Our 17th-century ancest-ors, it seems, taught children to read in a way that we have just caught up with. Books then grouped words by rhyme, according to Usha Goswami, lecturer in experimental psychology at Cambridge University, who has edited a series of early readers for Oxford Reading Tree based on this idea.
Our forebears lacked the benefits of a scheme like the Reading Tree, of research-based theories to back up their methods, banks of illustrators and full-colour mass publishing for child-friendly books, but the importance of rhyme as an aid to reading and writing was not lost on them.
In more recent times the work of Peter Bryant, Watts professor of psychology at Oxford University, has established that children raised on nursery rhymes and other rhyme-rich prose and poetry develop phonological awareness (awareness of sound in spoken words) and are therefore more likely to become better readers and spellers. More recently still, Usha Goswami has played a large part in establishing why this is so.
In some respects her work cuts through the long-standing, political and often venomous reading debate which has divided teachers into two camps: those who take a holistic view that words are recognised as visual "wholes" or patterns; and those who go for the alphabetic or phonics approach in which a word like "rat" is read by sounding out its constituent letters and then blending them into pronunciation.
As a psychology undergraduate at Oxford University, Goswami, now 37, was fascinated by Bryant's work and also by new research which showed that skilled readers learned to read unfamiliar words through analogy to familiar words, so that a word like "pink" could be read by analogy to "wink". Analogy at that time was regarded as a sophisticated reading skill, only used to any great extent in the teenage years.
However, on her return to Oxford as a doctoral student, Goswami was to develop the theory that analogy, linked to rhyme, could become a simple and effective strategy for young readers.
As an undergraduate she wanted to become an educational psychologist. This required teaching experience, so she left Oxford for postgraduate teacher training at London's Institute of Education. She enjoyed the teaching practice, but was unimpressed by the lecturers' advice on early reading: "I had just come from a place where all this research into phonological awareness and reading was going on and here we were being told just to go into schools and see what schemes were on offer. I began to think it would be worthwhile to go back and carry on with the research in order to improve things in the classroom. "
She started with a very simple question: could children at the earliest stages of learning to read use analogies bet-ween spelling patterns to help them to read new words? She developed a "clue" word technique, which she applied through most of her subsequent research, by which a child is taught to read a word like "beak" by analogy with words in the same family such as "peak" or "weak". Indeed, she found that analogy was a strategy that children at all stages of learning to read would use. In particular, she found that analogy between spelling patterns at the ends of words was the first to emerge developmentally, and that this could be linked effectively with rhyme. Through rhyme and analogy children could predict the unknown word "peak" from the known word "beak" - and those with rhyming ability were more likely to make these analogies.
Goswami found that children who were good at rhyming were likely to realise that the spoken word could be broken down into smaller units of sound: the onset and rime. The onset is the consonant or consonants at the beginning of each syllable, while the rime is the vowel and following consonants of each syllable, for example, c-at or sw-ill. These children also realised that shared sounds often meant shared spelling patterns.
"If you focus on the rime unit then spelling patterns are consistent in about 80 to 90 per cent of words. If you look at the vowel in isolation then you only get about a 50 per cent consistency. It is vowels in English that cause problems, but in a lot of words once you know what the following consonant is, then you know how to pronounce the vowel."
Onsetrime awareness, says Goswami, has to develop before children can move on to the individual soundletter phonics approach. The best way to do this is through rhyme, story and "clue" word games, a method which has led to the Rhyme and Analogy strand of the Oxford Reading Tree.
Through the skill of writer Roderick Hunt and a range of illustrators, Oxford University Press has created a series of exciting rhyming readers, each based on a number of word families to encourage reading by analogy. They have the feel of real books, covering a range of genres. Some, like Rockpool Rap, are enticingly performable, and accompanying tapes use music to enhance the rhyme. Another title, My Home, written by Hunt and illustrated by Cliff Wright, won The TES primary school book award for English, praised for its "verbal and pictorial imagination to stand with the best of picture books".
"Rod Hunt had a really tough job incorporating word families, but the stories are central to the analogy process," says Usha Goswami. "It should leave the key words echoing around in the children's heads. They will do skill-drill exercises if a teacher is enthusiastic, but what really captures their imagination is stories." Moreover, the use of good stories was one way of getting committed whole-language teachers to use the rhyme-and-analogy approach.
"I used to get attacked by whole- language people and now I get attacked by whole-phonics people, who say my stuff is wishy-washy, but I am merely saying there are stages of development."
Goswami is now looking at the use of appropriate analogy in maths and whether certain kinds of analogical reasoning (for example, learning fractions through analogies with pies and pizzas), make things easier or more difficult for children.
On a more clinical level, her research team is also looking at whether rhyme and analogy might be an approach to literacy for deaf children.
At the end of this academic year she will leave Cambridge to become Professor of Cognitive Development at the Institute of Child Health, University College London, which has strong links with the children's hospital in Great Ormond Street. However, while she is excited by this, she wishes to keep all her pots boiling. "I am interested in the whole range," she says.