Learning Language Through Nursery Rhymes

Posted by the edtapper on 3.05.2018


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.


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 Jose Mourinho’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 Mourinho 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 which are 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 one 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 development of speech from a child 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. A teacher’s voice and facial expression can mean a lot 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)
  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, or where I can buy three bags of sheep’s wool. Bringing children to these places of wonder and fantasy also enhances their play through actions associated with such rhymes. Re-enacting the action of becoming 'a pouring teapot complete with handle and spout' becomes a valuable aspect of creative play.
  1. As children hear more words used in different contexts, thier vocabulary is extended. Because nursery rhymes are short and rhythmic, we tend to speak more slowly when we recite them. This results in pupils being able to properly hear the words and how they came to be shaped. New words can be practiced as each new rhyme is taught. In time, words learned it this way will be useful when spelling others, as children associate word stems or endings that ‘sound’ similar. The discipline of listening is central to acquiring a feel for the rhymes that never leaves us throughout 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.’
  1. 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 a final outcome. Like all good stories, it is well structured. Despite its endless repetition, children still want to know what happens at the end, as ever inquisitive minds are open to surprise over and again. Endings matter in the human psyche! Maybe that’s why some of us will flick through to 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, while gaining more confidence in the use of words. It may even be their own words that they use when attempting to make a rhyme and this too is fun. The 18thCentury 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 be able to 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 even feel comfortable as adults when words rhyme, maybe a throwback to being on the street with a skipping rope or in the park with a ball, singing to ourselves as we counted 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 then 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 that tells us a lot about our inherent desire to express ourselves individually and collectively.

Such coordinated voices date back to the 10th Century BC - a fair indication that the instinct to break into song may well be innate! Most of us recall the morning break in the playground at school where we freely sang the nursery rhymes we had been taught. It was here that we heard our own voice for the first time as part of the human race and began asking our own questions too. I still haven't got an answer after all these years - Was Humpty Dumpty pushed?


Topics: Music in Education

Subscribe Here!

Recent Posts