I once saw Michael Rosen teach a theatre full of tearfully happy children and adults these wonderful nonsense word games (below). You can also find them in his vital book about teaching children to write poetry, Did I Hear You Write? If you do not know it, it’s a wonderful book: conversational and hard-hitting, practical and deeply theorised.
I first read it after I had been teaching in primary schools for a couple of years. During my training I had come across and used Sandy Brownjohn’s books on the subject (collected in To Rhyme or Not to Rhyme?), with which I felt I had enjoyed some success in the classroom.
It quickly became apparent that Rosen’s approach was consciously different to Brownjohn’s. Instead of teaching children forms, he said, we should be letting them discover and invent their own forms. The best way of doing this, he argued, is to ask them to write about what they feel, what they say, and what they hear the people around them (parents, teachers, friends) say. He called this approach ‘oral writing’.
I tried these ideas out in the classroom, and also had success with them. Now I felt a bit torn. I still liked to use the games and exercises of Sandy Brownjohn (The Furniture Game, Questions and Answers etc.), to the point where I was even beginning to adapt them for myself, as part of my repertoire of ideas.
Several years later, partly to resolve this inner conflict stemming from my allegiance to both of these traditions, I wrote a PhD about teaching children to write poetry. I based it on my own teaching. I sometimes think I am still trying to resolve this argument…
Since hearing Michael Rosen teach those games I have used them myself (always with credit) whenever I visit schools to work with teachers and children. There is not an audience in the world who does not delight in them. As I seem to remember Rosen saying somewhere, while not corresponding to poetry with a capital ‘P’, they contain much of poetry’s techniques: rhythm, rhyme, repetition, the element of surprise. They are also deeply social: there is no point in doing them on your own. I like to think that their anarchic sensibility especially appeals to children.
But they are profound, too. In some ways you could argue they are a metaphor for the whole poetic enterprise. Look at us, they say, we can manipulate words and make them do strange, wonderful and previously unimagined things. All in the company of others. Seriously, there is nothing here not to like.
Here is a few he taught us that day.
You take a word (e.g. ‘everybody’) and change how it sounds by removing a letter at a time each time you say it.
So, ‘EVERYBODY’ becomes VERYBODY when you take off the first ‘E’. VERYBODY becomes ERYBODY (pronounced ‘errybody’), which changes to RYBODY (wrybody), which changes to YBODY (whybody), which changes to BODY, which changes to ODY (oddie), which becomes DY (die), which becomes Y (why). Simple.
Say it quickly and you get:
The same can be done for ‘CALAMITY’, which goes:
Here is ‘CATASTROPHE’:
Finally, there is everyone’s favourite, ‘SHAMPOO’:
They have saved my life on more wet Wednesdays than I can remember. I defy you not to try them.