How to use rhythms and rhymes to boost early language and literacy skills

Do you love singing and acting out nursery rhymes with your child? Find out why they can help boost their early language and literacy skills too. 

Remember all those old-fashioned clapping and jumping games you played with your best friend at playtime? These multi-sensory games were repeated over and over again, often becoming more complex as your expertise developed.

Their enduring appeal might be because they present the challenge of chanting, singing and performing rhythms at speed, whilst synchronising with a partner or others in the group.

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And they’re great if you’re the type of child who is able to pick up routines and can participate without making errors, losing the sequence or consistently ‘messing up’ the game.

However, the children who find these rhymes difficult are also sometimes the ones who struggle with fine motor skills, such as handwriting, following instructions and are often slow to acquire spelling and reading skills.

There’s a strong link between rhythm and reading

Research is now growing into the significance of rhythm and ability to accurately copy movement sequences in relation to how young children develop early language and literacy skills.

Experiencing and participating in rhythms and sequences is closely linked to accurate awareness of different sounds and discriminating between similar sounds.

These type of rhythmical movements also seem to have an amazing capacity to affect the wider aspects of learning such as attention, concentration and the ability children need to avoid distractions around them.

Rhythmic exercises may help with dyslexia

Children who may have early indicators of dyslexia often demonstrate poor ability to clap to a beat. And there is evidence to suggest that phonological awareness (awareness of sounds in words) and early reading ability may improve through engaging in regular rhythmic exercises. These are also fun and build communication between you and your child.

Professor Goswami, of the Centre for Neuroscience in Education at the University of Cambridge has written about the associations between music, dyslexia and rhythm and suggests that there is a ‘strong support’ for a link between musical rhythm perception and reading.

How can you help your child?

Nursery rhymes such as ‘Incey Wincey Spider,’ integrate fine motor skill movements to develop foundations for learning alongside watching, hearing and copying rhythms and sequences. This can help stimulate and support language development, becoming a familiar part of your child’s memories.

Click here to see one example and see how quickly you can master the finger patterns. Have fun learning the rhymes, gradually pausing so your child can add in the next word(s) by themselves. When your child is confident with the sequencing, try swapping the right and left hand movements and developing greater precision with these.

Be patient, this can take longer than you think!

Sing this simple clapping rhyme with your child

This next simple clapping rhyme can be built up slowly, sitting on the floor opposite your child as this gives them a firm base to work from. As they become more skilled, you can move to standing, then marching at the same time.

Clap your hands: 1,2,3
Clap your hands
Just like me.
Roll your hands: 1,2,3
Roll your hands
Just like me.
Reach up high: 1,2,3
Reach up high
Just like me.

You can make up your own movements or follow this suggestion:

  • Clap your hands: This can be a simple handclap or vary low, middle, high
  • 1,2,3: Clap your partner’s hand alternately x 3
  • Clap your hands: as above
  • Just like me: Tap chest x 3

You can try this one too.

Have fun practicing with your child

Children need daily practice in hearing, observing and physically participating in rhythmic activities to integrate these into their development. They need to practice rhythm and rhyme skills by doing the activities with a person, not watching on a screen – so have fun playing with these rhymes together!

Mary Mountstephen MA (SEN) is a former nursery and primary head teacher, special needs coordinator and international presenter and consultant. She’s currently working on doctoral research at The University of Reading. 

If you would like a formal assessment, you can contact Mary through her website. Mary is happy to advise and support schools, families and homeschoolers.

Photo by Annie Spratt