was on a week long study visit to Anglesey, and the poems were written while working with a dancer from the Cheshire Dance Workshop, and the poet Gillian Clarke. One day they visited a prehistoric burial ground called Barclodiad y Gawres, which is Welsh for The Apron of the Giantess. Perhaps the shape of the little bay at the foot of the cliff, with its apron of sand and lacy frill of incoming waves, gave rise to this name.

Hand out copies of the poem which follow, and read the article and the poem out loud to the class.

Listen to this verse taken from a chant made up by a group of children working with Gillian Clarke on a visit to an ancient burial mound on a cliff where the river meets the sea. The name of the place translates from Welsh as ‘Apron of the Giantess’. The children were asked to call out two-syllable words about water, and one-syllable words about the rocky chamber. It was decided, as a group, that one refrain would be ‘Apron of the giantess’, and that the other would be ‘Chamber of a thousand bones.’

Listening to the sound is much more important than looking at the printed page. Let the children hear the rhythm, the stressed and unstressed syllables.

River, ripple, shiver, quiver,
Apron of the giantess.
Rock, tomb, jag, knife,
Chamber of a thousand bones.

How can there be four stressed syllables in every line even though some lines are longer than others? Look at it carefully, and LISTEN to it even more carefully. Count the syllables. Listen for stressed ones - just 4 of those in every line.

  • Line 1: 8 syllables.
  • Line 2: 7 syllables
  • Line 3: 4 syllables
  • Line 4: 7 syllables.

Every one of those lines has just four stressed beats.

Without even being told to do so, the Cheshire children stamped the rhythm as they chanted, 4 times in every line, one stamp for each two-syllable word, and one louder stamp for every one-syllable word. Here is the whole poem.

River, ripple, shiver, quiver,
Apron of the Giantess.

Rock, tomb, jag, knife,
Chamber of a thousand bones.

Flowing, glowing, swaying, lapping,
Apron of the Giantess.

Dark, cave, wet, dead,
Chamber of a thousand bones.

Swiftly, salty, shimmer, glimmer,
Apron of the Giantess.

Ice, shell, stone, slab,
Chamber of a thousand bones.

DISCUSSION

Counting syllables is made easy if you ask each child to say their own name, and count the syllables in it. Ask every child in the class to raise a hand if their name has one syllable, then those with two syllables raise their hands, then three, then four.

Some children are instinctively very good at this. Others take time to realise that we are not LOOKING at a name. We are LISTENING to it. Ian, for example, might think his three-letter name must be a one-syllable sound. But of course it has two syllables. Claire may be surprised that her six letters make only one syllable. This is a quick way to find out if everyone understands what a syllable is. For those who don’t get it, now is the time to put them right, before moving on to working with syllables.

ACTIVITIES

You might try some haiku (the three line, 17 syllable Japanese poetic form). As you know, counting syllables is good for haiku, but not good for counting the beat.

HAIKU

A short description of something might start them off. It is useful to write the number 5, 7, 5, in the margin of the page. Let the children think of one line at a time, counting on their fingers. Here is an example:

Spring

5. The birds are singing
7. trees are coming into leaf.
5. And look! First snowdrops.

There is more to haiku than just counting syllables, of course, but it can be a useful beginning to writing, and a short goal for the reluctant. You can introduce haiku into all project work, including science. There are many books on haiku, and poet and class teacher Sandy Brownjohn has a lesson on haiku in her book, ‘Does it Have to Rhyme?’

The poem about the chamber is a chant. The Cheshire children made a dance, invented a tune, and sang it. Let the class make a chant. Choose a subject. Collect lists of words grouped in one and two syllables. Put them all together and decide how to perform the result.

The following poems were written by the children, this time working on their own. They were asked to describe being inside the burial mound, using words of only one-syllable. There were no bones to be seen, of course, and no smell of death in the chamber. All traces were gone thousands of years ago. The bones in the poems are pure imagination.

FEAR by Kirsty

Trapped in a wall of stone
tombs of grey shut me in
The smell of death
The bones of the dead lie
Black fear creeps through my heart.

(Can you find a word with more than one syllable in the poem?)

TOMB by Louise

Rain drums
In the dead tomb
Dust blinds me from the edge of the past.
Graves stare
Dull, dark,
Cold, dead.

DREAM by Kate

A dream of death
The breath of the sea
Dark, wet
A cell dead and still.
Trap of bones.

THE GRAVE by David

Tomb dark
Earth hard
Slab cold
Rock rough
Bone white
Stone dead

Get the class to write short poems using, as far as possible, one syllable words only. As you can see from the above examples, this works well in poems about cold, stony places. Good subjects might be Snow, Ice, Cave, Rain, In the Dark, Waiting. Discuss possible subjects with the class.

One-syllable words, and short sentences, can make a story more exciting. Get the children to describe waiting for something to happen in 25 words, or 50 words. Here is an example of a little story of 100 words of one syllable.

He was late. I watched the street. It was dark. Mist rose from the fields and the wet grass. I could hear an owl call. A dog barked. A cat ran down the lane. In the house there was not a sound but the tick-tock of the clock. A floor board creaked. Then the lights of a car lit the wall of my room as it turned from the road to the drive. He was home at last. Safe home. I could have cried. It had been such a long, cold wait in the dark on my own.

That’s 100 words. Now get the class to write their own one hundred word story using one syllable words.

Double syllable words are often fluid, as the children found when they wrote about the burial chamber by the sea. When they chose words to describe the rock chamber, the words were hard and clinked like stones. When they chose two-syllable words to describe water, they noticed how the words flowed: river, ripple, shiver, quiver, flowing, glowing, swaying, lapping, swiftly, salty, shimmer, glimmer. Get the class to write a poem about water using lots of two-syllable words. Try not to have too many ‘ing’ endings.

The children should read the results aloud. They will discover the effect as they read. Alert the children to the way writers sometimes use one syllable words, and short sentences, to add suspense to a story or a poem. Help them to find for themselves poems and stories where this happens.