Comprehending Poetry with Social Justice Themes
Tara Concannon Gibney
The Reading Teacher
Institute of Education

Poems that take on social justice themes have a great capacity to help students to understand the experiences of others, to feel the emotions of others and thus improve their ability to interpret life and the challenges it can pose while also providing space for discussion of possibilities and opportunities. 

Previous research from R.S Bishop use a metaphor of windows (their own experience), mirrors (the experience of others), and doors (new possibilities) to illustrate this. Poetry naturally lends itself to repeated readings which encourages students to delve deeper into the language and to comprehend the meanings inherent within a poem. Visualization can be used to see and feel an event or experience within a poem. Repeated reading can facilitate inferences and meaningful connections that unlock a poem's message, and this can be a powerful reading experience for young students. 

Previous research has also highlighted the importance of extending reading instruction to include a focus on social competence, that is, the ability to empathize with others' cognitions, emotions, and motivations. Thus, poetry can offer teachers and students an opportunity to “stretch their awareness, adapt their perspectives and construct new knowledge”.

In this teaching tip, DCU's Dr Tara Concannon-Gibney speaks about how she used poetry to teach comprehension strategies while also exploring social justice themes. She focuses on the comprehension strategies of visualizing, drawing inferences, and making connections in poems related to themes such as bullying, homelessness, and climate change. 

"As a child, I took great delight in poetry and when I began teaching, poetry was always a stalwart teaching tool that I kept close to hand. It can be a wonderful motivator for all students, particularly those who struggle, due to its brevity, its rhythm and musical qualities, and its ability to paint pictures in our minds in just a few words. Poetry can help develop a student's reading comprehension ability, fluency, vocabulary knowledge, and pleasure in the printed word" says Dr Concannon-Gibney.