Learning Language through Nursery Rhymes

Followers of soccer teams around the world know the power of repeated chants. Often set to strong and simple melodies, when sung by the crowd they can be rousing and sometimes deafening. It is no surprise that these tunes are always memorable, even recognizable, rhyming and repetitive with a meter designed to emphasize key syllables.

"Twenty times, twenty times Man United, twenty times, twenty times, I say. Twenty times, twenty times Man United, playing football the Busby way!’ It all fits nicely to the popular evangelical hymn whose author is unknown ‘Give Me Joy In my Heart.’

Think back to the school playground where as children, we laughed when we discovered we could ‘fit’ our own words to a well-known tune. We changed the words of nursery rhymes and explored the possibilities of new and different endings to lines, experimenting with rhyme and rhythm in a natural way. 

When Manchester City defeated their closest rivals recently, those supporters, mocking United’s defensive play, were quick to hijack their song and incorporate manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's name into the lyrics instead: “Park the bus, park the bus, Man United, Park the bus, park the bus, I say. Park the bus, park the bus, Man United, playing football the Solskjaer way.”
Here is a good example of how we can explore rhyme and create our own verses based on meter.

It was no different in ancient times, when before people could read, great legends and fairytales were retold through rhyme. Classical poetry was also written in rhyming couplets. None of this was done as a form of high-art but rather to lay emphasis to the story and also to make it easier to memorize.

When it comes to early learning, we cannot underestimate the value of the ‘nursery rhyme,’ particularly those sung to a simple and easy to remember tune. Literacy enthusiasts reasonably estimate that a child who is able to recite or sing six or seven nursery rhymes by the age of four, is often among the more capable readers in the class a few years later. 

Here are five thoughtful reasons as to why this may be the case. 

  1. The repetition of simple line with strong rhyming words helps pupils early learning in the skills of phonics by hearing, identifying and re-using or applying the sounds that go with each letter.

Phonics is one of key ways to teach reading skills along with key word recognition and picture cues. The speech development from saying ‘single words’ to connecting or combining words (two or three) is best supported by repeating a rhyme. This becomes the first attempt for a child at blending words together and forming a short phrase or sentence.

  1. The rhythmic and meter construction of the easily repeatable rhyme means that children gain practice in finding their vocal pitch and volume using language with emphasize on various syllables. Variations in pronunciation usually derive from the phonetic inventory of local dialects.

A teacher’s voice and facial expression can say so much in the asking of a question or telling a story – children learn by listening and responding with excitement to the rise and fall of pitch, prolonged vowel sounds and explosive consonants. Czech composer, Leoš Janáček spoke of these ‘melodic curves of speech’ as the basis for explaining “the melodic and rhythmical mysteries of music in general.” (Letter to Jan Mikota, 1926.

It is at this time too that accents begin to form and we all know the variation in accents across different regions, even within a small distance span.

  1. Nursery rhymes can open a whole world of imagination for a child. Taken from their perspective, the imaginary world can lead us to wondrous places where there are ‘diamonds in the sky,’ where a tea-pot can describe itself and where a ‘dish ran away the spoon.’ Bringing children to these places of wonder and fantasy also enhances their play through actions associated with such rhymes. Re-enacting the action of the pouring teapot with its handle and spout becomes a valuable aspect of creative play.
  2. As more and words are heard in different contexts, vocabulary is extended. As nursery rhymes are short and rhythmic, we tend to speak more slowly when reciting them. This results in pupils being able to hear the words and how they are shaped. New words can be practiced with each new rhyme. In time, words learned here will be useful when spelling others as children associate word stems or endings that ‘sound’ the same. The discipline of listening is central to acquiring a feel for the rhymes that never leaves us through our lives. We all remember ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’ and didn’t it help when we came to spell the words ‘far, car and bar’ all because we knew ‘star.’ Or ‘still, pill and fill’ because we had discovered ‘Jack and Jill’ going up the ‘hill.’
  3. It is said that all stories can be told in a few words. Frank Sinatra’s comment on Cole Porter’s ‘Don’t Fence Me In,’ comes to mind when he said: “This has too many words.” (Whitcomb, ‘After the Ball’ 1972).

The nursery rhyme is concise and follows an order with an outcome.

Like all good stories, it is well structured. Despite its endless repetition, children still want to know what happens at the end, as they are open to surprise over and again. Endings matter in the human psyche! Maybe that’s why some of us will flick through the last chapter of a book before deciding to purchase it. The point is that the attention span of the child is heightened when using rhyme and verse to tell a story however short.

As children grow, they will never forget their favourite rhymes. These will be incorporated into their own play time in and out of school, at the birthday party, on the bus, at bedtime or in the garden. In an effortless way, they are thinking about language and communication, gaining more confidence in the use of words. It may even be their own words, with attempts of make a rhyme and this too is fun. The 18th Century English poet, Charles Churchill satirically described such creations as “varnishing nonsense with the charms of sound.”

The sense of joy and excitement that comes with discovering new words is followed by a desire to use language and so read and later, write.

‘Catchy’ songs with simple words and short rhymes are real contributors to a child’s linguistic development. And we all love a short funny verse especially when set to a good melody. We feel comfortable still as adults when words rhyme, maybe a throwback to being on the street with a skipping rope or a ball and singing to ourselves as we counted to the steps and found an order or symmetry in the movement.

It is no wonder then that in Old Trafford and other stadia around the world, week after week, grown adults love to sing short chants with rhyme, rhythm and repetition. One voice begins and we all join in. It’s almost like a call to order.

At times, a lone drummer will hammer out a steady drum beat as a suitable accompaniment and inspire the crowd to clap instinctively or raise their arms on the strong pulse beat (the natural first beat of each bar). To many this may seem like a tribal chant and it really does tell us so much of our inherent desire to express ourselves individually and collectively.

These coordinated voices date back to the 10th Century BC and our instinct to break into song has its origins in the playgrounds where we freely sang the nursery rhymes we had been taught and where for the first time, we heard our own voice as part of the human race.

 

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