Studying a Poem: Inquiry in an English Class

An inquiry approach to reading a poem focuses not on text questions but on student questions.

A typical assignment of a poem is to ask students to read it in a text and then answer the questions that follow. In contrast, an inquiry approach might focus not on text questions but student questions and analysis of them before they attempt answers.

If you follow the process outlined below with additional poems, students are likely to gain greater ability to ask good questions—that is, questions, which if answered well, will lead to greater understanding and greater insight into the act of reading a poem.

Reading 1

Read the following out loud at least once, then read it silently as many times as you think necessary to develop a carefully-worded question about the poem that you think would be worth discussing.

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

Whose woods these are I think I know
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.
He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound's the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

—Robert Frost

After students have read the poem and prepared their questions, ask for a sampling of them. Number and write each question on the chalkboard without comment.
Then ask students to respond in writing to the questions below.

When they have finished, elicit their responses and discuss them. Obviously, this process will take time, but it should begin to illuminate the Frost poem. Students may also begin to understand that questions are instruments of perception, that questions need to be questioned, that questions are likely to generate additional questions.

1. Which of the questions can you answer with absolute certainty?

2. Which questions restrict you to giving factual information?

3. Which questions may include false assumptions?

4. Which questions require the greatest amount of defining before you try to answer them?

5. Which questions require an opinion?

6. Whose opinion?

7. If an expert's opinion, what makes one an expert in this case?

8. Which questions cannot be answered?

9. Why?

10. Which questions require clarification before they can be answered?

11. Which questions are the best?

12. Why?

After students have determined the best questions, ask them to consider whether it makes any difference in what order they are discussed. If it does, have them order the questions and then proceed to answer them.

Key additional questions to the answers will be: What evidence is there in the poem for your answer? If there is no direct evidence for your answer, what indirect evidence is there for a reasonable inference? Students may differ about the meaning of "reasonable."

Questioning Questions

Help students to understand that a question itself needs to be questioned with such questions as the following:

  • Can it be answered?
  • Is a single, definite answer possible? If it is possible, is a single, definite answer sufficient?
  • Do any words need defining? How? Why?
  • Does the question contain any assumptions?
    If so, are these assumptions reasonable?
    If they are not reasonable, how might the question be reworded?
  • What kinds of information satisfy the question?
    Facts? Whose facts? Where?
    Judgment of experts? Which experts? Why?
  • Is there any reason to believe these experts might be biased?
    Personal experiences?
    Personal opinion?
  • Is the answer useful? If so, to whom and for what purpose or purposes?
  • Does the question or its answer lead to other questions?

(The above borrows from Neil Postman and Howard Damon's book Language and Systems .)

Reading 2


The following poem is more difficult in some respects, but the same approach as that outlined above for the Frost poem is appropriate.

next to of course god america i

"next to of course god america i
love you land of the pilgrims' and so forth oh
say can you see by the dawn's early my
country 'tis of centuries come and go
and are no more what of it we should worry
in every language even deafanddumb
thy sons acclaim your glorious name by gory
by jingo by gee by gosh by gum
why talk of beauty what could be more beau-
tiful than these heroic happy dead
who rushed like lions to the roaring slaughter
they did not stop to think they died instead
then shall the voice of liberty be mute?"

He spoke. And drank rapidly a glass of water.

—e. e. cummings


Th is lesson was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email them to: