Poetry for Life: Guide for Schools

How to run the initial round of the Poetry for Life competition at school level.

STEP 1 - Launch your competition: tell everyone when and where it will be happening

You will need to make some decisions as to how big you think your contest might be in order to book an appropriate space for it. This will depend on the number of competitors you hope to have and the size of your audience. Encourage a large audience. The aim of the competition is to recite poetry to an audience so the participants need to be exposed to this. As long as you have three participants competing, your contest is valid, but how far you take it is up to you.

You can download the poster to help you promote the event widely, but be as inventive as you like in how you market the competition. As long as the competition at your school level abides by the Poetry for Life rules and scoring, we welcome your creative ideas for bringing poetry alive in your community.

STEP 2 - At the school level, get students fired up and ready to take part

After the initial launch of your school competition, the most important thing to do is to make sure students know about our website, where all the poems can be accessed. Use the search box to find particular poems, poets or even words within poems. Remember that students need to select one poem from the International section, and one poem from the South African section.

STEP 3 - Plan a lively contest and invite an audience


You must have a minimum of 3 competitors to select a school winner and take part in the next phase of the competition. Ideally, you will have 6 to 15 students competing in the school final - this is a good number for a competition lasting 1-2 hours. You can of course, have many more students than that taking part. If you have a high number of entrants, you can hold class or grade group heats with winners from these going forward to the school final. It’s up to you.

Rounds and scoring

If you have heats, students may recite one poem from any part of the Poetry for Life anthology. The student with the highest judging score wins.

In the school final, to select a winner to go through to the District phase, there must be two rounds. Students must recite one poem from the Poetry For Life anthology in each round: one from the International section and one from the South African section. Students must recite one poem in each round, not their two poems consecutively. The first round will be International poetry; the second will be the South African poetry.

Students must provide the titles and poet's name in advance to the competition organiser. Students may not change their selections once they have been submitted. This will enable the organiser to have copies of the poems collated for the judges and prompt, and the competition evaluation forms prepared.


Reserve the school theatre, hall, library, learning resource centre or other appropriate venue. The ideal setting will have a stage and theatre style seating with an enthusiastic and supportive audience. Competitors will stand alone on stage in front of the audience while reciting their poems. Other competitors may either be seated to the side of the stage, in the front row of the audience or backstage. Depending on the size of the venue, amplification and lighting may be appropriate.


A school final should be timed to run no longer than 2 hours; any longer than that can be difficult for the audience. In structuring your competition, keep in mind that each recitation takes approximately 3 to 4 minutes. Judging will require another minute to mark scores, an average of 4 to 5 minutes per recitation. If more than 12 students are taking part, you might like to alter the structure so that some students go out of the competition after the first round, leaving a smaller number to battle it out in the second round. Please feel free to contact us if you want some help working it out!

Evaluation & Accuracy Forms

Download the Poetry for Life 'Evaluation Form' & 'Accuracy Form' (under Download) and print enough copies for the judges to have one for each contestant in each round. Fill in the names of the participants, and titles of the poems they will recite. Have these in the order of recitation before the competition, with one set for each judge.

Sample Schedule

A typical school competition may look something like the sample schedule below, based on 10 students, an average recitation time of 3-4 minutes each, and 1 minute between recitations for scoring. You can run the competition during the school day or as an evening event, as you prefer.




Welcoming remarks and introduction of the judging panel, prompt, and accuracy judge. Thank supporters and special guests. Recap the judging criteria


Round 1: Students recite their International poems


Short break with words from MC, maybe a poet reading, music or anything else in keeping with the event which the audience would enjoy


Round 2: Students recite their South African poems


Judges complete scoring and identify winner and runner-up


Announcement of winner and runner-up, closing thank-yous


End: can be extended with a performance of music, a poetry reading, refreshments or other social occasion for the participants to be cheered and congratulated by their peers, families and communities


STEP 4 - Get the people you need lined up

In addition to you, the organiser, you will need a team of people to help you. It's best to get these lined up as soon as possible. The organiser's role is to stimulate and support participation by students and teachers, organise the smooth running of your competition, make sure the judging is fair and follows all the Poetry for Life rules and criteria, and communicate with the Poetry for Life team. 

Class judge: Class or grade group heats need only be judged by one adult, usually the class teacher, though it is acceptable to involve others from the school or the wider community.

