Rhyming words are a feature of our language that run like threads throughout our lives from lullabies and nursery rhymes to the lyrics of songs we enjoy as adults. Rhyme helps make jokes funny and jingles in ads on billboards and media so much more memorable. It features in prayers and even on our gravestones.
In the world of young children across many cultures, finger plays, stories and poems are commonly couched in rhyme. Yet the ability to rhyme is a skill that does not come easily to some children who struggle to read. Some can recognise it but cannot make a word rhyme with another and some find the whole process mystifying.
Rhyme is one indicator of a child’s future success in learning to read. Early readers who can work out that the words, pin and tin sound similar, and the t takes the place of the p, have an important skill for decoding words. Likewise, it is important in spelling. If a child can spell cake, then he has a ready strategy in spelling a less familiar word like stake because the two words rhyme. This doesn’t always work in spelling especially for homophones like steak and stake, nevertheless, it is still a useful strategy.
Teaching a child to rhyme does not necessarily help him learn to read, yet my own experience is that once a child can pick up the rhythm in a text and the rhyme in the text when they decode the key words, this supports the reading of the whole text. It is just like the rap rhymes so popular now or the words of a song. Once you know the rhythm and you work out the rhyme, it supports your memory of the lyrics and we all seem to be able to do this, even those of us who find recognising or creating rhyme difficult.
I had a lovely experience recently with a young student of mine (I will call her Alicia) who has quite severe dyslexia.
Alicia was reading “In the Box”. Although she could not read all the words she picked up the rhyming words at the end of every first and third line. After the third page she said, “I can sing this story. Can we start again?” So… Alicia went back to the start and began to sing the story. Alicia still did not decode all the words accurately on the second “singing” but got many more of them correct and had a delightful reading experience.
I am not recommending children “sing” Reading Mates books. The point is once Alicia recognised that the words rhymed, she associated the words with singing and began to use her memory of the rhyme to read more fluently. Fluency in reading is very important in making sense of what is read, but more about that later.
As many of you who work with dyslexic children know, one or two or even three accurate readings of a text with a child with dyslexia, does not ensure the next nor subsequent readings will be 100 percent accurate, but I have found with rhyme, they attempt to complete the rhyming words as the rhyme supports the text.
One additional feature of using rhyme in early reading material is the fun it generates. What child doesn’t enjoy the books generated by Dr Seuss and his colleagues? They are fun because they are built upon rhyming real and nonsense words and the actions of whimsical and improbable characters. Once read a few times, they become indelibly etched on not only the child’s mind, but often his whole family’s… and the reading of these is a shared, repeated and wonderful experience… and that’s why we learn to read.
I wrote these books to give struggling readers some success in reading but more importantly, a chance to experience some of the fun and pleasure reading can provide…and I want to encourage children to keep reading. Rhyme is only one of many strategies that help support children in decoding reading material, but to me, it’s important because it has other flow-on benefits for beginning readers.