Tips for Brain-Friendly Teaching – Rhyming

It was time to assess rhyming skills in Kindergarten. The teacher opened the folder and pulled out the single sheet with 20 word pairs, some of which rhymed and some which didn’t. She carefully explained the task to Julie . . . some of the words sounded the same and some didn’t, and when they sounded the same, they rhymed. Julie nodded as if to indicate that she understood, and the assessment began.

Things started out fairly well, then Julie began to falter and become inconsistent. By word pair #14, her “correct” rate was below 80% . . . by word pair #20, her “correct” rate had dipped to 65%. She looked tired by the end of the assessment, and maybe a little confused.

Some children have a difficult time with rhyming. They struggle to know (recognize) when words sound the same – they may be unsure of what the word “rhyming” means. Generating rhyming words can be even more difficult. A Midwestern literacy sage once stated that not all children can rhyme or even recognize rhyme. My way of thinking is that difficulty with rhyming may not always be due to the inability to recognize rhyming or to comprehend what rhyming is, but is due to the need for additional learning channel inputs beyond the auditory just to “understand” the concept. It’s as if these children need to “see” the similarities and differences of sounds before they can grasp those same similarities and differences coming in through the auditory channel.

Let’s take a closer look the concept/skill of rhyming. Rhyming is a phonological awareness skill and is “hard wired” into our brains – it is innate.  Yet, we “teach” rhyming as early as Preschool. Why do we need to “teach” rhyming when it is already innate?  A simple answer is that we need to make sure that children can apply their innate skills to print . . . we need to establish the foundation for skills that are not innate – decoding and encoding.

What options does a teacher have when students don’t “get” rhyming? The first thought of an inquiring mind would look at some early emergent literacy skills, as well as how rhyming is “taught”. Here are some things to consider:

  • The ability to recognize and generate rhyming words will eventually help children to use known words to decode new words.  (From Literacy and the Youngest Learner – Best Practices for Educators of Children from Birth to 5, Bennett-Armistead, Duke & Moses (2002 ): Scholastic.
  • Check to make sure the students have syllable awareness & recognition. Generally speaking, the brain’s innate “pattern” radar recognizes the “beats” or syllables of language before the recognition of rhyming & word play emerge. Both syllable “sense” and rhyming involve “chunks” of language and are part of phonological awareness  – foundation literacy skills for decoding and spelling. The very basic phonological awareness activities of counting words in a sentence and combining two words into a compound word (cow + boy = cowboy) can be used to build “chunk” awareness that sets the stage for syllable awareness & recognition.
  • In spite of the fact that little children can complete a phrase in a song with a true or “made-up” word (“the ants go marching one by one, the little one stops to ___”), adults think they need to “teach” rhyming through the use of “concept” words, such as “the same” or “alike”. Not only that, but if the child completes the “ants go marching” phrase with “to suck his thumb”, adults would likely tell them that “thumb” doesn’t rhyme with “one” because the last sound isn’t the same! That is adult thinking at its worst because the child isn’t “sensing” the whole rime of the word, they are aware of the vowel sound . . . the last sound is like an unstressed syllable . . . it’s there but not that noticeable. In this case, the adult need for “perfection” can rob the child of “connection” and is anything but developmentally “friendly” teaching. So if children come “close” by matching up the vowel sound, “notice” that fact and comment on it, then give some other examples of words the fit the criteria for rhyming and emphasize the ending sound.
  • Take advantage of visual imagery and use pictures. Gather pictures of rhyming word pairs and utilize the strong associative power of visual imagery when paired with the sounds at the ends of the words. Make up a rap, use a poem, or find a song about rhyming words and have the children move – the addition of music, melody and movement will help to improve attention and memory.
  • Read Dr. Seuss books or other books that have a lot of rhyming words, the sillier and more unique the better. Read these books over and over, but not in the same way every time. While brains love patterns and repetition, they also need to alert, and doing the same thing over and over in the same way is one of the best ways to lose “attentiveness”. After the children become familiar with the rhyming patterns, pause as you come to the second word of the rhyming pair to see if they can “fill it in”, or tell them that you need their help with remembering some of the rhyming words . . . in other words, find creative ways to involve the students. Recognize any words the students give you that rhyme, whether they are the ones in the book or not . . . “notice” their learning and connections more than you notice whether their answer was “perfect”. If the book has pictures for the rhyming words, cover the picture up and then confirm their guesses by uncovering the picture. You can cover the picture with your hand, or even better, with a colorful sticky note.
  • Teach “rhyme” and “don’t rhyme” by giving examples of both. Struggling learners need things “sorted out” for them more often than learners who don’t struggle, and this can be accomplished by taking advantage of the brain’s sorting default of “go together/same” and “don’t go together/not the same”. Consider using three pictures to “teach” rhyming to struggling learners vs. the typical two choices. It is easier to decide about “sameness” and “not the sameness” when there are two things that are the same and one that isn’t – this is very basic “compare & contrast” thinking. Learning often is best accomplished from a set of examples compared to non-examples. The use of “framing sentences” provides the thinking behind the sorting – “These go together because they sound the same . . . they have the (long) /a/ sound. This one doesn’t belong because it doesn’t have the /a/ sound . . . it sounds different” (or you could tell the vowel sound it does have).
  • Use Richard Gentry’s  onset-rime “materialization” technique of “hand spelling” (a detailed explanation can be found in the article on Sight Words on the Visual Phonics pull-down menu  on the home page of this site). The rime portion of short words is the rhyming part, so by separating the first sound from the word (this is a foundation literacy skill – being able to isolate the first sound of a word), we can set the stage for learners to be more aware of the rhyming “chunk” and play to innate phonological “chunk” awareness in order to build recognition.
  • If teachers know Visual Phonics (VP), the hand shapes and/or written symbols can be used to make the sound of rhyming “visible” and kinesthetic. Since each hand shape and corresponding written symbol represents a specific sound, student awareness of sounds being the “same” can be facilitated by seeing a teacher’s hand shape cue or via the written symbol under the rhyming part of a word. For young children, use of pictures capitalizes on their strong visual channel. By placing a Visual Phonics written symbol for the vowel sound under the picture, it is easy to see when the symbols are the same and when they are not (whether you show two or three pictures). When the teacher and the students make the VP hand shapes as they look at the pictures, students begin to associate the sound they hear and the hand shape they see with not only the picture, but also with the VP written symbol. Teaching concepts by association is a powerful, brain-friendly method, because 85% of what we learn is through association.

© 2010  Dave Krupke  All Rights Reserved