Invent your own transport kennings

In this activity students respond to images from the collections of the State Library, experimenting with vocabulary choices to engage the listener or reader through the construction of kennings that describe the objects in these images. Students then write poems consisting of kennings.
Stimulus: #1: 
Eight photos of types of transport from the nineteenth and twentieth century

Text Type

  • Imaginative: Students compose their own kennings
  • Imaginative: Students compose poetry based on kennings

Background notes for teachers


Etymology: (etymology is the study of the origin of words)

Old Norse verb kenna “know, recognise; perceive, feel; show; teach; etc.”, as used in the expression kenna við “to name after; to express (one thing) in terms of (another)

What is a kenning?

A kenning is a way of describing an object or person without referring to them directly. They are a form of metaphor.

A kenning will use a riddle or poetic phrase to substitute for a noun. Usually, objects will be described in a two-word phrase, such as 'whale-road' or ‘seal’s field’ for 'sea'. In the best kennings one element of the phrase will create an unexpected comparison.

Originally used in Anglo-Saxon and Norse poetry, Kennings date from a time when swords might be described as a “widow-maker” or “a death bringer”, arrows as “war needles” or a battle as “metal-thunder”. An Anglo Saxon poet, known as a scop, would commonly use alliteration in their kennings, but not all do so.

Some kennings rhyme or use consonance, or repetition of the consonant sound. The kenning “sea-steed” for a boat or ship, repeats the consonant “s”. A steed is another name for a horse.

Types of kennings

Open kenning (adjective noun format-or adverb noun) 

  • flying mouse (bat)   
  • frozen road (ice covered river)
  • white death (avalanche)    

Hyphenated kenning (noun-noun format or verb-noun)

  • bone-house (human body)           
  • word-fisher (poet)    
  • shiver-powder (snow)
  • word-hoard (good vocabulary, an eloquent person)   
  • water-rope (icicle)
  • button-talking (texting on a mobile phone)

Possessive kenning ('s or s' format using an apostrophe)

  •  whale's road (the sea)   
  •  the knife’s wife (fork)         
  • Sky’s black cloak (night)

Prepositional kenning  (add any preposition)

  • giver of gold (king)              
  • bed of fishes (bottom of the sea)  
  • ship of night (moon)

A preposition links nouns, pronouns and phrases to other parts of a sentence. Common prepositions include: about, above, across, after, against, along, among, around, at, before, behind, below, beneath, beside, between, beyond, but, by, despite, down, during, except, for, from, in, inside, into, like, near, of, off, on, onto, out, outside, over, past, since, through, throughout, till, to, toward, under, underneath, until, up,  upon, with, within, and without.

Student Activities

Limbering up

Students decipher a number of kennings to identify the noun they are describing. 

Number of set tasks: 1

List poems

Students construct a list poem made up of kennings. 

Number of set tasks: 1

Choose your own kennings adventure

Students investigate the State Library's collection of images to find their own form of transport on which to write a kennings. 

Number of set tasks: 1

Activity notes for teachers

A list poem consists of a list or inventory of things. The poem is created by a list of images that build up to describe its subject.

The list poem is an ancient tradition in poetry and there are examples in The Iliad by Homer and in the Bible. The poet Christopher Smart composed a famous list poem which details all the daily activities of his cat Jeoffrey.

List poems are often very deliberately organised and are not simply random lists of images. This types of poem often concludes with a startling or surprising image, making the last line an important element of the poem.

In this activity, students create a list poem consisting of a list of kennings that describe a form of transport. 

The collection of the State Library of New South Wales includes thousands of images of types of transport. Many of these images are available for access online.

Among the strengths of the collection are ship illustrations (strongest in later nineteenth century and early twentieth century ships) and aviation images.

In this activity your students will create kennings to describe types of transport depicted in artworks such as paintings, watercolours, drawings, prints and photographs from the online collection of the State Library of New South Wales. Students will search the online collections to find their own image of a form of transport that will be the inspiration for their writing.

Use the Manuscripts and Pictures catalogue to search for digital copies of paintings, photographs, illustrations, etc in the Library’s collection (hint: in the search function, select “records with images”).

NSW Syllabus for the Australian Curriculum: English K-10

A student:

  • plans, composes and reviews a range of texts that are more demanding in terms of topic, audience and language EN2-2A
  • identifies and uses language forms and features in their own writing appropriate to a range of purposes, audiences and contexts EN2-7B
  • identifies and compares different kinds of texts when reading and viewing and shows an understanding of purpose, audience and subject matter EN2-8B
  • uses effective and accurate sentence structure, grammatical features, punctuation conventions and vocabulary relevant to the type of text when responding to and composing texts EN2-9B




Understand and apply knowledge of language forms and features

  • understand, interpret and experiment with a range of devices and deliberate word play in poetry and other literary texts, for example nonsense words, spoonerisms, neologisms and puns

Respond to and compose texts

  • plan, compose and review imaginative and persuasive texts


Understand and apply knowledge of language forms and features

  • understand how a range of language features can shape readers' and viewers' understanding of subject matter


Understand and apply knowledge of language forms and features

  • recognise the use of figurative language in texts, eg similes, metaphors, idioms and personification, and discuss their effects


Understand and apply knowledge of vocabulary

  • experiment with vocabulary choices to engage the listener or reader
  • experiment with figurative language when composing texts to  engage an audience, eg similes, metaphors, idioms and personification

In each year of Stage 2 students must study examples of:

  • visual texts
  • media, multimedia and digital texts

Across the stage, the selection must give student experience of:

  • a wide range of cultural, social and gender perspectives, popular and youth cultures
  • an appropriate range of digital texts, including film, media and multimedia
  • everyday and community texts

Learning across the curriculum

General capabilities

  • creative and critical thinking