Nursery rhymes look to be falling out of favour. Last October, Booktrust conducted a survey for National Bookstart Day to find the nation’s favourite nursery rhyme. Whilst that old favourite ‘Twinkle,Twinkle, Little Star’ came out top, the survey also had perturbing news to impart. It seems that many parents now feel that traditional nursery rhymes are simply too old-fashioned to interest their children. But do nursery rhymes matter? Caroline Sanderson explores.
Given that some nursery rhymes date back hundreds of years, you could argue that it’s remarkable that they have lasted this long. As those renowned experts on the lore of childhood, Iona and Peter Opie, put it in their Preface to The Puffin Book of Nursery Rhymes: ‘Oral rhymes are the true waifs of our literature… having had to fend for themselves, without the benefit of sponsor or sheepskin binding, they have had to be wonderfully fit to survive.’
But now perhaps the end is nigh. Only 36% of the parents surveyed by Booktrust regularly use nursery rhymes with their children, whilst almost a quarter admit that they have never sung one. More than 20% of parents said they never use them because they are ‘not educational’.
Should we care? Bookstart thinks we should. With the release of the survey, the scheme announced that it would be giving away one million books of the nation’s top eight rhymes, to ‘help today’s parents develop a strong love of rhymes and give them the confidence to share nursery rhymes with their children’. It has also organised Bookstart Rhymetime sessions in libraries, nurseries, early years centres and bookshops up and down the country.
Historical and cultural resonances
What is so special about nursery rhymes and why should we worry about their possible demise? Though they are certainly a shortcut to childhood nostalgia, it’s hard to refute the charge that many rhymes do sound old-fashioned. When was the last time your child saw a shepherdess with a crook? What exactly is a tuffet? Do you know anyone who goes to market to buy a fat pig? Or, horror of horrors, bakes 24 blackbirds in a pie? Even that old stalwart, ‘I’m a little teapot’, now seems rather quaint in this age of ubiquitous teabags. How often do children see a teapot in action these days?
One could of course argue that nursery rhymes should be preserved because of their historical and cultural resonances. Although the oft-quoted theory that ‘Ring a Ring of Roses’ originated as a melancholy ditty about the plague is now disputed, rhymes are still a rich source of historical detail and anecdote, as I discovered when researching my book about children’s games, Kiss Chase and Conkers. ‘Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush’ reminds us that mulberry bushes were often planted in prison yards, and also of the attempts to establish a domestic silk-weaving industry; ‘I Sent a Letter to My Love’ transports us back to the days when smitten young men would give a love token to their maiden of choice; and more sinisterly, ‘Oranges and Lemons’ to a time when public executions were still commonly held. But arguing that nursery rhymes are precious historical documents is hardly going to persuade parents who find them hopelessly outdated to reinstate them into their daily routine.
The importance of rhyme
The crucial thing to note here is that it was parents in the Bookstart survey who found nursery rhymes irrelevant and old-fashioned. How different might the response been if children themselves had been questioned? Young children are instinctively drawn to rhyme. It is no accident that so many classic children’s books make such bold use of it:
‘Isn’t it funny how a bear likes honey?
Buzz, buzz, buzz, I wonder why he does?’
‘I do not like them, Sam-I-am.
I do not like green eggs and ham.’
‘Slinky Malinki was blacker than black,
a stalking and lurking adventurous cat.’
Thinking back to my own childhood, I remember delighting in my new-found ability to recite from memory poems like Spike Milligan’s ‘On the Ning Nang Nong’ and A A Milne’s ‘Disobedience’ (‘James James/ Morrison Morrison/ Weatherby George Dupree/ Took great/ Care of his Mother/ Though he was only three.’). Nursery rhymes are no less resonant to young ears: ‘they owe their present existence to this one quality of memorability,’ as the Opies put it. And they usually have the added entertainment value of song and bold actions to enhance and draw children into the language play. Think ‘Incey Wincey Spider’, ‘Teddy Bear, Teddy Bear’ and ‘Pat a cake, Pat a cake’.
And we now know that there are also sound developmental reasons why young children are so attracted by wordplay and rhyme. Commenting on the Booktrust survey, Professor Roger Beard, Head of Primary Education at the Institute of Education, summarised their value thus: ‘Sharing rhymes with young children is as important today as it ever was. It helps them to enjoy playing with language and to learn about its patterns and rhythms.’
