The Rhyme or Reason of Early Literacy

Sam Who Never Forgets book cover

"Forget?!! I never _______"

"FORGET!" Vinny shouted!

I remember those days so clearly now, listening to my husband read to our toddlers. We had a nap routine of reading 1-2 books and a bedtime routine of reading three. A habit we started when they were tiny. Like so many of us, I made sure my babies grew up patting pictures and gnawing on book corners.

My husband, usually reserved, loved bedtime stories. Hand him a baby or toddler, ready to cuddle, and he is a happy man! Throw in a book full of rhyme, song, or funny noises, and he fills the room with animated delight.

As a tired mom, I loved his passion for bedtime. As a language therapist, I appreciated his natural sense of storytelling and verbal play. He had our infants and toddlers making animal sounds, finishing routine phrases, and cheering throughout climactic moments. His antics were so infectious, I'd find my toddlers looking at their books independently, repeating favorite lines on appropriate pages! Sam Who Never Forgets by Eve Rice was one of those books.

Most of us have heard that reading to children, even young infants and toddlers, is important for developing later literacy skills. There is a reason we buy those plastic bath books, after all. Most of us understand the relationship between our early storytelling and children's developing language skills. Most of us understand that when parents and caregivers talk to children, they promote language development, and that when we read to children, we promote their literacy development.

But do we ever consider the notion that we are also promoting children's brain development? Child development specialist, Kristin Barbour puts it this way:

How we use our brains, shapes our brains. 

How we encourage young children to use their brains, actually rewires brain connections, shaping their brains. Or, as we like to say at Rooted in Language: Learning happens in relationships. 

Story-time builds vocabulary in young language learners, an important contribution to reading comprehension. In 2003, researchers Hart and Risley reported that some children entering school may have as much as a "30 million word gap" as compared to their more advantaged, book-and-language-savvy peers. This refers to the cumulative number of words children have been exposed to through conversation in their family. Reduced vocabulary levels are correlated with children's reduced early language interactions and experiences. This research set off nearly two decades of dialogue about the size and causes of language gaps among children entering school. No matter the actual size of the gap, evidence abounds that children's oral language skills and vocabulary expand—from their infancy onward—when adults engage in conversation with them.

Researchers also know that an important red flag for potential reading difficulty is an inability to rhyme. Verbal play with sounds, rhythm, and rhyming words is critically important in the developing language years. Poetry and song are great ways to expose children to rhyme, and to encourage them to join in rhyming words. 

Parents often ask me for suggestions, so here are a few I used with my kids, as well as my students when I worked with infants, toddlers, and preschool children.

I can remember singing along with Raffe: 

"Willoughby walliby wee

An elephant sat on me

Willoughby walliby woo

An elephant sat on you..."

 And then we added each family name and continued the song:

"Willoughby wallaby Wemma

An elephant sat on Emma..."

 We always had a collection of nursery rhymes, poetry, and songs to sing together. We sang with our daily routines: "Wake Up Feet" in the morning and "Clean Up Time" when we picked up toys. ("Wake Up Feet" became wake up tongues and lips in my articulation therapy with students.)

We recited a rhyming morning prayer:

"Lord, I offer you this day,

All I think, and do, and say..."

My children may not have comprehended every word, but they understood the rhyme and rhythmic patterns. We split our sides the day young Moira prayed: "Thank you Bob for our daily bread." 

In six months, I will be a grandmother of two new babies. My first act of celebration is to buy these two little dream-babies toddler books featuring animal sounds and poetry! Sam Who Never Forgets, along with an exuberant grandpa, will be waiting at our house.


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