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Writing Sonnets: Tips for Teachers

Updated on October 15, 2015
Dean Traylor profile image

Dean Traylor is a freelance writer and teacher. He wrote for IHPVA magazines and raced these vehicles with his father (who builds them).

The English sonnet – or better known as the Shakespearean sonnet – is often considered the hallmark of English language poetry. The lyrical poem is derived of several rules that combine syllabic count, rhyme schemes and meter into a 14-line verse. On top of that, they tend to blend symbols and metaphors that capture a mental image, personify a feelings of a person.

The giants of English literature, Shakespeare, John Donne, and Ben Johnson have set the standard for all to follow. They’ve also given teachers a blueprint to pass down this craft to eager students.

Reading Shakespeare’s sonnets are one thing. Teaching them is another. However, the most challenging thing of all, is to teach students (especially students with learning disorders) to write them.

There’s nothing easy about teaching this style of poetry. It is a high-end art form that demands the writer’s ability to plan, formulate, and execute a draft. It may be 14 lines, but it is the most challenging – and possibly most rewarding 14 lines anyone can write.

Why Teach Sonnets and other Forms of Creative Writing?

In today’s educational environment, opportunity for creative writing is shrinking. More emphasis has been placed on writing research papers or essays. Even the reading material tends to be more non-fiction than fiction. The idea of teaching poetry writing has been discouraged by administrators and politicians who are pushing their own agendas.

While teaching essay and research formats are a good thing, they are not the end-all in learning the craft of writing. Creative writing is just one part of the entire writing process. And, teaching sonnets is an even smaller part of that.

However, teaching something as intricate and complex as sonnets have major benefits and can go beyond being creative.

Teaching it can help students with:

  1. Organization of thoughts (pre-writing)
  2. Phonemic awareness and/or phonics (since the sound of words and speech patterns are important in this poem)
  3. vocabulary building
  4. recognition of literal, connotative meanings of words
  5. Metaphors, simile (since they can end up in essays, too).

Most importantly, creative writing -- such as sonnet writing -- can help students with thinking within the context of rules and coming up with something creative. In an ironic way, the strict rules of writing a sonnet forces many to express their unique thoughts within its confines.

Iambic Pentameter in Middle English (Chaucer)
Iambic Pentameter in Middle English (Chaucer) | Source

Teaching and Using Iambic Pentameter Sparingly

Possibly the difficult part of writing a sonnet is getting use to the rhyme and rhythm. Iambic pentameters are not easily understood.

Iamb usually means “stressed” while pentameter means “measure of five.” Words have stressed and unstressed syllables. A stressed sound is usually loud sounding; while the unstressed is soft. Often, a line in a sonnet will have five stressed and five unstressed syllables/words.

Still, for those who stress the use of it, they will often asked students to write a line, go back and read it and clap their hands on the stressed syllables. Many instructors gloss over the definition of iambic pentameter, and for good reason. When the English sonnet emerged, it corresponded with the phonemes (units of sound that a letter or group letters represent) typically heard in Elizabethan British English. English spoken around the globe in the 21 century will sound different from each other, as well as the type spoken in the 16th century.

Iambic pentameter should be taught if it is part of the teacher’s objective/goal for the students. In most cases, it would be better and less time consuming to have the students write 10-syllable lines regardless of the stresses.

The process of writing a sonnet can have several benefits for students. However, it can be a complex process. At the same time, it can be rewarding and effective. A student may improve his writing skills

Sonnets are difficult to write, let alone understand; however, the process of writing it can be an important teaching tool. It can heighten their reading ability as well as hone their written expression.

Some Basics about Shakespearean Sonnets

The Shakespearean sonnet is often known as the English sonnet. William Shakespeare’s influence and success with the poetry style was so profound that the English version has been associated with him.

Interestingly, he was not the originator of this type of sonnet. That credit belongs to the Earl of Surrey. Also, there was another English version that was initiated by Edmund Spencer.

