A small advertisement in the newspaper caught my eye the other day.

“Children who know 8 nursery rhymes by the age of 4 are usually among the best readers and spellers in the class by the age of 8.”

Tiny print along the bottom of the ad gave the name of a literacy agency and its website.  Curious about the statement, I followed the trail, first to the agency’s website and then on to other literacy-based ones.

imagesM7JZAIOUQuestions about how we learn to read and write, and especially why some of us become proficient at these skills while others do not, have long interested me. Reading aloud to children at an early age is one key to literacy, and it was a practice I employed when our own children were young – a long time ago now. We spent many happy hours together sharing stories just before bedtime, first from picture books like Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar and  Robert Munsch’s Love You Forever, then as the kids edged towards adolescence, novels the likes of  J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter, Ken Oppel’s Sunwing, and Lois Lowry’s The Giver.

Today, both our “kids” are avid readers and competent writers and I give credit to the read-aloud experience for a good part of that. Research backs me up, too.  One study maintains that a child needs to have 1000 books read to them before they are ready to begin reading themselves.

But the newspaper ad claimed something slightly different – a benchmark connection to nursery rhymes, and in particular to memorizing poetry.  Here are a few other facts about nursery rhymes-poetry that I gleaned from my research:

  • Children who don’t recognize that two words rhyme, like head and bed, have a hard time learning to read
  • Children who are able to rhyme can make more guesses about what a word might be when they are reading.
  • Rhymes are a great way to learn early phonic skills (the ability to hear, identify, and manipulate letter sounds)
  • Nursery rhymes are easy to repeat so they become some of a child’s first sentences
  • Rhymes contain sophisticated literary devices – alliteration, onomatopoeia and the like are imbedded in many of them
  • Rhyming poetry often tells a story that follows a sequence of events with a beginning, middle and end – a precursor to understanding complex story structure

Dr. SeussWhile there are classic nursery rhymes – the whole Mother Goose series, for one – there are modern takes, too.  Anyone who has read Dr. Seuss aloud to a toddler can testify to its power.  (“Hands, hands, fingers, thumb…” still resonates with my “kids”, and occasionally the patter resurfaces in my head, refusing to leave no matter how hard I try).

The writing of rhyming poems and rhyming stories seems deceptively simple, but anyone who has tried it knows it’s not that easy. I discovered this myself when writing a couple of alphabet books for Sleeping Bear Press.  Every letter of the alphabet stood for something, and while I was allowed 150 words of expository text to develop content for middle-years readers, a simple 4 line rhyming fact-based poem for younger readers had to accompany each page.  Trying to align facts into a rigid structure was difficult, and getting rhythm, rhyme and explanation to play well with each other took some doing – lots of rewriting, clapping of hands/stamping of feet to check patterns, consulting a rhyming dictionary when desperate, and now and then a mumbled curse word or two.

S is for ScientistsHere’s a sample from S is for Scientists: A Discovery Alphabet where the letter Q tells about the dramatic moment when Percy Spencer discovered the magnetron’s awesome power, all of which eventually led to the development of a favourite kitchen appliance– the microwave oven:

Q is for Question
Questions popped into Percy’s head:
he wondered how and why
chocolate could have turned to mush
and eggs could be made to fly.

Like I said, deceptively simple, but time consuming to craft.

Writing-Picture-Books-coverAnyone interested in writing rhyming material would be well advised to consult Ann Whitford Paul’s Writing Picture Books (Writer’s Digest Books, 2009).  Paul devotes a couple of chapters to the subject of rhythm, the sounds letters make, and the four basic rhyme schemes that commonly populate picture books.  Each of the four fosters a unique mood that a writer can harness: iambic – comforting because it emulates the human heartbeat; anapest – humourous; trochee – more serious; dactyl – darker still. To internalize rhythms and patterns, Paul suggests that writers memorize poems in each of the 4 categories then recite them over and over.  She recites hers on morning walks, keeping pace, I assume, with each one’s distinctive beat.

If nothing else, writing in rhyme can be a playful way to unleash your creative self.  Paul includes this quote by Theodore Geisel, more famously known as Dr. Seuss: “Write a verse a day, not to send to publishers, but to throw in wastebaskets.  It will help your prose.  It will give you swing.  Shorten paragraphs and sentences, then shorten words…Use verbs.  Let the kids fill in the adjectives…”