Dec 30, 2010 by Martha Burns, Ph.D
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nursery rhymes as a teaching tool

In my November blog post, I shared information about how speech and language developand also spoke about the importance of nursery rhymes.  This month, we are going to continue the discussion about the teaching tools of nursery rhymes for young children.

Sounds are one of the many teaching tools of nursery rhymes. They also teach word order, grammar, and rhythm. Each of the content words– Peter, Piper pickled, peppers, picked, and peck are repeated four times each. But to build an appreciation of the flexibility of word order, each repetition puts the words in a different position.  The subject noun Peter Piper, is repeated four times in the subject noun position, but two of those times it comes early in a phrase and twice it comes later. Pickled peppers, an object noun phrase, occurs twice after the verb pick, which is what we would expect, and twice before the verb. These are all grammatical sentences, so the child is not being exposed to language that is incorrect or inappropriate. But what a joy for a child, who is trying desperately to learn how to order words into sentences, to realize that part of the joy of language is the variety and flexibility. Language is not just about meaning (how many two years olds care about what at “peck” is) but about sound, rhythm, rhyming, and variation.

                Little Miss Muffet

                Sat on a tuffet

                Eating her curds and whey

                Along came a spider

                Who sat down beside her

                And frightened Miss Muffet away

In this nursery rhyme different, but at the same time early sound patterns are emphasized. The phoneme /m/ is one of the easiest for a child to produce and in this rhyme is contrasted with the /s/ in spiderand  satas well as the /t/.which ends satand starts and ends tuffet.Never mind that the average two or three year old will have no idea what the words tuffet, curds,or wheyactually mean. Nursery rhymes are not so much about vocabulary as they are about the rules of combining sounds into words, rhyming, and alliteration (all prerequisite to phonological awareness which is going to lead to the ability to phonically decode words in a few years.) That fact that our language contains words we do not understand does not limit our ability to enjoy language. And introducing your youngster to that knowledge will enhance her curiosity about words and the magic of language.