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Songs and Rhymes as a Springboard to Literacy
By Pam Schiller, Ph.D

Music is an integral part of a quality early childhood curriculum. It plays a role in setting the tone of the classroom, developing skills and concepts, helping children make transitions, and building a sense of community. Of course, if you ask the children, they will tell you singing is a fun part of their daily activities.

In recent years, with a strong national focus on early literacy, we have begun to examine and redefine the valuable role singing songs and reciting chants and rhymes play in laying the foundation for reading readiness. We know, for example, that these activities can help build vocabulary and develop sound discrimination. Both skills are crucial to the development of literacy. The size of a child’s vocabulary and his or her ability to discriminate sounds are strong predictors of how easily a child will learn to read when exposed to formal instruction (Adams, et all).

Oral language and phonological sensitivity (sound discrimination) are not the only skills that are developed when children are exposed to songs, chants, and rhyme.  They can also develop listening and thinking skills. Oral language (vocabulary), phonological sensitivity and comprehension (thinking skills) are the building blocks of literacy. With conscious effort, songs, chants and rhymes become a perfect springboard for developing all three of these critical skill areas.

Just singing the songs and reciting the chants and rhymes with children provides a great foundation for literacy development, but if we really want to capitalize on the full range of benefits in using songs, chants and rhymes as a springboard to literacy, we need to purposefully use them as learning opportunities.

Using Songs and Rhymes to Build Vocabulary
Many of us grew up singing “Itsy Bitsy Spider.” How many times did you sing the song before you actually knew what a waterspout was? Singing a song is not enough to optimize vocabulary growth. Although children hear the words of the song in context they may not actually know what the words mean. I thought the waterspout in “Itsy Bitsy Spider” was the faucet in the bathtub. My mother never could understand why I didn’t want to get in the tub until the faucet was turned off--I was waiting for the spider to come tumbling out!

If you stop and discuss new words and their meanings, you can ensure clarity. This is an example of using the song’s vocabulary in an intentional and purposeful way to increase vocabulary. Here are more ideas for using songs to build vocabulary.

1. Change words in a familiar song. Sing “twinkle, twinkle brilliant star” or silent star, gigantic star or flashing star. Use your voice to help illustrate the new adjective. Sing about a gigantic star in a gigantic voice. Sing about a silent star in a whispering voice.
2. Use familiar tunes to create your own teaching songs. Here is a song sung to the tune of “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” This song teaches opposite vocabulary.
 Sing a Song of Opposites  
 by Pam Schiller
 This is big and this is small,
 This is big; this is small,
 This is big and this is small,
 Sing along with me.

 Other verse possibilities:
 This is tall and this is short.
 This is up and this is down…
 This is in and this is out…
 This is happy and this is sad…
 This is soft and this is hard…
 This is fast and this is slow…
 This is here and this is there. ..

3. Use favorite rhymes to teach spatial vocabulary: The cow jumped over the moon, Jack and Jill went up the hill and the old lady and her children lived in a shoe.

Using Songs and Rhymes to Teach Phonological Sensitivity (Sound Discrimination)
Songs and rhymes are ready-made for developing phonological sensitivity. Here are some useful suggestions for developing sound discrimination.

1. Make a list of some of the familiar songs you sing with children each day. It is a pretty safe bet that the list includes songs rich in alliteration (“Miss Mary Mack” and “Billy Boy”), onomatopoeia (“The Wheels on the Bus” and “The Farmer in the Dell”) and rhyme (“Down by the Bay”)—all of which promote phonological sensitivity. Next time you sing these familiar songs make sure you point out the literacy lesson within. Here are few of my favorite songs for teaching phonological sensitivity.

 “A Ram Sam Sam” (Rhyme and Alliteration)
 A ram sam sam    (Hit one fist on top of the other)
 A ram sam sam    (Hit opposite fist on top of the other)
 Goolie Goolie Goolie, Goolie (Roll hand over hand)
 Ram Sam Sam    (Hit fists again)
 A Raffy A Raffy    (Lift arms)
 Goolie Goolie Goolie   (Roll hands again)
 and a RAM SAM SAM!  (Hit fists again)
 “Willoughby Wallaby Woo” (Alliteration and Rhyme)
 Willoughby wallaby wee, an elephant sat on me
 Willoughby wallaby woo, an elephant sat on you.
 Willoughby wallaby wustin, an elephant sat on Austin.
 Willoughby wallaby waria, an elephant sat on Maria.

 Willoughby wallaby wee, a kangaroo hopped on me
 Willoughby wallaby woo, a kangaroo hopped on you.
 Willoughby wallaby wabrielle, a kangaroo hopped on Gabrielle.
 Willoughby wallaby wevan, a kangaroo hopped on Evan

 Willoughby wallaby wee, a buffalo stepped on me
 Willoughby wallaby woo, a buffalo stepped on you.
 Willoughby wallaby warlos, a buffalo stepped on Carlos.
 Willoughby wallaby wadison, a buffalo stepped on Madison.

“Zzzz! Zzzz! Snort! Snort!”   Pam Schiller (Onomatopoeia)
Tune: “The Wheels on the Bus”
The firefly at night goes zzzz, zzzz, zzzz,   
Zzzz, zzzz, zzzz, zzzz, zzzz, zzzz,
The firefly at night goes zzzz, zzzz, zzzz, 
All around my yard.

