Science: Rhyme and reason can cast a spell: Christine Hewitt explains how traditional children's songs can help with the

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The Independent Online
Humpty Dumpty has had a good week. Scientists have proved that he and his nursery-rhyme friends give children vital pre-reading skills. The joys of rhyme teach them that Humpty's 'wall' not only sounds like 'fall', but also looks very similar on paper. Children later apply this lesson to 'difficult' words like 'fight' and 'light', whose individual letters give few clues to pronunciation.

Dr Usha Goswami, a psychologist from Cambridge University, discovered the benefits of rhyme as a result of her research work with primary schoolchildren. Publishers are already working with Dr Goswami to build her results into their latest primary-level texts. 'Let's hope we'll see some really nice rhyming-based reading schemes,' in the future, she says. 'Rhyming is never going to do any harm, and often does a lot of good.'

Experiments to discover how children make links between sounds and printed words show that before they are eight or nine they cannot work out how words will sound when particular letters are taken away - especially in the middle of words. For example, they cannot predict that 'stand' minus 't' is 'sand'.

But more encouraging work has proved that four- and five-year-olds can pick out rhyming words and identify their different first letters. Parents who have enthusiastically played 'I spy' and chanted Humpty Dumpty with their children already know this. Dr Goswami stressed that children's ability in 'phonological tasks' at rhyming level was the best predictor of later reading development - even when IQ, education and social class are taken into account.

Research also shows children are better at detecting (by ear) a word's start letter, than its end letter. A start can either be one letter, or two or three, as in 'trip', where linguistic scientists call 'tr' the 'onset'. This means some approaches to teaching reading may be more successful than others. A method where teachers focus attention on whole words, (sometimes known as 'look-say'), or a traditional 'phonics' or individual letter approach, may not be as effective as a method based on spotting the onset plus the single rhyme, because young children have a natural ability here. Linguists call a single rhyme - 'ip' in trip - a 'rime', to distinguish it from a whole word rhyme (eg, phonic-sonic).

When it comes to both reading and spelling, Dr Goswami's experiments show rhyming skills give children phonological clues that often lead them past irregularities at letter level and help them to categorise words with particular spelling patterns. If they know what the word 'light' sounds as well as looks like, they may guess 'sight' and 'tight'.

Dr Goswami studied primary schoolchildren to see if extra training in 'rhyme analogies' aided them in classroom reading. The rhyme had to give extra help, above other clues such as story narrative or word context. Children coached with 'head' did indeed find words like 'bread' much easier - and even rhyming words spelt differently, such as 'said', slightly more accessible.

Other psychologists then took 60 children who were behind their peers in reading skills and split them into four groups. Over a period of two years the first group had extra teaching help in sorting pictures on the basis of word onset-rhymes (hat, bat, cat), while the second had the same tuition plus practice spelling out these rhymes with plastic letters. The third group sorted pictures on the basis of meaning, eg, animals on a farm; the 'control' group had no extra attention.

At the end of the experiment the second group performed best in both reading and spelling - indeed they were found to be an impressive two years ahead of the control group in spelling. The rhymers also did better than the farmyarders. Dr Goswami's message is that children not only need to be taught sounds, but also the vital connection between sound and spelling.

While politicians argue over the UK's hotch-potch of nursery education, Dr Goswami gives parents a message about the need to stimulate children's minds pre- school with rhymes and alliteration in all shapes and forms. Teachers 'could usefully incorporate three 10-minute sessions a week on rhyme' into their current lessons, look out for any books using strong onset-rimes, and perhaps invest in the new reading schemes when they appear.

(Photograph omitted)

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