Phonemic Awareness: Teaching Young Children to Rhyme

According to research by the National Institute for Children's Health and Development, children should enjoy more than 1000 hours of "lap time" before they enter school. That's more than 1000 hours of hearing nursery rhymes, singing songs, playing pat-a-cake and peek-a-boo, hearing tongue twisters and silly stories and sound games. For children who have this opportunity, the skill of rhyming is usually learned unconsciously and effortlessly. However, for those students who enter formal schooling without the skill of rhyming, learning it can be a laborious task! 

Why is rhyming so important? Does it really matter if children know that Jill rhymes with hill? Yes! Rhyming paves the wave to future reading success.

Rhyming impacts many components of the reading continuum. It teaches children about patterns and structures in both spoken and written words. It helps children to read with inflection and animation which leads to increased fluency and comprehension. Rhyming is a crucial skill that will lead to enhanced decoding skills, especially when reading multi-syllabic content words. It helps children be more aware of the commonalities in letter sequences, which will make them better writers and spellers.

Teaching Children To Rhyme

As with any new skill, teaching a student to rhyme takes practice. A typical student will master a new skill after 25 opportunities to practice. But for a child with lack of exposure, speech and/or language difficulties, or for second language learners, the amount of practice required may be as much as 25 x 25! That's a lot of practice, however, it will be worth the effort because learning to rhyme will increase awareness of the phonology and graphology of English, which are imperative to reading, writing, and oral communication.

The first step in teaching a young learner 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 as she holds a young child on her lap, i.e. nursery rhymes, finger plays, and songs. It is of upmost importanceto begin with these primary activities with second language learners, because, for them, this will be their primary language experience.

Begin with activities that are easily memorized. Call attention to rhymes using songs, fingerplays, and simple stories. Use full or cross-body actions that will increase brain-power. Don't be afraid to start small, in fact, 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 young 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 items. 

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 to 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. This process continues for weeks with many different examples.

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! The benefits of that labor are imperative to the child’s future reading success!