According to the Collins English dictionary (and many other credible sources I am sure) – rhyme (or reason) is defined as ‘sense, logic, or meaning’…
So ‘no rhyme or reason’ is to be without sense, logic, meaning or purpose…
Now I don’t claim to be an expert in literary history, but using a bit of common sense (and a quick Google search) – I’ve come to the conclusion that nursery rhymes were borne out of a need to help children make sense of important things in the world… like the danger of the plague (Ring a ring a roses…) and to help teach them the idiosyncrasies of the English language (Old Mother Hubbard…). Interestingly not only is it an excellent way of introducing new language, it can also encourage young children to experiment using whole sentences. If you can go one step further, then everybody knows a story has a beginning, middle and an end, what better example of a short story is Baa Baa Black Sheep?
So with this in mind, why is it that the value and beauty of the nursery rhyme seems to be getting lost? Not in our nurseries and Early Years classrooms, where they are embedded into the National Curriculum and recognised as a constructive language teaching tool. No. I’m talking about at home… way before children even enter a formal learning environment…
When I had my own children, I had to find my own way through how best to support them with language development and acquisition. Given I was a lover of books anyway, this fortunately came very naturally and nursery rhymes were an important part of our play time together. Gemma’s first word was even ‘book-book’, because I had read to her from when she was a tiny baby (think I would have preferred mama, but I’ll take book!). Anyway, fast forward to me becoming a primary teacher and then later becoming a grandma – and my understanding around language development, acquisition and the role of reading and rhyme, while not radically different… has much greater meaning now.
I was in a reception classroom only last year and was astounded that some children were starting from a very wobbly place. I had a picture of a cat up on the screen and wanted the class to give me some adjectives so that we could build some simple sentences. They were so enthusiastic and excited about the picture their hands shot up, but the best most of them could come up with was ‘cat’…their vocabulary was restricted and inadequate for what was a fairly menial task.
As the teacher, it was my responsibility to engage with the class and develop their language skills to a certain level before they progressed to the next year. But how could this feasibly be possible when they were all starting from so many different places? Some didn’t even understand the concept of turning the pages in a book. Obviously this has been addressed in some ways by the introduction of Assessment without Levels and the new primary curriculum in England, but that’s a whole other discussion.
What I’m more concerned about is what’s happening with reading at home before children actually start formal education – because this is where their potential will be greatly influenced. In the same way I don’t proclaim to be a literary historian, neither am I a child development expert! However, I am a primary teacher and doting grandma who can now fully understand how reading and rhyme play from the very earliest of ages can help children shape their language acquisition and comprehension.
I’m fortunate to be able to work part time these days which gives me the opportunity to spend a lot of time with the grandchildren. While I try not to ‘observe’ their development too closely, I am genuinely fascinated by the way their brains are like sponges and how exposure to language in many forms is helping them to learn how to communicate. When I was a mum I just did what ‘felt’ right with reading and books. Now, I’m actively looking at how I can use fun activities to shape valuable learning – one of which is to use nursery rhymes more and more. Which brings me back to my original point… I believe that nursery rhymes and the turning of a page are at risk of dying in the modern home…
Now some might say that it’s the rise of iPads and smart phones that are detracting from the more traditional ways of experiencing stories (although an iPad could never tickle a child’s hands or feet when ‘this little piggy went wee wee wee all the way home). But that’s not what I am trying to address here. Quite simply I think we need to be getting across to parents more and more… especially ones who are doing their best to find their own path with little help or guidance… that there IS a reason for nursery rhymes – and that reason is because it will give your children a solid foundation with reading before they start formal education.
And one last thing... with Xmas fast approaching, why not try a new spin on an Advent calendar by giving your child a wrapped book for every day… this can cost very little by buying books from charity shops (might even be cheaper than a Disney themed chocolate one!)
Margaret Allen is an experienced primary school teacher, mother of Mark, Richard and Gemma (two of whom are also now teachers) proud grandma to Oscar and Frankie and a passionate lover of children’s books.