If you've ever recited a nursery rhyme, played "Itsy-Bitsy Spider" or sung "If You're Happy and You Know It," you've been preparing your child for learning to read. Familiar songs and poems can strengthen his ability to hear the sounds of our language — a skill that will serve him well when he learns to connect sounds with letters (phonics) in kindergarten and 1st grade.
Nursery rhymes are especially powerful, because they are so memorable. Research has found that children who are familiar with nursery rhymes when they enter kindergarten often have an easier time learning to read. This is probably because rhyming helps them discover many common word patterns (such as those in quick/stick or down/crown). And the more familiar these patterns become in oral language, the more easily children will recognize them when they begin to encounter them in print.
The ability to hear rhymes — knowing that cat rhymes with hat, but not with bag — is an essential skill for learning to read because it means that your child can discern the differences among individual sounds (or phonemes). Playing with rhymes trains her ear to hear the differences and similarities in how words sound.
Songs with rhyming lyrics are also terrific devices for teaching your child about the patterns of sounds. You might remember the Schoolhouse Rock television segments from your childhood ("Conjunction junction, what's your function?") as some of your first lessons in grammar. The phrases were memorable because they were fun to say and sing. Here are some more fun ways to use rhymes to further strengthen your child's language and reading skills:
- Find many opportunities to sing to and with your child. Create songs on the spur of the moment about whatever you are doing. Try "This is the way we wash our hands . . . " Remember that you don't need to have a good singing voice; your child will love it because it's yours.
- Combine rhyming with rhythmic clapping or movements. For example, try the rhyme "Ten Little Monkeys Jumping on the Bed" to reinforce sound patterns. Rhymes like these are especially helpful for an active child who needs to involve his entire body in the activity. Songs like "Do Your Ears Hang Low?" or "The Hokey Pokey" can help your child follow directions as you sing the words. This kind of play involves your child's whole body in absorbing the sounds of speech, which may make it easier for him to connect the motion with the words you say.
- Encourage wordplay using poems, rhymes, or songs. You might begin by saying, "What rhymes with Matt [his name]?" Make up silly rhymes, such as, "Did Matt sit on the cat?" Or try working together to tell a little story about a cat chasing a fat rat. Write down the sentence you've thought up, and have him illustrate the idea. Together, make your own rhyming book. As your child gets more adept at rhyming, you might try to play a riddle game. Try something like, "I'm thinking of a word that rhymes with fish. And it's something in the kitchen that you put your sandwich on." "Fish rhymes with ... dish."
- Seek out high-quality rhyming books. Most children love silly songbooks, such as Paul O. Zelinsky's The Wheels on the Bus; storybooks such as The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss; or stories that encourage rhythm, such as Helen Oxenbury's We're Going on a Bear Hunt. These books and others like them will bring laughter and still more language play. The best part? They will help your child associate the joy of spending time with you with the awesome task of learning to read.