Other verses:
 The bees in the flowers go buzz, buzz, buzz 
 The birds in the trees go chirp, chirp, chirp 
 The cat on the porch goes meow, meow, meow, 
 The dog by the gate goes bow-wow-wow 
 The pig in the pen goes snort, snort, snort

2. Rhymes and chants can also be used to strengthen phonological sensitivity. Here are some ways to use nursery rhymes to promote the understanding of rhyming words.
• Recite rhymes in a whisper and say the rhyming word aloud.
• Recite the rhyme stopping and waiting for the children to fill in the second rhyming word in a rhyming word pair.
• Recite the rhyme is a loud voice and whisper the rhyming word.
• Have the children clap on rhyming word pairs.

3. Tongue twister rhymes reinforce alliteration. Teach the children one of your favorite tongue twisters or one of the tongue twisters below.

 “The Baker”
 If a Baker bakes for another baker,
 Does the baker who bakes,
 Bake the same way as the baker she is baking for?

 “Peter Piper “
 Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers
 How many pails of pickled peppers did Peter Piper pick?

Nurturing Disposition
Not only can songs, chants, and rhymes develop vocabulary and phonological sensitivity, but these activities are an equally critical component of literacy disposition, that is, the desire to read.  In order for children to become avid readers they must have mastery of the skills (mechanics) as well as disposition. Disposition grows from positive experiences. Singing songs and reciting chants and rhymes provides a natural way to build the development of skills while ensuring the acquisition of disposition, especially because children find singing activities enjoyable.

The Role of Neurological Science in Literacy Development
Experience wires the brain and repetition strengthens the wiring. This understanding should be at the heart of all interactions with children.  It is important to understand that developmental timetables are windows of opportunity that maximize learning potential. You simply need to make sure the experience and repetition of experiences fall within these windows.

In the case of literacy, the windows of opportunity provide a timetable for the wiring vocabulary, sound discrimination, and thinking skills (comprehension). Preschool children are in the most fertile period of life for this wiring. There is a direct correlation of early care and education experiences to the strength of the wiring for each of these skills. The chart below shows the initial wiring window and the enhancement timetables for early sounds, vocabulary and thinking skills. Remember that experience wires the brain and repetition of experience strengthens the wiring. In other words, initial experiences prepare the pathways and practice strengthens the pathways.

Window for: Wiring Window Greatest Enhancement Opportunity

Early Sounds
Vocabulary Development 4 - 8 Months 8 Months-6 years
4 - 8 Months 8 Months-6 years
0-24 Months 2-7  years

Thinking Skills
Cause and Effect
Problem Solving 0-48 Months 4 years-puberty
0-15 Months 15 Months-puberty
15 Months-4 years 18 Months -puberty
Ramey (1999), Nash (1997), Schiller (1999), Sousa (2003)

Songs, chants and rhymes are a natural part of quality early childhood programs. Children love them. Teachers use them for many purposes--to assist with transitions, to enhance thematic units, to get children focused, and to get them up and moving. Now with a little forethought and a commitment to purposeful teaching methods, teachers can use songs, chants and rhymes as a springboard, and even as content, for their literacy lessons. Keep a song in your heart and a poem in your pocket. You’ll be glad you did.

Adams, M., Foorman, B., Lundberg, I., and Beeler, T. (2002) Phonemic Awareness in Young Children. Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co. Baltimore, MD.

Begley, S. “How to Build a Baby’s Brain.” Newsweek. Special Edition 1997, 28-32.

Campbell, Donald (1992) 100 Ways to Improve Your Teaching Using Your Voice and Music. Tucson: Zyphyr Press, 1992.

Jensen, Eric (1998) Teaching with the Brain in Mind. ASCD, Alexandria, VA.

Mobbs, D. Neuron, Dec. 4, 2003; vol 40: pp 1041-1048. .

Nash, M. “Fertile Minds.” Time, February 1997, 48-56.

Ramey, Craig T. and Sharon L. (1999) Right From Birth. Goddard Press, NY.

Schiller, P. “Brain Research and Its Implications in Early Childhood Programs.” July/August 2002, Child Care Information Exchange.

Schiller, P. (1999) Start Smart: Building Brain Power in the Early Years. Gryphon House, Beltsville, MD.

Schiller, P. “Turning Knowledge Into Practice,” March/April 1999, Child Care Information Exchange.

Sousa, Dr. David A. (2000) How the Brain Learns. Corwin Press. Thousand Oaks, CA.

Pam Schiller is a freelance Early Childhood Consultant and Author. Dr. Schiller has been a childcare administrator for several years and has also taught in the public schools as a kindergarten teacher. She served as Head of the Early Childhood Department at the University of Houston where she also directed the Lab School.

Dr. Schiller shares her extensive knowledge in workshops, radio and television interviews, and as a popular keynote speaker and author.
She is Senior Author of the DLM Early Childhood Express, a full curriculum for for four year olds, the DLM Early Childhood Program, a full curriculum for Kindergarten and Early Impressions: Start Smart Edition, a full curriculum for infants and toddlers. Pam is also the author of several children's books, music CD's, DVD's and more than thirty teacher resource books for Gryphon House, Goodyear Books, SRA/McGraw-Hill, and Fearon Teaching Aids.