Rhymers are Readers – Maybe Writers, Too

A small advertisement in the newspaper caught my eye the other day.

“Children who know 8 nursery rhymes by the age of 4 are usually among the best readers and spellers in the class by the age of 8.”

Tiny print along the bottom of the ad gave the name of a literacy agency and its website.  Curious about the statement, I followed the trail, first to the agency’s website and then on to other literacy-based ones.

imagesM7JZAIOUQuestions about how we learn to read and write, and especially why some of us become proficient at these skills while others do not, have long interested me. Reading aloud to children at an early age is one key to literacy, and it was a practice I employed when our own children were young – a long time ago now. We spent many happy hours together sharing stories just before bedtime, first from picture books like Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar and  Robert Munsch’s Love You Forever, then as the kids edged towards adolescence, novels the likes of  J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter, Ken Oppel’s Sunwing, and Lois Lowry’s The Giver.

Today, both our “kids” are avid readers and competent writers and I give credit to the read-aloud experience for a good part of that. Research backs me up, too.  One study maintains that a child needs to have 1000 books read to them before they are ready to begin reading themselves.

But the newspaper ad claimed something slightly different – a benchmark connection to nursery rhymes, and in particular to memorizing poetry.  Here are a few other facts about nursery rhymes-poetry that I gleaned from my research:

  • Children who don’t recognize that two words rhyme, like head and bed, have a hard time learning to read
  • Children who are able to rhyme can make more guesses about what a word might be when they are reading.
  • Rhymes are a great way to learn early phonic skills (the ability to hear, identify, and manipulate letter sounds)
  • Nursery rhymes are easy to repeat so they become some of a child’s first sentences
  • Rhymes contain sophisticated literary devices – alliteration, onomatopoeia and the like are imbedded in many of them
  • Rhyming poetry often tells a story that follows a sequence of events with a beginning, middle and end – a precursor to understanding complex story structure

Dr. SeussWhile there are classic nursery rhymes – the whole Mother Goose series, for one – there are modern takes, too.  Anyone who has read Dr. Seuss aloud to a toddler can testify to its power.  (“Hands, hands, fingers, thumb…” still resonates with my “kids”, and occasionally the patter resurfaces in my head, refusing to leave no matter how hard I try).

The writing of rhyming poems and rhyming stories seems deceptively simple, but anyone who has tried it knows it’s not that easy. I discovered this myself when writing a couple of alphabet books for Sleeping Bear Press.  Every letter of the alphabet stood for something, and while I was allowed 150 words of expository text to develop content for middle-years readers, a simple 4 line rhyming fact-based poem for younger readers had to accompany each page.  Trying to align facts into a rigid structure was difficult, and getting rhythm, rhyme and explanation to play well with each other took some doing – lots of rewriting, clapping of hands/stamping of feet to check patterns, consulting a rhyming dictionary when desperate, and now and then a mumbled curse word or two.

Here’s a sample from S is for Scientists: A Discovery Alphabet where the letter Q tells about the dramatic moment when Percy Spencer discovered the magnetron’s awesome power, all of which eventually led to the development of a favourite kitchen appliance– the microwave oven:

Q is for Question

Questions popped into Percy’s head:

           he wondered how and why

chocolate could have turned to mush

           and eggs could be made to fly.

Like I said, deceptively simple, but time consuming to craft.

Writing Picture BooksAnyone interested in writing rhyming material would be well advised to consult Ann Whitford Paul’s Writing Picture Books (Writer’s Digest Books, 2009).  Paul devotes a couple of chapters to the subject of rhythm, the sounds letters make, and the four basic rhyme schemes that commonly populate picture books.  Each of the four fosters a unique mood that a writer can harness: iambic – comforting because it emulates the human heartbeat; anapest – humourous; trochee – more serious; dactyl – darker still. To internalize rhythms and patterns, Paul suggests that writers memorize poems in each of the 4 categories then recite them over and over.  She recites hers on morning walks, keeping pace, I assume, with each one’s distinctive beat.

If nothing else, writing in rhyme can be a playful way to unleash your creative self.  Paul includes this quote by Theodore Geisel, more famously known as Dr. Seuss: “Write a verse a day, not to send to publishers, but to throw in wastebaskets.  It will help your prose.  It will give you swing.  Shorten paragraphs and sentences, then shorten words…Use verbs.  Let the kids fill in the adjectives…”

Life or DeathLarry Verstraete (www.larryverstraete.com) is a Winnipeg educator and the author of 13 non-fiction books for youngsters.  His next book, Life or Death: Surviving the Impossible (Scholastic Canada) is set for release in Spring 2014.

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For Larry Verstraete, an award-winning author of books for young people, writing is all about the journey and often the perfect writing storm occurs when high adventure, science and history converge. An advocate for literacy, Larry often visits schools and libraries to share his passion.

Poetry For Children

I’m taking a course with the Children’s Writers Institute and they are currently sponsoring a poetry writing contest.  I thought I’d like to enter so I decided to do a little research and see what I could find out about writing poetry for children. 

On her blog Poetry For Children Sylvia Vardell writes about what kids like in poetry.  Narrative poems that tell a story are the most popular. Free verse poems are the least popular.  Children prefer poems with pattern, rhyme and rhythm. Poems about familiar experiences, animals and those that are funny and full of humour are sure to engage them. Sylvia discusses some exciting new trends involving children’s poetry including teen novels being published in verse and poem biographies of famous people.

Lorelei Cohen provides some helpful tips.

1. Think like a child. Take a step back in time to when you were young, innocent and open-minded.

2. Keep your poetry light-hearted, even when you are dealing with dark issues.

3. Children have creative imaginations. Pander to them. 

4. Give characters in your poems distinctive identities. 

5. Children experience lots of raw emotion. Make your poem emotional.

6. Try to make your rhyme and rhythm musical. 

Other tidbits of help I discovered were………

1. Feel free to use nonsense words. Kids like words with unique sounds. Dr. Seuss once said “I love nonsense. It wakes up the brain cells.”

2. Children love repetition. Include some in your poems.

3. Be sure to read the poetry you write out loud. 

4.  Write with children in mind but don’t alienate the adults who might be reading your poetry too. 

Jennifer Hind presents a workshop where she explores the work of Shel Silverstein. She discusses three ways  the famed children’s poet uses words effectively. 

1. He creates visual effects with words by leaving some white space on the page, by chosing different letter fonts and sizes and by the physical arrangement of the words on the page. 

2. He creates sound effects with words by using  rhythm, rhyme, alliteration, onomatopeia and assonance.

3. He creates meaning with words by using metaphor and similie to make striking comparisons and with his flair for employing sensory words. He looks at ideas and objects from unique points of view and utilizes irony and hyperbole.

Many of the articles I found about writing children’s poetry mentioned the key role the illustrations for the poem can play. Both Silverstein and Seuss illustrated their own work. 

I think I need to spend some time now reading poetry by some of the best children’s poets to see how they use all this advice I’ve discovered.  On the Children’s Poetry Archive you can both read poems written for children yourself and hear their authors read them. 

Poetry should show children how much they are loved.   -Diane van Zwol

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MaryLou Driedger is just beginning to write fiction and non-fiction for children after working as a teacher, newspaper columnist and free-lance journalist for thirty years. She also blogs at What Next? 

MaryLou Driedger is a free lance writer with a long career as a newspaper columnist, curriculum writer and contributor to lifestyle, education and religious publications.
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