The Shakespearean/English sonnet is one of three main forms of the style. The original one came from Italy and was known as the Petrarchan sonnet. It was soon adopted by the English and nearly everyone, including Queen Elizabeth was writing a sonnet or two..

All forms of sonnets are lyric poems with fourteen lines within one stanza and interlinked by an intricate rhyme scheme. All the lines consist of an iambic pentameter -- a word “beat” and rhythm of stressed and unstressed syllables. The lines consist of 10 syllables: five stressed and five unstressed.

Shakespearean sonnets are divided into three quatrains (four lines of rhyme schemes) and a concluding couplet (two lines):

The scheme is as follows:

A-B-A-B-C-D-C-D-E-F-E-F-G-G.

The Italian’s scheme varies with:

An octave (8 lines) of A-B-B-A-A-B-B-A with a sestet (six lines) and C-D-E-C-D-E or C-D-C-C-D-C.

Spenser’s version is:

A-B-A-B-B-C-B-C-C-D-C-D-E-E.

Almost universally, the themes of sonnets are about love or nature; however, there are variations. Many of Shakespeare’s sonnets were allegories for a particular person or variations of these common themes. Modern sonnets have included numerous issues pertaining to family, loneliness, or politics.

Also, sonnets tend to be akin to a reflective essay or biography. Intimate and personal details (usually disguised in figurative language and symbols) can be found within its lines.

Finally, Shakespearean sonnets were organized in a way in which they gave descriptions in the first twelve lines. The final two revealed the theme of the poem.

Sonnet 18 (Audio)

Procedure for Teaching a Sonnet

First and foremost, any teacher planning to tackle a writing project involving the sonnet must consider the reasons for doing so. Also, the teacher needs to consider pre-writing activities, modeling, and establishing a template (especially for students with learning disabilities).

Here is an example of the procedure:

  1. Create a goal/objective for the students. What do you want the students to learn and/or accomplish?
  2. Present a model: Introduce a sonnet, read it in class, together and discuss its meaning and structure.
  3. Have students take notes on literary terms and concept associated with the sonnet. Breakdown the syllable counts per line, the rhyme scheme, stanza counts. Also, define such terms as quatrain, couplet, iambic pentameter. All the while use a chosen sonnet as an example.
  4. Read another sonnet (possibly two or three. Use audio recording for students with learning disabilities), this time focusing on the theme. Assign questions for reading comprehension purposes and to explore the theme.
  5. Model writing a sonnet with the students (while they take notes). This can be collaborative, in which students can find rhyming words or come up with the theme.
  6. Introduce a template with the rhyme scheme they need to follow. Instruct them to write 10 syllables per line. Use the iambic pentameter if it is part of the lesson you are teaching (see side story on this meter)* The template can serve as the 1st draft (see below).
  7. Upon completion have students exchange papers and correct any mistakes (it should be noted that poets often take certain liberty with spelling. In this case, the teacher needs to explain that all words need to be spelled correctly, at least in the initial attempt of writing this type of poem).
  8. Afterward the teacher edits and returns the sonnet.
  9. The students write (or type) the final draft.

These steps are based more on teacher preference. Also, the goals/objective of the teacher can radically changes the process (for instance, the teacher may skip the template or ask them to create more than two sonnets and/or have the students read them orally).

Iambic pentameter should be taught if it is part of the teacher’s objective/goal for the students. In most cases, it would be better and less time consuming to have the students write 10-syllable lines regardless of the stresses.

The process of writing a sonnet can have several benefits for students. However, it can be a complex process. At the same time, it can be rewarding and effective. A student may improve his/her writing skills

Sonnets are difficult to write, let alone understand; however, the process of writing it can be an important teaching tool. It can heighten their reading ability as well as hone their written expression.

Sonnet Template (Sample)

Here is a template I created from a sonnet project. Since I teach special education courses, I added words or title/theme to help the students get started. That, however, depends on the individual student's level of comprehension and writing skills.

Sonnet Template
Sonnet Template | Source

© 2014 Dean Traylor

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