Beyond Rhymes: How Poetry Can Teach Executive Function Skills


If the spoken-word poetry of youth poet Amanda Gorman at Joe Biden’s inauguration made you think, “Hmm, poetry seems a bit more interesting that I thought,” you’re in luck. April is National Poetry Month, and the fact is that not only can poetry be a fun thing to read, write, or hear, it’s also great at promoting Executive Function (EF) skills. In this week's piece, we'll be taking a look at which EF skills reap the biggest benefits from poetry. Let's dive right in!

Poetry Develops Attention  April is National Poetry Month

Did you know that poetry asks us to read differently? 

In her book, The Reader, the Text, the Poem, researcher and professor Louise M. Rosenblatt points to two different reading “stances” we take, which are distinguished “primarily from the difference in the reader’s focus of attention during the reading event.” These stances are called “efferent” and “aesthetic.” 

Efferent reading is probably the most common reading we do—we use it to gather facts for a test, learn about a subject, or to understand how to do a particular task. “The reader’s attention is focused primarily on what will remain as the residue after reading,” Rosenblatt says. Our attention is focused; our goal is to gather information.

Aesthetic reading, the kind often required in poetry, is not simply a gathering of facts, but involves the reader’s participation in making meaning, as Rosenblatt says, “In aesthetic reading, the reader’s attention is centered directly on what he is living through during his relationship with that particular text.” The goal is less to gather information or understand every word in a poem, but to ask yourself: What is this poem making me think and feel? What memories does it stir up for me? How can I relate? 

Poetic Practice: Find a poem either to listen to or read. For those unsure of where to start, try spoken word (Amanda Gorman and Sarah Kay) or reading a poem with fantastic imagery (check out Mary Oliver and Tracy K. Smith). Read or listen to the poem a couple times. What images or lines stand out to you? Pay attention to what you’re experiencing as you read the poem.

Poetry Promotes Cognitive Flexibility 

In inviting us to change how we are paying attention, poetry also allows for greater cognitive flexibility

We think in two modes commonly known as focused and diffuse. According to a 2018 article on The Metalearners, focused describes the brain in concentration mode, and diffuse is the brain relaxed, not focusing on anything in particular and so better able to make connections between ideas. 

Both modes, the article makes clear, are necessary for learning: “You need to give yourself time to better comprehend a problem and connect new information. You also need to detach from the problem or learning at hand, not think about it at all, allowing your brain to come back to it from different perspectives.” 

Poetry can be a means of activating both focused and diffuse thinking. Perhaps we spend time paying attention to a poem, and then we take a break, take a walk, and let the connections and ideas loosened by the poem gather in our minds. Such an activity is so good, not only for our creativity but our mental health. According to a 2015 study on the benefits of literature on a person’s cognitive flexibility, “The research found that the sustained experience of reading poems might be expected to challenge rigid expectancies and fixed thoughts and to increase mental flexibility through the process of the reappraisal of meaning and the acceptance of fresh meanings, a process that was experienced as intrinsically rewarding.”

In other words, poetry invites us not only to read in a different way (in stanzas vs. full-length lines), but to experience life from a different perspective—through the poet’s eyes.  

Poetic Practice: Take a walk and just notice what you see. Ask yourself some mindful questions: What am I experiencing with my five senses? How am I feeling? Write down a few of your thoughts when you get home.

Poetry Strengthens Memory and Emotional Regulation 

Though it may seem old-fashioned, the University of Cambridge’s Poetry and Memory Project found that memorizing poetry has a variety of advantages: “The most universal benefit was a deeper appreciation of the poem itself, and this was closely followed by the poem’s potential as an emotional resource.” Some of those interviewed for this project found comfort in returning to a poem they had memorized: “The memorized poem can also become a container for thoughts and emotions, described by respondents as ‘a place to inhabit’, ‘a temporary home while I was homeless’ or ‘a place for your brain to be, if you’re challenged by other things’.”

Memorizing a poem also helps you pay better attention to the words you’re learning by heart. It’s been found that humans are biologically attuned to certain features of poetry, like rhyme and rhythm, which can aid in the memorization process. The fact that poetry encompasses the whole spectrum of emotion—from the ecstatically effusive to the depths of despondency, as well as everyday emotions like contentedness and confusion—makes it likely that no matter how you’re feeling, there’s a poem for you.

Poetic practice: Find a poem you really like and memorize it. Share it with someone, either in their physical presence or via audio/video recording. Some people find calm in the meditative practice of writing out a memorized poem.

Wishing you a very happy National Poetry Month. Whether poetry is something you already love, or something you try to avoid, its Executive Function benefits are well worth the exploration. There’s no better time to dive in!  

Photo by Trust "Tru" Katsande on Unsplash

Summer EF coaching


Poetry exploration, including the activities mentioned above, is just one example of a great summer project for students. Learn how coaching during the summer can help your child prepare for the school year ahead, while also building life-long skills in a context that they're passionate about. 

Learn more about summer coaching




About the Author

Lindsey Weishar

Lindsey Weishar is a freelance editor and writer, as well as an executive function coach for Beyond BookSmart. She possesses an MFA in Creative Writing and Media Arts from the University of Missouri-Kansas City, and has seven years of teaching experience in the following settings: high school special education classes (as a paraprofessional), college-level writing classes, and adult-level literacy and English language classes. Her mission is to help individuals more greatly delight in reading and writing.

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