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Reading between the rhymes

Teaching the components and workings of rhyme deserves re-evaluation as an effective way to introduce pupils to the phonemic structure of language, says Roger Beard

There is disturbing evidence from the Office for Standards in Education surveys that poetry has been one of the biggest casualties of the over-crowded national curriculum for primary schools. The recent report of HM Chief Inspector of Schools confirms earlier annual reports and reviews that schools have been unable to give pupils sufficient experience of poetry, particularly in reading experience at key stage 2, and teachers' subject knowledge of poetry has been identified as a key issue for in-service training.

There is an unfortunate paradox in poetry being the victim of this curriculum squeeze. Recent years have seen an explosion of research and publication on a central feature of poetry - rhyme - in work that has been undertaken in a variety of schools, universities and local education authorities. The response to OFSTED's reports needs to be informed by a related reappraisal of the educational significance of what Tom McArthur has called the "power of patterned sound".

The catalyst for this reappraisal has been the research led by Peter Bryant at Oxford University. A number of projects have drawn attention to the phonological aspects of literacy learning. The work has focused on children's ability to identify the speech sounds (phonemes) of language and in particular their ability to detect rhyme and alliteration at an early age.

This work has prompted new interest in the value of rhyme and word play in early childhood. Marian Whitehead's work at Goldsmiths' College, for instance, has continued the tradition of Kornei Chukovsky's celebrated book From Two to Five. She has analysed the significance of young children's apparently nonsensical word play and the stunning evidence that it can reveal of their thinking and linguistic creativity.

However, even 20 years ago the Bullock Report expressed regret that the use of rhymes, jingles and alliteration for focusing children's attention on the "contrastive" elements of word play had "unaccountably fallen out of fashion". Usha Goswami's work at Cambridge University has drawn attention to the significance of this neglected practice. Her research into the alliterative and rhyming elements of syllables, known as onsets and rimes (for example, b-and, b-end; and b-and, s-and), has revealed a strong and specific connection between early rhyming skill and later reading development. In learning to read, children appear to use rime analogies before analogies based on other kinds of shared spelling units in words.

In Suffolk, the link between rhyme recognition and reading attainment has been exploited to meet special educational needs, through the work of Frances James and her colleagues. A variety of related curriculum activities has been developed. As well as the promotion of general auditory awareness, these activities have encouraged the recognition of oral rhyme, the recognition of rhyming words that share the same spelling patterns and the development of analogies by using plastic letters.

This work has exploited the fact that English spelling patterns are far more consistent in relation to rimes than they are in relation to phoneme-grapheme (sound-letter) relationships. Nearly 500 simple words can be derived from a set of only 37 rimes, for example: -ash, -eat, -ick, -op and -ump.

All this confirms the importance of children regularly reading poetry, but recent studies have noted that, even when such reading is undertaken, it may be of a narrow range of material. In Bridie Raban's evaluation of the national curriculum's implementation, based at Warwick University, a survey of 560 teachers of children in the 7-11 age-range identified Allan Ahlberg's Please, Mrs Butler as the only volume of poetry mentioned by 10 or more teachers as something which they made sure their children read. The same volume was referred to by teachers of 7 to 8-year-olds, 8 to 9-year-olds and 9 to 10-year-olds. No volume had l0 or more mentions for 10 to 11-year-olds.

One of the most helpful sources for providing greater range is the Signal Guide, Poetry Books for Children. Its editor, Brian Morse, is quick to point out that poetry written for children has consistently used rhyme and that the "modernising" trends of the late Seventies have generally not been maintained. He also adds an important caveat about the kinds of reading which poetry asks of its readers and about the role which teachers and parents may need to play in bringing rhyme and readers together.

These textual experiences can vary so much, from poem to poem and from page to page. Children may well appreciate a poem better by learning a little about the history and culture of the times when it was written. They can become more aware of the interplay of rhythm, rhyme and meaning by being helped to do full justice to poetry when reading it aloud.

A number of complex questions inevitably crop up in connection with children writing poetry. It is a fact of primary teaching that children can be constrained in their writing because of preconceptions that poems always have to rhyme. This is understandable because of the lure of memorable language features which poetry consistently reflects. These features in turn support a strong case for teaching the techniques that are central to the craft of poetic writing. Writers like Sandy Brownjohn have provided a range of practical ideas for developing explicit knowledge of this craft in teachers and children.

Forms of repetition can be consciously used in combination with subtle changes of words and meanings. Variations from "end-stop rhymes" can be encouraged, internally within lines, in assonance, consonance and alliteration. The secret seems to be in not trying to do too much too soon.

Rhyme and other forms of word play have been part of our linguistic culture for centuries. Our most distinguished scholars in this area have been Peter and Iona Opie, who have documented the variations and origins of over 1,000 rhymes and jingles, some being traced back over centuries. The Opies' work has been extended into a modern context by Georgina Boyes at Sheffield University.

There is convincing evidence of children's continuing ability to create new rhymes and to adapt old ones to reflect new fads and fashions. It remains a mystery why some snatches and jingles enter and survive in the lore of the playground. Yet, whatever explanations are put forward, the cultural processes identified by the Opies in the way children create and communicate rhymes seem to be operating as securely today as in the past.

Linda Hall's work at Trinity College, Carmarthen, has shown how re-appraising rhyme can help us to realise how sound, sense, rhythm, and images work together in poetry. Their unity promotes understanding through our senses, as well as through our intellect. A growing appreciation of rhyme and word play can take us into the child's world of linguistic experimentation and into the realms of the distilled literature of our culture. This appreciation can lead to an awareness of the phonemic structure of language and of the ways children can learn to use it in reading and spelling.

In responding to OFSTED's concerns, there are exciting possibilities for teachers and parents to ensure that, in promoting early literacy, they exploit to the full the repetitions and resonance of human language.

Roger Beard is reader in literacy education at the University of Leeds. His edited collection Rhyme, Reading and Writing was recently published by Hodder and Stoughton

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