Education Quandary: Is there any real value in learning poetry by heart? Are the Conservatives right to want to bring it back to schools?

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The Independent Online

Hilary's advice

I love those fragments of The Waste Land and Frost At Midnight that drift around in my brain and there's no doubt that having a whole mental poetry anthology would be handy were one ever to be taken hostage in Baghdad. But, to be honest, I don't know if re-introducing learning poetry by heart would be a good use of classroom time, or simply an exercise in nostalgia by those who swear that memorising Invictus and If made them the men they are today.

The problem is that there is so much learning that children need to master in the modern world. Moreover, children – and teachers – of the internet age tend to see little point in learning things by rote when those same things are just a mouse click away. Also, I can't think of anything more gruesome, as a child, than being made to cram a government-approved poem into my brain by a teacher without a spark of poetry in their soul, who has been instructed to do so by the national curriculum.

On the other hand, young brains love the challenge of mental learning, they are deeply enriched by contemplating truth and beauty, and can grow strong roots of thought and understanding via slow and concentrated attention. So, yes, maybe on second thoughts – and in the right hands – learning a few poems by heart could be just what today's distracted pupils need.

Readers' advice

If you don't learn poetry by heart as a child you cannot appreciate the wonderful rhythms of language that poetry conveys and how putting certain words together in a particular way can create a vision of something that you had never imagined.

To appreciate poetry adds a new depth to our understanding of language and communication. As a child my father would read humorous poems from books to us and compose some himself, they weren't particularly sophisticated or complicated, but they were fun. I learned to recite them to make people laugh and in the process came to love poetry in all its forms.

Penny Joseph, West Sussex

It is the nature of poetry to say more, in a short space, with greater subtlety and complexity, than prose can. To learn a poem by heart – as long as it is done willingly and with enjoyment – is to have it always available to ponder, to understand more deeply, to relate to other reading and experience. Metre and rhyme come into their own if you learn by heart. And a store of poetry in the mind is an incomparable resource in times of enforced boredom, sleeplessness, apprehension – and even great grief.

Jane Darwin, London SW7

Educational leaders should be concentrating their attention not on poetry, but on improving maths, science and technology teaching. It is this that will get our children jobs, and it is this that is in the biggest crisis in schools.

Joe Harland, Essex

Next Week's Quandary

I'm a student in my second year doing sport and exercise science at university and have always wanted to work as a secondary school teacher but am more and more worried my dyslexia will be too much of a handicap. I have quite bad problems with both my spelling and memory.

Send your replies, or any quandaries you would like to have addressed, to h.wilce@btinternet. com. Please include your postal address. Readers whose replies are printed will receive a Collins Paperback English Dictionary 5th Edition. Previous quandaries are online at www.hilarywilce.com. They can be searched by topic.

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