Mother Goose nursery rhymes are an important part of childhood. I always thought they were practically innate—until I became a teacher. That’s when I found out that someone has to teach nursery rhymes, and that this doesn’t always happen.
As teachers, we expect that some students won’t know the nursery rhymes. English Language Learners, for example, may not know nursery rhymes in English. (They might know rhymes from their own language.)
Somewhere along the way, probably about the same time as the demise of the bedtime story, we lost nursery rhymes. It is very important to make sure children know them. Why?
Nursery rhymes build fluency: Learning to say the rhymes, or read the rhymes aloud, builds a familiarity with a certain rhythm and style of speaking.
Nursery rhymes build vocabulary: The vocabulary is higher than what the child could read or say himself. How often does “tuffet” or “contrary” come up in ordinary conversation? By learning the words in conjunction with a fun rhyme, children effortlessly build vocabulary.
Nursery rhymes prepare children to read: To read successfully, children need an understanding of what teachers call phonemic awareness: an awareness of the sounds (phonemes) in our language. Appreciating the rhyme and alliteration in nursery rhymes helps children learn to read. By growing up with nursery rhymes, children more easily understand that words are made of sounds.
Nursery rhymes build rhythm: Developing a child’s sense of rhythm helps the child read better. There have been studies on this. From a classroom teacher’s point of view, I can say that building a sense of rhythm absolutely makes a difference. The rhythm pulls children along in the reading—they don’t stumble as much, and they learn to read more naturally. Rhythm also helps children work together because everyone has to keep the beat. Learning nursery rhymes helps children build a sense of rhythm in language.
Connection: Learning to do the Hand Jive builds rhythm, too—but that’s another story! The Hand Jive, with the rhythm and cross-body movement, is very good for developing growing brains. The Macarena is also good, rhythm-building fun.
Nursery rhymes teach memorization: By memorizing nursery rhymes at a young age, children learn how to remember. Often, the rhyme scheme aids in memorizing, and making this connection will help children see the patterns in language.
Nursery rhymes build cultural currency: many books, movies and plays refer to nursery rhymes. Even in casual conversation, we might note that a couple is like Jack Sprat and his wife. A harried mother might feel like the Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe. Children who grow up not knowing nursery rhymes are at a disadvantage when it comes to understanding these references—they might lose a great deal of meaning in a conversation or book.