School Competition judges: There must be at least three judges, including one accuracy judge, but you can have a bigger panel if you prefer. Judges could be drawn from teaching and library staff, or you may invite some community members to judge the competition. Appropriate judges might be local poets, actors, professors, tutors, arts reporters, politicians, governors or community leaders and mentors. Judges should have some knowledge and enthusiasm for poetry although they need not be experts.

Prompt: It is important to have someone following along with the recitations, ready to prompt a student who may get stuck on a line. Have a copy of the poems to be recited ready for the prompt, in order of recitation. This role can be combined with that of the accuracy judge.

Scorer: While the competition is taking place, someone needs to tabulate the judges' scores so that no time is wasted totalling scores after the recitations are finished. A spreadsheet works well for this purpose but remember to test it works beforehand. It is useful to have a runner who can collect score sheets from the judges after each recitation.

Ushers: Depending on how much of an event you want to make your competition, you may like to create a programme for the event that lists the competitors and the poems they will be reciting.  Ushers could give these out and direct audience members to their seats.

MC: An MC will guide the competition from start to finish, providing welcoming remarks, introducing judges and students, and announcing winners. The MC will make sure judges have enough time to complete their scoring before the next student begins to recite. The MC may entertain the audience, share biographical information about the poets or student performers, introduce live or recorded music, or otherwise fill time between recitations or rounds.

STEP 5 - Make sure your judges know what they have to do

The judges will need time to prepare. This can be done through email and phone contact before the event; or supplemented with a short judges' meeting before the students arrive.

The evaluation criteria and scoring process for judging a competition are available - see under Judging Criteria.
Judges might also like to read the poems they will be judging: all available on the website too.

Once settled in, give your judges their stack of Evaluation forms, on which the competitors' names and the poems chosen should already be written, in the order of recitation. Make sure the judges have the judging criteria available in front of them.
Only the accuracy judge should have a copy of the poems; only the accuracy judge should judge accuracy!

The accuracy judge may also function as the prompt. S/he should sit directly in front of the stage, in case a student gets stuck. The use of a prompt will primarily affect the student's accuracy score, but may also affect his/her overall performance. As each student recites, the prompt should follow the text of the poem. If the student gets stuck, s/he should pause and look directly at the prompt. At that point, s/he will be given the next few words of the poem. If s/he is still stuck, s/he may be given a few more words. If a contestant forgets a line, but moves ahead to a later part of the poem without looking at the prompt, the prompt should just follow the text and note the missing lines.

Judges in all phases of the competition must use the official Evaluation forms to evaluate each performance. Judges must not discuss performances or scores during the rounds of the contest. After each student's performance, the Evaluation forms should be collected by a scorer and added together. Students will each have 1 score for the International poetry round, and 1 score for the South African poetry round. These 2 scores should be added together and the total score for each student returned to the judging panel to provide a basis for agreeing the winner and runner up.

In each phase of the competition, judges may retire to discuss the cumulative scores before announcing the winner.

In the event of a tie, or judges not being able to announce a clear winner, the top-performing students must recite one poem again for a separate tie-break score. They may choose to recite either of the poems they have already recited in that contest.

If a judge feels that he or she has a conflict of interest, s/he should say so as soon as possible. Early disclosure of any potential conflicts of interest (or the appearance of any) will help organisers to keep the integrity of the competition, and make it fair for all competitors. Potential conflicts of interest include:

Being a friend or relative of one of the contestants (applies in all contests)

Being a teacher or coach of one of the contestants (applies in District contests)

Being an alumni of the competing schools (applies in District contests)

Being a poet whose work appears in the anthology (applies in all contests)

STEP 6 - Hold your contest

This is the exciting bit! Make sure you've pulled in every favour you're owed so you have enough help on the day getting your venue ready, preparing score sheets, testing microphones (if you're using them), making sure you have someone to take photographs, and whatever else you're doing to make your contest lively, fun and smooth-running.

You may want to invite your judges in a little earlier to make sure everyone is briefed and clear about the scoring system. It's also nice if they have a chance to get to know each other a little. You may also want to have a little walk-through with the students before the audience arrives, just to make sure they know where they need to stand, the running order and likely timings, and how they should introduce their poem and poet (see below). This is likely to make everyone feel more relaxed and comfortable.

Introducing the poem

At the competition, the MC should introduce students as they come to the stage to recite. It is the student's job to identify the poem by announcing the title and the poet, e.g. '''Ozymandias” by Percy Bysshe Shelley’.  A student's own comments before or after the poem are not permitted. The poem must be delivered by heart, from memory.


