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Studies suggest that learning nursery rhymes builds children’s confidence and can help with
reading skills
Coming home from nursery, my daughter Ava, 3, recites
Humpty Dumpty
. “Daddy,”she
says. “Did you know, Humpty Dumpty is an egg?” She ponders for a moment, her
brow furrowed: “But Daddy, eggs don’t have legs! And eggs don’t have bums. So how
can he sit on a wall?” This leads to a lengthy discussion about other things eggs don’t
possess—such as eyebrows, nostrils and bicycles.
Nursery rhymes have always been part of Ava’s life. But a recent survey has shown
that nursery rhymes are falling out of favour, with parents claiming they are too
old-fashioned to interest children. According to the survey, only 36 per cent of parents
in the UK regularly use nursery rhymes, while almost a quarter admit they have never
sung one with their child.
It’s sad that so many parents don’t even think about nursery rhymes. Our goal is
to encourage children to have a love of books but, before that, it’s about living in a
language-rich environment—and rhymes are part of that. They’re also tremendously
valuable as a confidence-builder. What you find out about yourself when you learn a
rhyme and then get a round of applause is really important.
More than 20 per cent of young parents claimed not to use rhymes because they don’t
consider them “educational”. Yet numerous studies report a significant relationship
between nursery rhyme knowledge at the age of 3 and success in reading and spelling
at 5 and 6. The reasons are complex, but the theory is this: the better children are at
detecting syllables and rhymes at an early age, the quicker and more successful their
progress with reading. Familiarity with nursery rhymes appears to help. They have an
educational value we still don’t entirely understand. They enable children to become
interested in the rhythm and patterns of language in a way that listening to stories
doesn’t provide.
I arranged to sit in on the “music” sessions at Ava’s nursery to see what role nursery
rhymes have in the education of preschool children, and if children have the foggiest
idea what they mean.
The singalongs usually consist of half traditional nursery rhymes and half original
compositions, where the appeal lies in repetitive melody and strong rhythmic element.
Rhymes with actions, such as
Incey Wincey Spider
, are especially good for early learning.
Some kids can’t sit still for long, so these rhymes help them to focus.
The group start with
Ring a Ring o’ Roses
, with its much-loved cue to “all fall down”.
The children love it. Next,
The Grand Old Duke of York
. Afterwards, the class discusses
the words. The teacher asks, “Where does the Grand Old Duke march up to?” Blank
expressions. It’s clear that they just sing along with the sounds.
Next, it’s
Baa Baa Black Sheep
. Out of 12 children, ten claim that this is their favourite.
Ask them what it’s about and once again they haven’t a clue. “Who does the sheep give
some wool to?” asks the teacher. Silence. She gives them a hint: “He gives some to the
master, and some to . . .
“The Dane!” exclaims one two-year-old.
At this point a little girl breaks into a rendition of “I’m a Barbie girl, in a Barbie world.”
Which neatly brings us on to adverts. If we’re looking to point a finger of blame for the
death of nursery rhymes, we could look at toys and clothes companies with jingles that
worm into our brains.
The Simpsons portrayed this in an episode where the family celebrates Maggie’s first
birthday. “Let’s all sing a song,” suggests Marge. There are blank looks, then the
family circuits the dining table, flapping their arms and singing “I feel like chicken
tonight”. TV theme tunes are nearly as bad. I ask one little girl in the group what her
favourite nursery rhyme is and she replies: “Postman Pat.”
The session is drawing to a close and the teacher opens a bag of teddy bears and passes
them round. “We’re going to sing
Rock-a-Bye Baby
to help our teddies get to sleep.”
Millie, 3, suddenly pipes up. “I don’t like
Rock-a-Bye Baby
,” she says firmly.
Why not? “Because the baby falls.”
The others have never considered these lines, said to originate from Native American
mothers placing their babies in hammocks suspended from the low branches of a tree.
The nursery manager rejects the idea that nursery rhymes are not educational: “The
more obscure ones are almost better because they open up the children’s imagination.
It doesn’t matter if they understand the meaning or not—rhymes introduce them to
new words and give them different ideas.”
It’s certainly true that, while most of the entertainment to which children are exposed
reflects things which are familiar to them, nursery rhymes conjure up a world that is
out of time. Some argue that rhymes stimulate the imagination in unwanted ways.
There’s no question that they often contain unsettling imagery.
Oranges and Lemons
for example, ends with the lines “Here comes a candle to light you to bed/Here comes a
chopper to chop off your head”.
I still remember being shocked, as a child, by the farmer’s wife in
Three Blind Mice
chopping off their tails with a carving knife. Indeed, whipping, chopping and beating
are all part of your average rhyme. Yet there is no evidence of children being upset by
the brutal imagery in nursery rhymes. It is possible that this is because it is “distanced”
through the experience of play, like the violence of cartoons like
Tom and Jerry
to be.
Nursery rhymes are a free resource—something that involves language and action and
a handover of learning. They’re a springboard into the world of books, because if
children know rhymes, they can open a book, see them there and match their memory
to what they see on the page. Educationally they’re a wonderfully flexible tool. It
would be a tragedy if they disappeared.
Damon Syson, in
The Times
What does “her brow furrowed” (lines 2–3) suggest about the writer’s little
Look at lines 6–10 and then explain
in your own words
what has
happened because parents think nursery rhymes are “too old-fashioned
to interest children”.
How does the writer try to prove this point?
Look at lines 11–15, and then explain
in your own words two
reasons why
“It’s sad that so many parents don’t even think about nursery rhymes”.
why it is appropriate for the writer to use “Yet” (line 17) at this
point in his argument.
Explain why the writer uses a colon (:) in line 19.
Look at lines 25–27, and then explain why this paragraph works well as a link
between sections of the writer’s account.
Look at lines 28–39.
in your own word
s why
Incey Wincey Spider
is “especially
good for early learning”.
What do the children’s responses to the teacher’s questions about the
words of rhymes confirm?
What is noticeable about the
of the sentences in which these
responses are indicated?
How effective do you find the writer’s use of the sentence which begins “At
this point” (line 41)?
How effective do you find the expression “jingles that worm into our brains”
(lines 43–44) as an
Show how
example of the
word choice
in lines 50–53 suggests
something about the little girl’s character.
The writer acknowledges that “rhymes stimulate the imagination in unwanted
ways” (line 62), and goes on to illustrate what he means by this.
in your own words
what his point is.
Explain why the writer uses inverted commas round “distanced” in
line 69.
How does the reference to
Tom and Jerry
cartoons help the writer’s
argument here?
Think about the passage
as a whole
Explain how effective you find any part of the final paragraph as a
conclusion to the passage.
Explain briefly to what extent the writer has persuaded you that “It
would be a tragedy” (lines 75–76) if nursery rhymes disappeared.

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