Just Imagine

Reason for Rhyme

Can you recall any lines from poems that you have read, heard and enjoyed? Perhaps you remember a rhyming story that was read to you when you were very young, a poem that you heard at school, or perhaps you studied poetry at university and some immortal lines are anchored in your memory. Before you decide that you don’t know any poetry, keep in mind voiceovers from television advertisements, song lyrics, a rap, football chant, graffiti  or a message in a greetings card.  Rather embarrassingly, I can remember line for line the sentimental doggerel in the first Valentine card that I received.

I loved you from the day I met you,

I’m in a spin and can’t forget you

You bowled me over Valentine

For ten pins I would make you mine

The sender of the card has long drifted into insignificance, but those four lines are indelibly inscribed in my brain.

The same is true of a  1970s advert for a brand of cola drink. A favourite past time at snack break, along with the Curly Wurly stretching and Clackers contests (those of you nodding at this point are betraying your age), was to see who could recite this ad the fastest.

Lip smacking, thirst quenching, ace tasting, motivating, good buzzing, cool walking, high talking, fast living, ever giving, cool fizzin'..... Pxxxx

Last year, my grandmother died, aged 107. She had become quite frail but her capacity for remembering the poetry that she had learnt by heart at school was undiminished. Each time we visited her, she entertained us with a perfect rendition of Wordsworth’s ‘Daffodils’ and Tennyson’s ‘Lady Clare’, delivered with verve and perfect intonation.  Of course when my grandmother was at school , reciting poetry was de rigueur. She was fortunate that this was not a painful enforced recitation, but rather a delight in memorising poems that meant something to her. She truly learnt the poems 'by heart'. And when she was no longer able to trip the light fantastic with her dazzling quickstep, she was still able to bring those much loved words to mind.

If you think you still can’t remember any poetry, take a few minutes and see if you can jot something down on paper, you might surprise yourself.

When I carry out this activity with teachers and students, the majority can write something. Many can even write complete poems. I find it interesting that the same lines and poems frequently recur. The most common (depending on age) are:

  • Edward Lear  various Limericks
  • John Masefield’s Cargoes
  • Thomas Hood I Remember, I Remember
  • Edward Lear The Owl and Pussycat
  • Spike Milligan On the Ning Nang Nong
  • W H Auden Nightmail
  • Alfred Noyes The Highwayman
  • Walter de la Mare The Listeners
  • Alfred Lord Tennyson The Charge of the Light Brigade
  • Michael Rosen  We’re Going On a Bear Hunt
  • Dr Seuss Green Eggs and Ham
  • Lynley Dodd Hairy Maclary from Donaldson’s Dairy
  • Julia Donaldson The Gruffalo

The adhesive substance of this memorable language is the rhyme, and perhaps even more importantly the strong rhythm that is as reassuring as a heart beat and as predictable as a ticking clock.  A good rhyming story appears to be effortless in its construction, but when you are confronted with a text that doesn’t scan, a text upon which you stumble and trip at the same place each time you read it aloud, then you realise this apparent ease is the result of skilful wordsmithing.

Rhythm and rhyme are hugely enjoyable, they invite participation, provoke anticipation and appeal to young children’s natural tendency to invent and play with words. Many  nursery teachers and parents will have heard young children inventing nonsense words as they chant through a list of rhyming possibilities; ‘sun, fun, dun, mun, lun, run’  etc.

It is fortuitous that this evident delight also plays a key role in reading development. Familiarity with rhyme helps listeners tune in to the phonetic constituents of words. When you read a rhyming story to a child and pause to allow them to supply the rhyming word, they are demonstrating an understanding of phonetic patterns.

In written language many of these rhymes will share spelling sequences, thus the early encounter with rhyme is the building block that will later support the acquisition of blending and segmenting skills which are used in early reading. 

Of course rhymes do not always share the same spelling patterns, and it is the variation that will come in useful when children learn that spelling patterns have many alternatives and that a single phoneme/grapheme correspondence does not apply in English. Half rhymes, which are common in nursery rhymes (think of dame and lane in Baa Baa Black Sheep) further aid children's auditory discrimination.

Immersion in rhyming stories and poetry is important for many reasons, not solely as a pre-requisite for reading, and it would be doing  a mechanistic disservice to use poetry in this way.  Furthermore, to choose a rhyming picture book solely because it rhymes, is to ignore a vital element: does it tell a good story? The endurance of  the rhyming stories in the list above owes much to the strength of the storytelling. Even the anarchic ‘Green Eggs and Ham’ tells a chaotic story, though some young readers find it unsettling and prefer a more conventional narrative.

The Just Imagine team frequently undertakes library audits in school, and although there are exceptions, we find that poetry is one of the areas that needs greatest attention. While the biggest and most popular poets are usually represented, collections often look dated and many important poets, classic and contemporary, are not included.

Why not check your poetry stock and see if it needs refreshing?

Some things for you to consider:

  • How well is poetry served in your class and school library collections?
  • Does your poetry collection have a balance between classic and more recent anthologies?
  • Do you have anthologies, thematic collections and single poet collections available for children to read?
  • Is a wide range of poets represented?
  • Is poetry read aloud frequently?
  • How familiar are you, teaching staff and pupils with a range of poets, not just the most popular names? How many can they name?
  • Is poetry promoted through class and library displays?
  • Is poetry included in guided reading?

You may be interested in:

Rhyme with Reason our poetry collections for the primary clasroom

Tune In our phonics in context packs supporting Letters and Sounds

By Heart our half day CPD sessions on bringing poetry to life in the classroom through all kinds of performance. This includes a session with a class of children and a staff meeting. Further information schoo@justimaginestorycentre.co.uk

Michael Rosen's Watch a Poem

Michael Rosen's article The Poetry Friendly Classroom


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