Oh, Where, Oh Where Have the Nursery Rhymes Gone?

Posted by Brainspring on 27th May 2021

Nursery rhymes have traditionally played a big part in growing up for centuries. Initially, rhymes were used to share news from hamlet to hamlet. Unfortunately, today's children have little exposure to traditional nursery rhymes. This could explain why they tend to have difficulty with phonological awareness and other pre-reading skills.

"Experts in literacy and child development have discovered that if children know eight nursery rhymes by heart by the time they're four years old, they're usually among the best readers by the time they're eight." -Mem Fox, Reading Magic

The advantages of nursery rhymes are innumerable. Here are just a few examples that show direct links to reading and word acquisition.

Phonological Awareness

This is the number one predictor of reading success or failure, including rhyming, alliteration, and wordplay. Nursery rhymes have a natural rhythm that will help students practice this essential phonological awareness skill. Interestingly, musically inclined students generally have a more extensive vocabulary than non-musical students. Alliteration such as the /s/ sound in "A Sailor Went to Sea" encourages students to hear and identify initial sounds. Of course, nursery rhymes also include rhyming words to help students practice recognizing and producing rhymes.


Memorizing nursery rhymes through repetition will allow students to read them as text. They can practice print concepts such as top-to-bottom and left-to-right. The print starts in rhyme and then sweeps back to the following line allowing them to practice basic reading skills. As children practice reading these rhymes, teachers and parents can discuss letters and sounds.


We naturally speak in phrases. When students incorporate this skill into reading text, comprehension will increase. Students will have memorized the rhyme; therefore, fluency will become increasingly natural.


Students become exposed to many higher-level words they may not hear in everyday conversations. For example, the words such as "fetch" from Jack and Jill and "struck" from Hickory, Dickory Dock. Children also become exposed to multiple meanings of words, such as "sport" in Hey Diddle, Diddle, or "cast" in Rub a Dub Dub. Students practice similes and metaphors like "its fleece was white as snow," from Mary Had a Little Lamb, or "like a diamond in the sky" from Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.


One of the critical skills students should practice as they begin comprehending text is visualization. Creating a picture or movie in their heads as they read creates interest in the text. It is the reason why we can often become "lost" in a book. Nursery rhymes often include illustrations with the text. Children can also visualize the rhyme as they begin memorizing it. Also, acting out the rhyme with hand motions activates their kinesthetic sense, creating a deeper experience. Nursery rhymes typically tell a story. They are a short version of a tale, including beginning, middle, and end. These are essential concepts students will need as their reading and writing abilities increase.

Nursery rhymes offer many other benefits, such as memory building, math skills, social skills, speech development, and listening skills. Practice these age-old rhymes with your students as a fun way to build many reading skills.

Written by Ingrid Hartig

Ingrid is a Master Instructor with Brainspring’s Educator Academy


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