About the Competition


Andrew Motion

Judging criteria

How the competition works

Poetry By Heart is an inspiring competition for students in schools and colleges to learn and to recite poems by heart.  Not in an arm-waving, props-supported thespian extravaganza, but as the outward and audible manifestation of an inwardly-understood and enjoyed poem.

The competition is a pyramid of participation from individual classrooms to whole school/college contests, then county contests, regional semi-finals and the grand final. In the process, pupils foster deep personal connections with the poems chosen and bring poetry alive for their friends, families and communities.

Poetry By Heart successfully engages young people from diverse social backgrounds and all types of school in personal discovery of the pleasures of poetry. Teachers who have organised Poetry By Heart competitions have told us it:

*was a catalyst for new approaches to poetry teaching, learning and enjoyment
*helped them to raise the profile of poetry in school/college
*helped them to focus pupil attention on the sounds of poetry as part of its meaning and pleasure
*gave their students a valued opportunity for local and national recognition

They also said their students:
*enjoyed poetry more
* were more willing to take on new challenges
*had a better understanding of how poetry works
*were better able to use memory techniques
*were more confident about speaking in public


Ever since I first started reading poetry in earnest, more than forty years ago, I’ve always thought its meaning has as much to do with sound as it does to do with sense. Poetry, crucially, is an acoustic form. It’s emotional noise. That is why it’s often able to move us before we completely understand it. Its sounds allow us to receive it in our hearts, as well as in our heads.

It has always been my hope in setting up Poetry by Heart that we would give young people the opportunity to enjoy a wider range of poetry than they usually find in their preparation for exams.  We want to offer new ways of finding pleasure and confidence in a part of the curriculum where such things can be in short supply. The sort of pleasure and confidence, in fact, that adds tremendously to young people’s self-esteem, to their verbal skills, to their powers of communication, and so to a more fulfilled life and greater opportunities.  The competition is an end in itself, but it’s also a gateway, a beginning.

Poetry By Heart is designed to put the emphasis on learning by heart, not on learning by rote. It is about understanding and remembering the deep recurring truths about our experience as humans, in terms that are especially beautiful and resonant, It is about doing this in a pleasure-filled way. And it is part of the same benevolent revolution in poetry-proving and poetry-teaching that formed a part of the original intention in founding the Poetry Archive during my ten years as Poet Laureate.

Most of us have some recollection of being made to learn things when we were kids ourselves, and most of us can remember bits or all of those poems in our older age. This tells us several things, I think. It tells us how important it is to learn good stuff, so that our heads are full of nourishing words and not full of junk. It tells us this good stuff changes its meanings in very interesting ways as the years pass and the words stay in our memories. It tells us that despite or because of the effort involved in learning by heart, we as humans have a primitive appetite for it. It makes us feel good. It makes us find ourselves.

When Samuel Johnson was ruminating about the value of literature, he said it helped him ‘enjoy and endure’ his existence. Those two words form the foundation of our competition. We want it to be fun, as it encourages pupils to discover new pleasures and fulfilments, but we want it to be serious as well: an excitement and a dare. To demonstrate, in fact, the marvellous form of two-way travelling that poetry allows us: into ourselves, and out into the world, at one and the same time.

Student performances in all rounds of the competition must be judged and scored using these criteria. There are downloadable score sheets for competition organisers to use in the “Judge” section of the Learning Zone.

Voice 1-7 points

This category is to evaluate the auditory nature of the recitation.  Consider the student’s volume, pace, rhythm, intonation and pronunciation.  In a strong performance, all words are pronounced appropriately in the student’s natural accent and the volume, rhythm and intonation greatly enhance the recitation.  Pacing is appropriate to the poem.

Understanding 1-7 points

This category is to evaluate whether the student exhibits an understanding of the poem is his or her recitation.  A strong performance relies on a powerful internalisation of the poem rather than distracting dramatic gestures.  In a strong performance, the sense of the poem is powerfully and clearly conveyed to the audience.  The student displays an interpretation that deepens and enlivens the poem.  Meanings, messages, allusions, irony, tones of voice and other nuances are captured by the performance.  A low score is awarded if the interpretation obscures the meaning of the poem or makes use of affected character voices and accents, inappropriate tone and inflection, singing, distracting and excessive gestures, or unnecessary emoting.

