The development of speech and language is a continuous process that begins in the first three years of life and is intricately linked to a child’s earliest experiences with ‘parentese’, conversations, turn-taking, songs, nursery rhymes, action games, stories, and picture books. One of the key predictors for literacy success is how well children know their nursery rhymes.
Singing nursery rhymes or reading simple nursery rhyme books help children to develop speech and language skills. Rhyming words such as ‘cat’ and ‘hat’ encourage children to differentiate between similar sounds and letters and to develop phonemic awareness before they go to school. Rhymes also help children to identify words that don’t rhyme, to predict the missing word at the end of a phrase, to make up strings of rhymes such as ‘cat’, ‘hat’ , ‘bat’ and ‘mat’ and to retell stories without using a book.
However, a Government survey, which received coverage in The Telegraph (2019a, 2019b) found that 8% of children under five in the UK had never learned songs, poems, or nursery rhymes. In the same group 14% of four and five year-olds lacked early communication and literacy skills and 12% had never learnt numbers or how to count. To equip children with the skills they need when they go to school, it is important for parents to sing nursery rhymes from an early age.
Rhythm and rhyme
Nursery rhymes have a simple, predictable, rhythmic pattern that help children to memorise speech patterns. Twinkle, Twinkle for example, has 6 notes within the child’s pitch range C - A, and a clear beginning, middle, and end. The rhyme also starts and ends in the same way and is repeated, which enables the child to anticipate each phrase of the song and join in with the singing and actions.
Rhymes with a simple, steady beat and lots of repetitive language such as Pat-a-cake and Round and Round the Garden are ideal for babies. Energetic action songs with more varied tones, beats, and rhythms such as The Grand Old Duke of York and London Bridge is Falling Down are ideal for older children because they help them recognise differences in pitch, melody, and repeated sound patterns.
When the parent sings a nursery rhyme, words and phrases slow down making speech easier for the child to hear and follow. The child also builds up a vocabulary of words long before the meaning is understood.
Number rhymes such as Five Little Speckled Frogs and Ten Fat Sausages introduce children to numbers, patterns, and sequences. They also include repeating, rhythmic patterns that make learning to count fun!
Benefits of nursery rhymes
Listening to and singing nursery rhymes helps the child to:
• Learn new words
• Build vocabulary
• Improve comprehension
• Develop listening skills • Identify sound changes in words • Feel the rhythm and beat of a particular rhyme
• Recognise differences in melody - such as verse and chorus
• Identify the different rhythms, stresses, and intonations of language
• Recognise repeated sound patterns
• Memorise speech patterns through repetition
• Learn whole rhymes off by heart from a young age
• Mirror actions such as clapping, patting, stamping
• Take turns
• Release stress and tension
• Develop manipulative skills • Improve coordination
• Maintain attention and concentration
• Increase social skills
• Think creatively
• Establish a sense of order (mathematical reasoning)
• Develop a love of books and stories
• Understand the culture in which they live
• Connect to the past
If the rhythms and words are simple and repetitive, children will enjoy the feeling of mastery as they come to learn them by heart, which raises their self-esteem and sense of belonging.
When parents regularly sing nursery rhymes, the child’s vocabulary increases, memory grows stronger, and thinking becomes more creative.
Silly rhymes, nonsensical verse and traditional rhymes are appealing to children. That’s why they have been passed down from generation to generation and are still popular today.