Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

Practical Criticism

Created September 24, 2010


The Lesson


Practical Criticism

Credit: Image courtesy of the Victorian Women's Writers Project.

Anthologists and editors prepare the way for poetry readers, selecting works that reward close reading and assisting interpretation through annotation. But on the Internet we can return to poetry in its native state -- one set of words among many others competing for appreciation -- and read with fresh eyes.

Learning Objectives

  • To analyze the verbal devices through which poems make meaning
  • To compare one's personal interpretation of a poem with the personal interpretations of others
  • To develop standards of literary judgment

Preparation Instructions

During the early decades of this century, the British critic A. Richards conducted a famous series of experiments in reading that he reported in his book Practical Criticism. Interested primarily in the ways poems affect a reader, he regularly gave his students a selection of anonymous poems and asked for a commentary on each. The exercise led him to propose a step-by-step process for interpreting poetry, which formed the basis for the discipline we now call "close reading." Begin this lesson by explaining to your students that they will recreate the Richards experiment, using the unfiltered poetry available on the Internet as their raw material.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Browse and Collect

Have small groups of students browse the Victorian Women Writers Project website to select 2 to 4 poems for commentary. Ask students: What draws you to a poem? As they browse, students should be aware of what factors affect their choices. The title of a collection of poetry, the author's name and dates, the size of the collection, all have a subjective influence on the kind of poetry we read and enjoy. Have students reflect on these influences as they browse the site and keep a journal of their selection process. Once students have completed their selections, but before they begin their commentaries on each poem, compare notes as a class on the factors that led them to their choices.

Activity 2. Comment and Criticize

Have students comment on one or two of the poems they have selected, following an adaptation of the procedure outlined by I. A. Richards:

  • First, they should write a paraphrase of the poem, expressing in their own words its plain prose meaning.
  • Second, they should comment on the imagery used in the poem. Have them explain how the imagery enhances the poem by adding emotional color or associations to the plain sense. Have them note also whether the poet's use of imagery is consistent.
  • Third, have students describe the overall tone or mood of the poem, the "feeling" that it communicates to them as readers. A poem leaves an impression, and while this impression may be complex (who could summarize the "feeling" imparted by Coleridge's "Kubla Khan"?), it will always be distinct for the alert reader.
  • Finally, have students express an opinion about the poem: is it good or bad poetry, and why? This may be the most popular part of the exercise, since we generally present students with poems that have been certified "good" by generations of venerated readers and rarely give them an opportunity to pass an unbiased judgment of their own.
Activity 3. Discuss

When they have completed their commentaries, have students discuss in small groups what they learned from the experience. Which stage in the process was most difficult? Which was most revealing? How did the exercise make them more self-aware as readers of poetry? How did it sharpen their understanding of how poems work? Divide the class into small groups for comparison of their individual commentaries. Have each group report on these discussions. What are two or three qualities in each poem that they liked? Have students make a list of qualities and share them with the class.

Extending The Lesson

To conclude the lesson, work as a class to apply the Richards reading procedure to a frequently anthologized poem, such as "I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud" by William Wordsworth (available on the Romantic Circles website). Through discussion, arrive at a consensus paraphrase of the poem, a common interpretation of its imagery, a shared sense of the "feeling" it imparts, and a consensus judgment of its literary quality.

The Basics

Grade Level


Time Required

1-2 class periods

Subject Areas
  • Literature and Language Arts > Place > British
  • Literature and Language Arts > Genre > Poetry
  • Compare and contrast
  • Critical analysis
  • Discussion
  • Interpretation
  • Online research
  • Poetry analysis
  • Research