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How a floppy-hatted scarecrow, a spider and a magic box can be your top tools for early literacy

It's that time of year again when all of us at I CAN are practising our singing as we shape up for our annual Chatterbox Challenge, a sing-along for children under 5. This year we have partnered up with Ben and Holly around the theme of adventures, inside and outside. We hope many of you will be getting involved, so this month we are reflecting on the importance of rhymes and their link to early language and literacy skills.

Songs as a stepping stone to reading

Listening to sounds

Tuning in to sounds is a skill that lays the foundations for knowing how words work and what sounds make up a word (e.g. cat is made up of the individual sounds c-a-t).

Lots of nursery rhymes have environmental sounds that children love joining in with. For example, Old MacDonald can encourage them to identify and make animal sounds.

Other rhymes such as Dingle, Dangle Scarecrow use the sounds of the words for enjoyment and show that changing a sound can make a whole new word.

Looking out for rhymes

Listening and detecting rhyme is a very important underlying skill for early language development as well as later literacy development.

If children know that ‘wall’ rhymes with ‘fall’ from the Humpty Dumpty rhyme, they will find it easier to learn that if you change the first letter of a word, you can make a new one.

These are helping to develop children's phonological awareness skills, which we touched on in an earlier blog.

Older children may start to make up their own rhymes and also love new versions of familiar favourites that change the words e.g. Twinkle, twinkle chocolate bar.

Learning about the super power of words

Songs and rhymes can help children to learn and use new words - for example "Head, shoulder, knees and toes" uses different parts of the body as children point to them, so that they are hearing the words that go with each part over and over again.

This repetition is important for learning new words. Children need a wide vocabulary not only to express themselves but also to be able to tell exciting and interesting stories.

Telling stories

To become storytellers and writers later on, children need to know how to put ideas together and make short stories.

Nursery rhymes and songs often tell a story and help children learn the basics of structuring their ideas.

Rhymes such as Jack and Jill tell a story about the main characters going to carry out a household task and things going wrong!

Some nursery rhymes have a central theme and include a setting (where), characters (who) and a plot (what happened). There is also a very clear beginning and end, which is important for stories. Think of Incey, wincey spider (the main character) - he climbs up a water spout (setting) and it rains, he gets washed out and starts again (plot). The rhythm, rhyme and repetition all help children to sequence these ideas.

Reflection on practice

You may already be aware of and using rhymes to develop early language skills. However, it's often useful when you sing with children to reflect on the songs or rhymes you choose, how you create opportunities for children to join in and how to develop extension activities from familiar rhymes.

Do you have a magic box or bag with all your song props in? This can help children to choose which song they want to sing if they don't know or can't remember the name.

You can also use props to highlight the character in the song e.g. Incey Wincey Spider or a star. For older children you might think about making a picture sequence of the ideas in the nursery rhyme, they can then put these in order.

When you're singing with children are you reflecting on how they are responding:

  • Are they able to join in the actions at the pace you're going?
  • Are they learning the words of the songs?
  • Do you use action songs or wait at the end of the song for the child to add in the last word?
  • Do you need to adapt any of the activities to include all children?
  • How do children ask for new or favourite songs?
  • Have they got a way of letting you know either by using actions or pointing to a toy or picture to make a choice?

About Amanda Baxter

Amanda Baxter is a speech and language therapist who specialises in working with early years practitioners and families with young children. As a Communication Advisor for I CAN, she delivers training to early years professionals and supports them to develop their practice. She also works on I CAN’s Enquiry Service providing information, advice and support for practitioners and parents. Amanda has worked in children's centres and as a Local Authority Early Language Consultant.

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