There are so many overlaps between poetry and music. People ask me frequently why it is that reciting poetry seems to really help children, particularly those that may find other aspects of reading somewhat challenging.
Practising poetry by heart is a massively experiential process. The feeling of the sounds in the movement of the face, the jaw and the tongue are dance-like sequences and enjoyed for their bold sensations, which in terms of conveying their mood and colourful tones and timbres are musical in every way. In terms of how it feels, this is just like practising a musical instrument; indeed practising poetry through the congruence of movement, sounds and patterns is a deep and enriched form of language learning that we all can enjoy, having mastered this first as infants acquiring our mother-tongue (Nazzi et al., 1998) .
If you read aloud or recite Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky, it’s easy to invoke the atmosphere and moods created by movement, rhythm and sound, even though the words of the poem are utterly meaningless. Behind the evocative tones of the nonsense words, there’s a robust rhythmical structure and fascinatingly, researchers have found that we respond to the poem as if to a projected illusion of grammatical structure (Bonhage et al., 2015). The importance of rhythmical patterns is that they cast beams of expectation, helping to guide and focus our attention, enabling us to fully anticipate and enjoy all the more, the likely flow of the sounds and the colourful moods of the poem.
The usefulness of rhyme, so popular in children’s literature, is that it offers a fun and playfully supportive, highly accessible and very basic form of phonological awareness. Hearing the rhyming feature in words is a massive anchor for children who may arrive at school struggling to discern word boundaries in a stream of speech. This example of rhyme is from, ‘One fish, two fish, red fish, blue fish by Dr Seuss (1960):
This one has a little star. This one has a little car. Say! what a lot of fish there are.
Rhyming words are also invaluable for those children who come to school with a clearer grasp of language. Children are stimulated by rhymes, because rather than simply following the language of the poem, they are more deliberately focussing their attention in order to predict the placing of the rhyming word at the end of the line or phrase. For these reasons it is not surprising that highly rhythmically aware children are more likely to become good readers (Tierney and Kraus, 2013) – they arrive at school able to anticipate and enjoy the structure of rhythmic patterns in language. Similarly, children who may struggle with reading thrive when practising poetry because the explicit rhythmical structure and shorter phrase lengths support their attention, helping them to perceive the meaningful elements of language more easily.
In the Rhythm for Reading programme, we takes this principle further still, by providing rhythm-based reading tasks that give the children a chance to build their awareness of rhythmic patterns very rapidly. The sessions are a highly condensed extraction from traditional musical training. Building a strong response to rhythmical patterns, children develop and sustain their attention across increasingly complex musical phrases. Their awareness of rhythm transfers into their reading development after only a few ten-minute sessions.
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Bonhage, Corinna E., et al. (2015) “Combined eye tracking and fMRI reveals neural basis of linguistic predictions during sentence comprehension.” Cortex 68, 33-45
Dr Seuss (1960) One fish two fish red fish blue fish, Random House
Nazzi, T., Bertoncini, J. and Mehler, J. (1998). Language discrimination by newborns: Towards an understanding of the role of rhythm, Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 24, 756-766
Tierney A, Kraus N (2013) Music training for the development of reading skills. Prog Brain Res 207:209 –241
How do tunes and rhymes find their way into our heads? Although repetition seems to be important for any type of learning, patterns of words and tunes seem to have an almost magnetic quality in the way that they spontaneously stick in the mind. This type of learning is extremely powerful. It’s known as implicit learning as it appears to require no effort at all.
Scholars have identified the importance of implicit learning for infant language development. In fact, they have revealed that infants are naturally sensitive to the distribution and frequency of patterns. The power of this, so-called statistical learning was clearly demonstrated when infants responded to rhythmic patterns in language, even when the natural intonation or prosodic features in speech had been removed (Saffran et al., 1996).
It seems that implicit language learning is a natural response to regular occurrences such as rhythmic patterns and sequences in the sounds of language. Infants hear these in their everyday exposure to language and also by producing patterns through babbling. According to Vihman (2015), this is why the development of language is to a degree, individual for each infant. A virtuous cycle soon develops once infants have realised that things around them have names and begin to learn words more deliberately and explicitly, storing phonological representations of words as symbolic, semantic associations. Language learning continues as infants identify probabilistic patterns within words, again through implicit learning and this leads to sensitivity and production of grammatical structure. Isn’t the strength, power and universality of these processes absolutely remarkable?
Saffran, Jenny R., Richard N. Aslin, and Elissa L. Newport (1996). “Statistical learning by 8-month-old infants.” Science 274.5294, 1926-1928.
Vihman, M. (2015) Handbook of Language Emergence. MacWhinney, B. & O’Grady, W. (eds.). Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, p. 437-457