How to Scan a Poem

If you need to indicate the stressed and unstressed syllables in a poem, you don't need to have a naturally musical ear. By going through a basic process step-by-step, you can probably scan a poem with relative certainty.


  1. Image titled Scan a Poem Step 1
    Determine whether your poem is a sonnet: if it has fourteen lines and some recognizable rhyme scheme. Assume it is iambic pentameter, and then do these steps with that mindset. If it's not, it still may very well be in iambic meter, which is the most popular meter for closed-form poems.
  2. Image titled Scan a Poem Step 2
    Read the poem out loud and see if you notice a particular rhythm in your first reading.
  3. Image titled Scan a Poem Step 3
    Count the number of syllables in each line, and write that number at the end of the line. Do you see a pattern in the number of syllables?
  4. Image titled Scan a Poem Step 4
    Put an accent mark (/) over any syllables that absolutely have to be stressed. The way you can figure this out is by trying to say the word several times, each time exaggerating a different syllable. ("AR-tist" or "ar-TIST") (One way will sound much better). You can look words up in the dictionary if you need to.
  5. Image titled Scan a Poem Step 5
    Put a "u" over the unstressed syllables.
  6. Image titled Scan a Poem Step 6
    See if the poem is iambic (u/), or sets of one unstressed syllable with one stressed ("ta-DAH!"). If it is, see if you can put in all of the other stress and unstress marks.
  7. Image titled Scan a Poem Step 7
    Once you see a pattern (for example, unstressed, unstressed, stressed; unstressed, unstressed, stressed . . . ), mark a vertical line between each unit of the pattern. Those are your "feet."
  8. Image titled Scan a Poem Step 8
    Read the poem aloud again, this time really accentuating the words you have marked as "stressed." Does it sound right?
  9. Image titled Scan a Poem Step 9
    Once you're finished with that, see whether each foot in the the poem is a(n): iamb (unstressed-stressed u/), trochee (stressed-unstressed /u), anapest (unstressed-unstressed-stressed uu/), dactyl (stressed-unstressed-unstressed /uu), spondee (stressed-stressed //) or pyrrhic (unstressed-unstressed uu).
  10. Image titled Scan a Poem Step 10
    Count how many feet each line has. It will probably be one of these: Monometer (one foot), Dimeter (two feet), Trimeter (three feet), Tetrameter (four feet), Pentameter (five feet), or Hexameter (six feet).
  11. Image titled Scan a Poem Step 11
    Put the foot name as an adjective first and the number of feet as a noun second, and there you go! ("iambic pentameter," "dactylic hexameter," "trochaic tetrameter," etc.)


  • Most poems written in couplets (with two rhyming words in a row) will end with a stressed syllable.
  • Some words, like "rebellion" will sometimes be three syllables and sometimes four.
  • Most two-syllable words in English stress the first syllable.
  • Most iambic poems have monosyllabic words at the beginning of the lines (especially articles like "the" "an" and "a").


  • Don't second guess yourself over and over!
  • The first foot of the poem might be reversed, to put emphasis on the initial syllable.
  • Beware of the first words in a line: the metrical pattern can sometimes differ from the rest of the line.

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Categories: Poetry