Significant phonological phenomena
And child language development experts agree. In order to learn to read successfully, children must be able to group together words which are different but which include the same sound. They must understand for example that ‘mat’, ‘cat’ and ‘hat’ – though different in appearance and meaning – have a sound in common. Even in an inconsistent language like English, the ability to read and write depends largely on the ability to learn and understand the rules that govern it.
In Proust and the Squid, her excellent and eminently readable book about the science behind the reading brain, US academic Maryanne Wolf, an expert on the processes by which children learn to read, is a firm advocate for the learning power that is packed into the seemingly quaint words of traditional nursery rhymes. Under the heading ‘Phoneme Awareness and the Wise Mother Goose’, she too stresses the importance of a child’s awareness of the individual sounds and phonemes present in a word. Nursery rhymes are, she says, a highly entertaining way of helping to develop this awareness. ‘Tucked inside “Hickory, dickory, dock, a mouse ran up the clock” and other rhymes can be found a host of potential aids to sound awareness – alliteration, assonance, rhyme, repetition.’ Alliterative and rhyming sounds, she adds, ‘teach a young ear that words can sound similar because they share a first or last sound’.
P E Bryant, L Bradley, M Maclean and J Crossland’s ‘Nursery Rhymes, Phonological Skills and Reading’ also gets to the nub of exactly why traditional nursery rhymes are so important. ‘Rhyme and alliteration are significant phonological phenomena. A child who is sensitive to rhyme and alliteration must recognise at some level that different words, and different syllables have a segment of sound in common: cat and hat for example.’ This sensitivity to rhyme, say the authors, is typically acquired in the pre-school years, and its presence provides an indication of good language development, a year or more before children begin to learn actual phonemes. What’s more, such sensitivity to rhyme has a positive effect on reading and spelling ability later on too.
The authors’ conclusions are based on a study of 64 children aged two and three years (31 boys and 33 girls) from diverse social backgrounds. The researchers began by measuring the children’s knowledge of five common nursery rhymes. They then monitored their language development over the next three years, up until to the time when the children began to learn to read. Taking into account variables such as IQ, the educational level of the children’s mothers, and the ages of the children, the research produced solid evidence that an early knowledge of nursery rhymes is a reliable predictor of children’s success in reading and spelling two to three years later.
Conversely, the children who were backward in reading were also strikingly insensitive to rhyme and alliteration. Discussing the development of language in young children in his wonderful book The Child That Books Built, Francis Spufford refers to the work of Margaret Donaldson who pointed out that if children come from a family where they are never encouraged to play with the spoken language, ‘it is possible for pre-school children not even to know that separate words are what they are speaking’.
Parents who find nursery rhymes silly or meaningless need to know that the fact that they sound like nonsense doesn’t mean they are nonsense. Far from it. We aren’t talking about politician’s speeches here. ‘The faculty for rhyme grows faster than the faculty of words to rhyme with, and spills over into nonsense. Ran, gan, splan, tran, pan, blan’, as Spufford puts it. He cites the delightful example of the 28-month-old son of psychologist Ruth Weir in the 1960s who, lying in his cot before going to sleep, would repeat the words ‘blanket like a lipstick’ over and over again. How satisfying a phrase to a young, keenly attuned ear! The same goes for ‘Hickory dickory dock’, ‘goosey, goosey gander’ and ‘diddle, diddle dumpling’. None of these phrases makes literal sense, but they are all powerful examples of assonance, alliteration and rhyme in action.
In short, there is compelling evidence that the sharing of traditional nursery rhymes with young children, something which generations of parents and carers have been doing instinctively to amuse their children is also a boon to their development. It confirms that Booktrust is absolutely right to promote the use of nursery rhymes, however old-fashioned they may seem to parents. The idea that they are not educational needs to be redressed, nimbly and quickly. Parents may be falling out of love with nursery rhymes but children almost certainly are not.
The Puffin Book of Nursery Rhymes
Iona and Peter Opie (eds), Puffin, 1963
Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain
Maryanne Wolf, Icon, 2008
‘Nursery Rhymes, Phonological Skills and Reading’
P E Bryant, L Bradley, M Maclean and J Crossland, Journal of Child Language, 1989
The Child That Books Built
Francis Spufford, Faber, 2002
Caroline Sanderson is a freelance writer, reviewer and editor and the author of Kiss Chase and Conkers, a book about traditional games.