Cognitive tools: Rhyme and Rhythm

This topic may need least discussion here, as most teachers will be familiar with the various uses they can make of rhyme and rhythm in teaching literacy. Both rhyme and rhythm are by-products of oral language development. That is, whatever purposes drove the development of language were aimed at uses other than these by-products. But as with all humans’ tool development, whether physical or cognitive, once something is available we begin to explore and exploit all the possible ways we can use it. So people long ago discovered that the various sounds developed for communication could be shaped and patterned for greater impact, memorization, and for pleasure.

In teaching literacy we can help our students’ exploration and exploitation of rhyme and rhythm to show how they can increase both the impact and the pleasure of literacy. That is, these cognitive tools come along with oral language and they are available, like the other cognitive tools discussed here, to aid our students in learning literacy. For reasons that may be clear to any parent or teacher, typical four year olds fall around in hysterics at such old jokes as:

“Knock, knock.”

“Who’s there?”

“Mickey Mouse’s underwear.”

The illogicality is overwhelmed by the fun of the rhyme and, to the four-year-old, the risqué content. And, as we have suggested in the pages dealing with jokes and humour[link to Jokes and Humour page], we can see how incongruity is one of the mechanisms that makes the joke work for the average four-year-old. Children can be set in groups to invent their own variants, with varying degrees of direction and help given by the teacher.

we develop a sense of the appropriate rhythms of expectation and satisfaction, hope and realization, fear and nemesis

It is hard to think of any of the usual practical activities of literacy classes that cannot be enlivened by introducing rhyme and rhythm.  Again, we don’t want to use these readily accessible resources all the time, but recognizing that they are capacities already well developed by our students, it would be unwise not to draw on them with some frequency.

Give me a few quick example of how I might easily teach about, and help students practice using, rhyme and rhythm in literacy classes.

1. Teachers might encourage students to feel language and its rhythms as tied closely to their body and its rhythms.  One can start a small game with musical words, like “sing, sang, sung” or “ring, rang, rung.”  Then ask the students to place their thumb and forefinger on their Adam’s apple as they sound these words aloud.  As they move from present “sing,” to past “sang,” and to past participle, “sung,” the vowels follow the pattern back in the throat.  As the students write the words, the teacher can ask them to reflect on the shortness of the vowel in the present tense, the longer vowel for the past, and the longest for the past participle.

2. Of universal appeal are nursery rhymes, such as the Mother Goose collections. They give delight, they introduce vocabulary, the make language “visible,” they introduce the pleasure of patterned speech, they introduce a sense of history and different times, places, and conventions, and they hint at deeper meanings below their surfaces, and so introduce children to poetry and prepare them for more sophisticated poems.

Ring a ring o’ roses,

A pocketful of posies.

Tisha! Tisha!

We all fall down.

There’s a simple rhyme, cheerfully played out by generations of children, that carries in it the folk memory of the Black Death of 700 years ago. And there is poignancy in those odd rhymes, like: “There was an old woman / Lived under the hill;/ And if she’s not gone, / She lives there still.” And what’s going on in “Jack be nimble, Jack be quick, / Jack jump over the candlestick”? Or in: “Old Mother Goose, when she wanted to wander, / Would ride through the air on a very fine gander”? And “Here am I, little jumping Joan, / When nobody’s with me I’m always alone.” And what history is wrapped in: “Lucy Locket lost her pocket, / Kitty Fisher found it; / Nothing in it, nothing in it, / But the binding round it”? And who were Lucy and Kitty? Well, from some accounts, better not to ask. And what about “the little boy who lives down the lane,” or, in some versions, “who cries down the lane” who is not going to get Baa Baa Black Sheep’s wool? There he sits since our childhood, wool-less still, and for reasons we don’t know. Such questions are not explicit in the child’s mind, of course, but they are hidden echoes and stimuli to thought that come along with the rhymes, and may detonate only years later.

Children’s own abilities to generate rhymes and rhythms can be developed on the back of nursery rhymes they already have learned. A simple activity might involve the teacher changing the first line of a known nursery rhyme and asking the children to suggest a new second line, such as this one that Ms. Eaton’s class produced:

Humpty-Dumpty sat on a chair.

Humpty-Dumpty had a great scare.

All the king’s horses,

And all the king’s cows,

Couldn’t get Humpty to come out of the house.

(In this case she also switched the last word of the fourth line.)

She then had the children work in groups and gave each group a varied first line to work with, and one of the groups came up with:

Moo, moo, black cow,

Have you any milk,

Yes, sir, yes sir,

Carried home in silk.

Another group produced “One, Two, / Buckle my belt; / Three, four, / How tight it felt.” Another set had “One, two, / Buckle my lip;/ Three, four, / Can’t eat a chip.” Then there was: “Jack be nimble, Jack be strong, / Jack go hit the dinner gong.” Another: “Jack be nimble, Jack be bold, / Jack never did what he was told.” “Jack be nimble, Jack be clever, / Jack pull down the toilet lever.” Oh well—the children produced many more and had a good time doing it.

3. A basic chant (with a snap-snap-clap pattern) would help students remember the rules for use of different punctuation marks.  For example:

“A period is just a dot/it really doesn’t take a lot;

After a period start anew/use a Capital as a cue;

With a period the phrase is done/try it out – have some fun!”

This very cheesy rap took about 3 minutes to make up (you could probably tell). The same could be done by the teacher or by students themselves for other forms of punctuation.

How else can we employ rhyme and rhythm in teaching?

Here we will give a series of examples of how a teacher can use and develop students’ literacy capacities in everyday classrooms, associating “rhyme and rhythm” with many of the other cognitive tools in lesson plans you can use. Click here to link to a variety of lesson ideas.

Some concluding words about rhyme and rhythm

When children play with rhyme and rhythm they are sharing an activity that has given small but continuous pleasure to human beings from the beginnings of language use, everywhere in the world. No child now does it but nearly all English speaking children are familiar with “One, two / Buckle my shoe.” These simple poems, in which sense is often a distant second to good strong rhythms and clear ringing rhymes, are foundational to a wide range of literate achievements. They introduce not just patterns of language but also, with it, possibilities of wit and much laughter. These are not gifts to ignore in the literacy classroom.