How to Create Onomatopoeia Poems
Poems with onomatopoeia -- words that imitate natural sounds like "boom," "zip," "splash," "quack" -- are as old as poetry itself, and they have special links to young students; even children playing make expressive noises that are onomatopoeic. The easiest way for you to encourage students to create onomatopoeia poems is to scaffold examples, model the poetry and allow them to free write.
Share Onomatopoeic Classics
Many classic poems contain onomatopoeia: Poe's "The Bells" is a wonderful example with its "tinkle, "jingle," "moaning," "groaning" and that great vocabulary standard, "tintinnabulation." Others include Gwendolyn Brooks' "Cynthia in the Snow" with its "hushes" and "shushes," "flitter-twitters" and "whirs." And Eve Merriam's "Onomatopoeia," which builds an entire free verse work around words such as "sputters," "spatters" and "gushes" and matches them with other words -- "utters," "smattering" and "rushes" -- to create a cacophony of sound. Scaffold the effect of onomatopoeia by reading selections aloud and emphatically.
Modeling Onomatopoeia Poetry
The next step is to model onomatopoeic poetry for students. This is easiest if you have a list on the board or on an overhead of at least 20 onomatopoeia examples: "gurgle," "achoo," "spring," "bang," "zip" and so on. Randomly select five onomatopoeia words from the list and have students write them on a sheet of paper. Ask students to tear or cut their paper into five parts so that each word is on a separate piece; model this for them first. Now take your own words, arrange them any way you like, and create your own poem for students to see.
Free Writing Onomatopoeia
Once modeling is ended -- and you will be surprised how easily a poem occurs to you -- have the students free write their own poetry with the same technique, twice. First, they rearrange the five selected words already on paper and create a poem that will likely be very similar to yours. Then they select three different words on their own, creating slips of paper for each word, and free write an onomatopoeic poem for themselves. It need not be long, but it should use all the words, rhyming them with other words if possible.
The most important step in this process is sharing the poetry afterward, since this reinforces the nature of sound in onomatopoeia and its effect on the ear. Have the students read their own poetry aloud and emphatically to the class. If anyone is reluctant, create a poetry partnership, and have two shy students read their works in unison. As long as the sound of the onomatopoeia is the focal point, the lesson in onomatopoeia poetry will achieve its goal.
Michael Stratford is a National Board-certified and Single Subject Credentialed teacher with a Master of Science in educational rehabilitation (University of Montana, 1995). He has taught English at the 6-12 level for more than 20 years. He has written extensively in literary criticism, student writing syllabi and numerous classroom educational paradigms.