Performance 1-7 points

This category is to evaluate the overall success of the performance, the degree to which the recitation has become more than the sum of its parts.  Has the student captivated the audience with the language of the poem?  Did the student bring the audience to a better understanding of the poem?  Did the contestant’s physical presence enhance the recitation, engaging the audience through appropriate body language, confidence and eye contact?  Does the student understand and show mastery of the art of recitation?  The judges will use this score to measure how impressed they were by the recitation, and whether the recitation has honoured the poem.   A low score will be awarded for recitations that are poorly presented, ineffective in conveying the meaning of the poem, or conveyed in a manner inappropriate to the poem.

Accuracy 1-4 marks

A separate judge will mark missed or incorrect words during the recitation. Students will score a full 4 marks for a word-perfect recitation; 3 for a small number of errors which do not significantly affect meaning and/or flow; 2 for a recitation where the errors do affect meaning and/or flow; 1 for a recitation where occasional use is made of the prompter; 0 for a recitation which requires considerable prompting.


Additional considerations in the event of a close tie: variety, difficulty, diversity

In the event of a very close tie between two or more students, judges should consider the the level of challenge the student has chosen. This might be indicated in the variety of poems selected for recitation, with different styles, moods, language varieties, voices or settings. It might also be indicated by poem difficulty. A poem with difficult content conveys complex, sophisticated ideas, that the student will be challenged to grasp and express.  A poem with difficult language will have complexity of diction and syntax, metre and rhyme scheme, and shifts in tone or mood.  Poem length is also considered in difficulty but bear in mind that longer poems are not necessarily more difficult than shorter ones.  Judges may also consider the diversity of a student’s recitations with this score; a student is less likely to score well in this category when judges note that a student’s style of interpretation remains the same regardless of poem choice or challenge.

Want to see what it’s all about? Click on this link to watch a short video filmed by Cambridge TV at the 2016 national finals.

Poetry By Heart video

We’re back! And this year, following changes in our funding, everything is, well, same, same but different. We have exciting new flexibility to offer competitions in different formats and to widen the age range of pupils taking part. We’re going to start this new year with a single poem competition this term, by video upload, open to all pupils in Key Stages 3-5 and all school staff. Check out the details below and get stuck in! More news about the full-fat timeline competition to follow: stay in touch!

Poetry By Heart has a fantastic showcase collection of poetry written about the First World War. This competition is an opportunity to engage pupils in commemorating the centenary of the First World War with poetry remembering and recitation. Our collection includes the classics as well as many more poems by women, by speakers of other languages, and contemporary poets ‘writing back’ to the events of the past.

To take part in the competition:

1. Make sure you’re registered for the competition. If you registered with us in 2016-17 you’re already registered! If you haven’t taken part before, or not for a while, or you’re not sure, email Kath (see below for contact details).

2. Get pupils (and staff) exploring the poems in the Poetry by Heart First World War poetry showcase.

3. Inspire them to choose, learn by heart and practise reciting one poem of their choice from that collection. Check out our Learning Zone for loads of resources and contact Kath if you need some inspiration.

4. Set up a competition – for your class, your year group or your whole school, as you prefer – and run it following our rules and arrangements for judging. Here are the resources to help you:

• the list of First World War poems and the First World War poetry showcase
• the judging criteria for all Poetry By Heart competitions
• the scoresheets for all Poetry By Heart competitions
certificates to celebrate your participants (available in the Judge section of the Learning Zone)

5. Pick your winners – you can enter one pupil from Key Stage 3, one from Key Stages 4-5, and one member of school staff. You can enter all three categories or just one, as you prefer.

6. Get your winners to polish their performance and video it – no edits, no fancy production, just point and shoot! Upload your video entries to our website (instructions and support to follow) by midnight on Monday 18th December 2017.

Once we have your video entries, the judging will begin! Winners and highly commended students will be announced week beginning Monday 15th January 2018, with certificates and prizes to follow. We are working on exciting plans for a winners showcase event and will update you about that as soon as can confirm these details.

Talk to Kath Lee, Poetry By Heart Project Coordinator

Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, 9.00am-2.00pm

0117 905 5338 or email

The competition is open to pupils and staff working in all recognised educational settings, including schools, colleges, PRUs, homeschool networks, etc in England. Poetry By Heart will be delighted to accept entries from schools/colleges outside England with a fee payable to cover costs for judging and support. Talk to Kath if you’re interested.