The granddaddy of poems: the sonnet. Of all the poetry forms we can teach, it’s the most intimidating. But it doesn’t have to be!
What’s to love about sonnets?
Sonnets provide the “whole enchilada” for poetry study: rhyme, rhythm, meter, quatrains, couplet, figurative language, volta (turn). You can teach a whole unit on poetic elements and language — just with sonnets!
Students who are intimidated by poetry, often love poems that follow “rules.” Poems that have a strict form and structure are less intimidating that those that don’t. Sonnets definitely have “rules.”
If your students can understand a sonnet, they can decode and understand a wide range of poems — they’ll have a grasp on how to identify poetic elements in other poems. You’ll have taught them foundational literary analysis skills.
And — being able to understand (and write!) a sonnet is just so cool!
Teaching sonnets (or any poetry for that matter) can be intimidating. As teachers, we’re expected to know the answer to students who ask “What does this mean?!”
and “What’s the right answer?”
We think we have to have a ready, definitive answer. But don’t fall into that trap.
You don’t have to have all the answers!
Step away from the edge!! Think about the thousands of dissertations written about single poems. Literary critics are still debating meanings and symbols of works whose authors are long, long gone.
Poetry is flexible! There are many ways to interpret a poem.
Prove it! What a great way to have students build and defend arguments. If a student can support his or her analysis with evidence from the text, why can’t that analysis be correct? This is what turns so many students off from poetry — they think there is just one answer and the teacher has it.
Turn the question back to the student. When students ask “What does this mean?” or “What’s the right answer?” turn the question back to them. “What do you think?”
Of course, then your student will say, “I don’t know. That’s why I asked!” And your response can be, “Let’s see if we can figure this out together.”
Let them struggle. Analyzing a sonnet (or any poem) can be a real challenge. Don’t let your students off the hook too quickly. Encourage them to work at understanding. Understanding poetry is not unlike solving a puzzle. It takes work!
Steps to teaching a sonnet
1. Start by just reading it! Provide a copy of the sonnet to each student and read it aloud while they follow along. Or…you can show students this wonderful YouTube video:
Then, ask students to underline anything that pops out at them, any words or phrases they like, or anything that they notice. No pressure!
2. Read it again to them. Read it a second time. Ask them to just listen while you read. Then, ask them to jot down any notes, thoughts, or questions they have. Encourage them to be specific with their questions. No fair writing, “What does this mean?”
3. Share. What do they think? What do they like about the poem? What do they notice? There are no right and wrong answers here. Give students a chance to just float ideas about the sonnet. You may want students to record any of their classmates comments on their copy of the sonnet.
4. Paraphrase. Now that your students have some preliminary understanding, they’re ready to start digging in. Explain to students that paraphrasing means to rewrite a phrase in your own words. They can think of it as “translating” the line.
Students will usually be able to paraphrase the majority of a poem. If they are struggling with a line, they can put a question mark, but don’t allow them to use more than one or two question marks. Even if they aren’t sure of what a line means, they can take a guess.
5. Vocabulary. As they paraphrase, students will encounter vocabulary that they aren’t familiar with. You can either provide them with vocabulary words and definitions or they can check the meaning as they paraphrase. It can be helpful to create a list as a class, so all students can benefit.
6. Formative assessment: checking for understanding. Once students have paraphrased, you may want to have them complete a quick write or exit card that will provide you with a formative assessment. You can ask students to simply respond to the question: “What is this sonnet about?”
7. A look at form. Once students have an understanding of the subject of the sonnet, provide them the opportunity to look at the form of the sonnet. Depending on whether you are looking at an Italian (or Petrarchan) or English (Shakespearean) sonnet, provide students with a “recipe” for the form.
It is often more exciting for students to figure out what kind of sonnet they are reading and what the form is than the teacher telling them. As students dig into the form of the sonnet and determine how it fits the “recipe,” they will have to prove their answers by using text evidence. Another opportunity for students to practice higher level analysis skills as well as arguing their position.
8. The meter. Okay, teaching meter can be difficult. It’s a foreign concept for most students and seems like a fruitless exercise. Most students can count syllables, but counting beats (stressed and unstressed) is more challenging.
Take some time to play with this.
For students who have names with more than one syllable, practice. Is your name HAR vey or Har VEY? COURT ney or Court NEY? ZACH a rhy? Zach A rhy? or Zach a RHY?
By exaggerating their names, students can hear which syllables are stressed and which are not. Once students have practiced this, let them practice with the sonnet. Complete a few lines to model and then allow them to practice.
If they are having trouble: Generally, small words (the, a, an, it) are unstressed. Students can mark them first. Additionally, students can use a dictionary. Diacritical marks will help students determine where the stressed syllables are.
Why does meter matter? This is another chance for your students to really listen to language. If the entire sonnet followed the same meter, it would be boring. Changes in the stressed syllable are alerting the reader (or listener) to something. What is it?
9. Teaching feet. Once students have determined the meter, you can teach them how to break lines into feet. While this step (haha! feet? step?! I can never skip an English joke!!) is challenging, it’s also important. One of the characteristics of a sonnet is iambic pentameter.
10. Figurative language. As students increase their understanding of the poem, they will begin to recognize figurative language (simile, metaphor, personification, hyperbole, alliteration, etc.). Often these elements will pop out at students as they are digging into form and structure of the poem.
11. Volta. What a great word! Understanding the volta (or turn/shift) of the sonnet can be related to the punchline of a joke or an “aha” moment. The beginning of the poem lays out an argument, and the ending tells the reader what this means to the speaker. In a sonnet, this is often found in the couplet.
12. Rinse & repeat. Once students have analyzed a sonnet as a class, why not have them analyze one independently? Rather than having them write an analysis paper, they can create a slide show, teach the sonnet to the class, make a movie, or do their own dramatic reading of a sonnet.
Where will assessments come from? At any time in the process of analyzing a sonnet, you can ask students for a quick write or summary. Asking students to finish the sentence, “What I understand about sonnets…” is a good option. You can also assess student notes as they work in class.
Rather than having a test over sonnets for your summative assessment, why not challenge your students to write their own sonnets? Then hold a poetry reading!
Need more help?
I have an analysis and creative writing resource for Sonnet 18 and two complete lessons on teaching Sonnet 29 (analysis and writing) — one is digital; the other is paper. Click on the links below to learn more:
- Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18 — Analysis & Creative Writing
- Shakespeare’s Sonnet 29 — Analysis & Creative Writing
- Shakespeare’s Sonnet 29 — Digital Notebook for Google & OneDrive
What do you think? Ready to tackle the sonnet? Let me know in the comments!