Rhyme and Reason

How nursery rhymes support early literacy.

Rhyme and Reason


Growing up in a world of educational television, online libraries and interactive toys offers today’s children access to a vast array of information and stimulation. But these tools also have a downside – they can lead to less interaction between parent and child. This can undermine the child’s early speech, language and literacy development.

One of the best ways to help your child build oral vocabulary, reading and writing skills is to rhyme with him. Sharing nursery rhymes that you heard as a child, learn at a playgroup, or find in books or online is an easy option for families on the go.

Literacy required for success

Though we think of Canadians as well-educated, 2008 statistics show that 42% of all Canadian adults are not sufficiently literate to meet day-to day life needs – to read instructions, prescriptions, etc. Studies also link low-income environments to low literacy levels. Literacy of low-income children starts to lag in kindergarten and the gap widens with each passing year. These children often lack the vocabulary, sentence structure and confidence to participate fully in school. Long-term consequences include poor social skill development – the ability to get along with peers – reduced self-esteem, and ultimately, academic and economic weakness.

Helping all children build literacy skills early on is particularly important because of rapid brain growth up to age 4. Early reading or pre-reading abilities – what children need to practise and learn before they can learn to read – includes awareness and recognition of distinct sounds within words. Rhyming is one of the best ways to teach this critical skill.

Rhymers will be readers

Child development and literacy experts have established that children who know eight  nursery rhymes by heart by the age of four  are usually among the best readers by the time they are eight years old.

Nursery rhymes can teach counting (One, Two, Buckle My Shoe) and parts of the body (This Little Piggy), but are particularly effective in developing an awareness of distinct sounds:
™They emphasize patterns of similar sounds in words, which helps children hear the relationships between them, e.g. man/can, or honey/money.

  • They encourage regular repetition of related words or word families, strengthening the brain 
connections for long-term memory storage.
  • Those that incorporate melody further support pattern recognition and long-term storage, e.g. Mary Had a Little Lamb, Sing a Song of Sixpence.
  • When accompanied by gestures or hand signals, they help connect words,    sound and meaning (particularly effective for kinesthetic learners – children that learn best by doing), e.g., Pat a Cake, Row Row Row Your Boat.
  • Most nursery rhymes – through repetition, song and gesture – support interaction between adult and child while consistently encouraging child participation.

Teach your favourites

The nursery rhymes in Mother Goose, which are shared mostly among English-speaking cultures, have diverse roots; many are hundreds of years old and some, like Humpty Dumpty, originally had political or sociological significance. Many other cultures around the world also have children’s rhymes and songs, often with a social or moral message, that are continually passed along generations.

Have fun helping your child learn plenty of nursery rhymes. Say them together in the car, at the doctor’s office, with grandparents, or caregivers. Teach your children your favourites and pass along those great early literacy skills at the same time!



YMCA/OEYC Mother Goose Program, 1-866-301-6392
Library programs, see listings.
www.mamalisa.com/?t=eh, Mama Lisa’s World – children’s songs/rhymes from around the world.
www.zelo.com/family/nursery, a comprehensive list of English nursery rhymes, both common and obscure.
A Child’s Treasury of Nursery Rhymes, Kady MacDonald Denton (Illustrator). Publisher: Kids Can Press (Canadian)
The Real Mother Goose, Blanche Fish Wright (Illustrator). Publisher: Cartwheel
Arroz con leche – Popular Songs & Rhymes From Latin America, Lulu Delacre. Publisher: Scholastic Paperbacks

Author: Sasha Korper

Sasha Korper is dedicated to helping kids have more fun while they learn. She works and lives in Northumberland with her husband and youngest daughter.

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