'The best books, reviewed with insight and charm, but without compromise.'
- author Jackie French

Sunday 23 January 2011

Guest Post: What's in a Rhyme?

KBR contributor Jo Burnell shares with us the amazing development of understanding syllables and ryhmes. Jo is an experienced paediatric speech pathologist with a passion for books.

I’ll never forget the day I lost my two year old son. The heart constricted in panic as I searched the house. There he was, in the last place I imagined: surrounded by every book from the bottom shelf, quietly lifting a flap in Where’s Spot?

The more elaborate picture books remained untouched on the middle shelf. My toddler confirmed a rule of thumb taught a decade before at University. ‘The smaller the child, the bigger, brighter and more clearly outlined pictures need to be.’

So what happens to draw children on to the next stage of pre-reading? Apart from more mature visual skills that increase attention to details, what else sparks their interest?

As the toddler is left behind and the preschooler emerges, so do details on the page. Alison Lester opens little minds to worlds teeming with new vocabulary in books like Imagine and Magic Beach (Allen and Unwin).

There are countless favourites that oscillate between big and bold, and minutely detailed. Your child’s visual and linguistic maturity will govern their choices, but short predictable phrases that are repeated throughout a story will hook them. Apart from being a fun way to lure children, predictable phrases allow them to return to books on their own. The predictable beat of cherished phrases supports story retell in its earliest form. This is when preschoolers begin ‘reading’ to younger siblings or their favourite toys.

At around four years of age, the first of a series of listening skills emerge. I call them the P.A. (Personal Assistants) to reading. The technical term is Phonological Awareness. The first in the series of P.A. skills allows children to perceive drum beats in speech. Syllabification.

Children with awareness of syllables in speech delight in multi-syllabic words. They enjoy the stark contrast between the long and the short. Books that have a rollicking rhythm capture their attention. Katrina van Gendt’s Bananas in Pyjamas encourages bodies to bob in seats to the beat of the story. Pamela Allen’s Bertie and the Bear uses the story’s tempo as the underlying pulse for a madcap chase, where ridiculous sounds made by different characters add to the fun. Oh Say can you say Dinosaur by Bonny Worth (Random House) and Hooper Humperdink…? Not Him! by Dr Seuss (Harper Collins) are classic examples of the humorous use of contrasting long and short words.

Around six months after Syllabification skills are established, a second P.A. skill emerges. It’s all to do with rhyme, but this awareness of rhyme in all its facets takes time. First comes detection: Awareness that words sound the same at the end. Dr Seuss inundates the listener with examples of rhyme in books like Hop on Pop, Fox in Socks and The Cat in the Hat. The pages push the power of Rhyme and preschoolers can’t get enough of it.

Matching different single syllable words that rhyme is the next stage of development. It requires an ability to savour words, roll them around on the tongue and in the mind, and finally make a decision. Do those words sound the same at the end or not? More sophisticated stories hide rhyming words in alternate lines, stretching the memory span and challenging children to listen for longer. The Madeline series by Ludwig Bemelmans develops listening skills of emergent ‘rhymers’. Although first published in 1962 by Andre Deutsch Ltd, it was republished by Scholastic in 1996 and is still extremely popular today.

After the comprehension of rhyme settles, expression develops. Children play rhyming games, calling out rhyming words – whether these are real or nonsense. Dr Seuss and his accomplices take advantage of this final phase of rhyme development with their use of ridiculous rhymes. Yertle the Turtle has preschoolers chortling with delight.

This final expressive phase of rhyming is a precursor to sound analysis, where children begin to notice the first sounds in words. The way to make a word rhyme is to change the first sound and keep everything else constant. Syllabification and Rhyme are bridging skills to the emergence of letter-sound recognition and matching.

There are many books that take advantage of children’s enjoyment of the syllable-beat in speech, and others that focus on rhyme. A third type of book uses both these strategies, while still others foray into the next stage of development. Alliteration. Children who do not ‘get’ the fact that words are made up of syllables or that words can rhyme are generally not ready for the fun of first sound comparisons. This is in the same way that children will not cope with fine detail in pictures if they don’t perceive less intricate visual differences. It’s all about development.

When awareness of isolated sounds emerges the fun really begins, but that is another story…

Disclaimer: It’s impossible to compact large amounts of information about typical language development or Phonological Awareness into a short article. Quoted ages for emerging skills are approximate. Many children display these skills at earlier ages, while others might display these skills much later. Speech Pathologist, Jo Burnell has attempted to give an overview of some basic principals of early Phonological Awareness development and how these relate to children’s choices of Books.

Should you have any questions about normal language or phonological awareness development, feel free to contact a local Speech Pathologist. Speech Pathology Australia provides a search engine to help find one close to where you live.

Jo Burnell has been working with children for more than a quarter of a century. She is an avid reader and reviewer of children’s literature in all formats. Hooking the reluctant reader into the world of books is her dream. Keeping them there for a lifetime of reading enjoyment is her idea of the Holy Grail.

Stay tuned for Jo's next wonderful post about moving to early chapter books.