Teaching English Language Learners Phonological Awareness Skills: Learning To Rhyme

Learning to rhyme is a very important phonological skill that will lead students to future reading success. You can read about its importance here

Phonological awareness skills are especially import when teaching second language learners. To teach these children skills such as rhyming, it takes strategic teaching and knowledge of the fact that some phonemes are not present in a student’s native language (for example Spanish speakers use half the amount of phonemes as English speakers). Because of this, the vocabulary, context of the word, and pronunciation (including mouth positioning) must be strongly considered to make the rhyming practice meaningful and productive.

The first step in teaching ELL’s to rhyme is to start with traditional "lap time" activities. "Lap time" activities are known as such because they are the activities that a mother would typically engage in when playing with language with a young child on her lap, i.e. nursery rhymes, finger plays, and songs. We have to start with these primary activities with second language learners, because, for them, this is their primary language experience.

Start with activities that are easily memorized. Call attention to rhymes in songs, fingerplays, and rhymes as you sing them with your students. Use full or cross-body actions that will increase brain-power. Don't be afraid to start small, intact starting small is a must! The students do not need to learn how to rhyme in one week or even in one semester. Start with words that rhyme with cat. I love these little rhyming tubs. Children love the little objects and the auditory/visual connection assists ELL learners. To begin, I simply dump out the -at tub of objects in a pile, pick them up one-by-one, and identify them.  We take the time to discuss each object's label and definition. Don’t take anything for granted. Not all children know what a baseball bat is. Always throughly define the item. 

After all objects are named, I then pick them up again one-by-one saying only their name and ask, “Does anyone see anything these words have in common?” If there is no answer, I again pick up each object and exaggerate each word, opening my mouth wide, holding my chin, and pointing to my mouth (giving the children visual cues for clarity). I again ask the question, and usually a child will quickly mention my mouth. I will then say the word cat and ask students repeat the word as they place their hands on their cheeks. All of these objects are rhyming words and so my mouth is the same for each word. At this point I pull out my hand mirrors and ask students to say the name of each object as they watch their mouth. After we have watched our mouth “speak” each rhyming word. I ask the students to say a word that uses complete opposite mouth positioning such as chip. I then have the students hold their cheeks as they say the words in the object pile: cat, rat, bat, sat, mat, followed quickly by chip. “Did you feel your mouth move differently?” Well that word can’t rhyme with cat then, because your mouth must stay the same at the end of each rhyming word. 
I continue this process for the first several sessions with these students, reviewing a learned rhyming family at the end of each lesson, always having students hold their cheeks (or jaw if the words contain jaw-dropping vowels) as we list the rhyming words. I do this review in a my-turn, your-turn fashion. For example. I hold my cheeks and say pig and then point both hands at the students while they say pig.

After I have taught the vocabulary that I want rhymed, the mouth positioning, and practiced rhyming families, it is time to slowly ask students to produce and then generate rhyming words using meaningful games and activities. This process to teach rhyme may seem labor intensive. It is, but it also doesn't take as much time as you might expect, and, spelling out the workings of language in such an explicit way is essential for students who come from a different language background.