During the competition, seat the judges a little away from the rest of the audience so they are not distracted. Judges should not have any interaction with the contestants or the audience until the competition has ended. Judges must not discuss their scores during the rounds – they should rate recitations individually on their own merit. After each recitation, the scorer or his/her runner will collect the completed Evaluation and Accuracy forms and tabulate the scores; warn judges that they will not be able to change scores after this. The scores from each round are totalled to provide a basis for selecting the winner and runner-up. Judges may retire to discuss the scores before announcing the winner and runner-up.


Seat the prompt in the centre of the front row and show students where they are sitting before the competition begins. If a competitor is stuck for several seconds and looks to the prompt for help, the prompt may provide the next few words of the poem to get the student back on track.


Access the 'Certificate of Participation' (under Download) and print one copy for each student who took part.

STEP 7 - Tell the Poetry for Life team the name of your contest winner and runner-up

After your contest, please let the Poetry for Life team know the outcome as soon as possible. We need to know about the winner and one runner-up. Only the winner can progress to the next phase, but we need to know who the runner-up is in case the winner is unable to attend for any reason. We want to know which poems were recited so that we can keep track of which poems are and aren't popular.

Please email us the following details for the winner and the runner-up :
            School name; Student Name; Grade; International and South African poems recited in this contest.

Please let us know if your student changes his/her poem, at least a week before the next stage of the competition.

STEP 8 - Promote your contest

To help you promote your contest, you can access 'Poetry for Life Poster' (under Download) and print multiple copies to advertise the competition around your school. Encourage some of your students to take care of this dimension, promoting Poetry for Life in your school and area. You or your students could also blog about it, tweet it, write about it on your web-page, and share the story in whatever manner with people in your community. Like our Facebook page and invite friends to like it too. Follow us on Instagram.

STEP 9 - Support your contest winner in preparing for the next round

In helping your winner prepare for the District, Provincial and National rounds, you might encourage them to think about the increasing challenge they will face as they battle it out with other regional winners. Encourage them to review the judging criteria and scoring system to help think about any areas they might improve.

The key tip is this: less is more.

Remember that students can change their poems at this stage, if they want to, as long as the final selection is confirmed to the Poetry for Life team at least one week before the date of the next stage.

STEP 10 - Argue with the Anthology

Poetry for Life is part of a global family of national poetry recitation competitions, including Poetry Out Loud in the USA, the bilingual Poetry in Voice in Canada, Poetry Aloud in Ireland, Poetry by Heart in England and Talk the Poem in the Caribbean. All of these competitions require students to select poems for performance from a specially chosen collection. Having an anthology makes the competition fairer as no-one is privileged by prior knowledge of poems and poets. It avoids the danger that students merely reprise poems specified for their exams, or a favourite rap lyric they already know off by heart, or only simple poems that they think will be easy to remember. For students who want to roam further, it offers a “walled garden” with sufficient diversity to enjoy and find one’s own pleasures and the security of knowing any choice made will be valid.

The International selection for the Poetry for Life Anthology has been taken largely from the anthology provided by Poetry by Heart; the South African selection has been chosen by local South African educators and poets.

This is what the Poetry by Heart selectors had to say about their anthology:

“The anthology is serious and playful, accessible and ambitious, ‘classic’ and contemporary… The poems are as diverse in language, style and form as the poets who wrote them, and the anthology offers a chronologically coherent range of poems from different periods, such that teachers and students have a foundation for exploring poetry over time. Above all, it has the character and spice of an anthology selected by poets.”

We have attempted to mirror these criteria and sentiments in the South African selection, and hope we have achieved that.

However, as the Poetry by Heart team recognizes: “The valuing inherent in making any selection of poems will – and should always be – open to questioning, discussion and debate. We hope that you, your students, your library readers and arts centre users will join us in that debate during the life of this year’s competition.”

Which poems and poets would you add?

Which poems and poets would you remove?

Which poems would you replace by existing poets?

Talk to us – see "Contact Us"

We at Poetry for Life owe a huge debt of gratitude to the Poetry by Heart team, who not only inspired us to start up and hold our own competition in South Africa, but have extended help in so many ways, from allowing us complete access to all their information and promotional material, to granting us the right to piggy-back on their anthology, to applying and adapting their rules and criteria. They have lent us their ear, their experience and their expertise. Without them the launch of our competition would not have been possible. We hope it bears fruit under the sunny skies of South Africa. May the rainbow nation rise to the challenge!

www.poetryforlife.co.za - 23 April 2019