The benefit of rhymes

Rhymetimes are held throughout the country
Rhymetimes are held throughout the country

Rhymetime events have been a key feature of the Bookstart programme for many years. Usually held at local libraries, these events provide a wonderful opportunity for parents and children to sing songs and rhymes together in an informal and supportive setting.

It is not difficult to identify the relevance of rhymes to Bookstart’s mission to promote the enjoyment of stories and books among young children. Rhymes are a uniquely child-friendly means of introducing babies and toddlers to the wonder of narratives and the imaginative potential that the stories found in books can offer.

Rhyming and reading

Perhaps less obvious, however, are the dramatic benefits to literacy that are gained through exposure to rhymes. Research in recent decades has provided a wealth of knowledge on how sensitivity to rhyme helps children progress with reading.

Evidence suggests that a familiarity with rhymes helps children to detect the phonetic constituents of words. Children at a very young age can recognise that cat rhymes with mat. In making this connection, they detect the word segment ‘at’. Because rhyming words – words that have sounds in common - often share spelling sequences in their written form, children sensitive to rhymes are well equipped to develop their reading. By making children aware that words share segments of sounds (e.g. the -ight segment shared by light, fight, and might) rhymes help prepare them to learn that such words often have spelling sequences in common too (Goswami, 1986, 1988).

A child that has learnt this characteristic of rhyme is therefore likely to be well equipped to learn how certain spellings produce similar-sounding words once they start school. Experience suggests that when they begin to learn reading, children that are sensitive to rhyme are better able to make the inference, for example, that fight and might are likely to be spelt the same way as the word light. In this way, learning to read one new word is readily extended to learning several more. Singing rhymes at the toddler stage therefore provides a strong foundation for learning to read slightly later on: put simply, good rhymers make good readers!

Evidence and outcomes

A number of longitudinal studies confirm this thesis and indicate that knowledge of rhymes helps children progress in reading once they start school. For example, studies have demonstrated that the better children are at detecting rhymes the quicker and more successful they will be at learning to read (Bradley, 1988c, Bradley & Bryant, 1983, Ellis & Large, 1987). Interestingly, this relationship holds true even when there are differences in class background, general intelligence or memory ability (Bradley & Bryant, 1985, MacLean et al., 1987).

Bryant, MacLean and Crossland’s (1990) longitudinal study provides some invaluable insight into this relationship. Using a sample of 64 children from a range of socio-economic backgrounds, the study evaluated the group at three intervals from age 4 to age 6½.  Each child was tested for their ability to detect rhyme at ages 4 years and 7 months and 5 years and 11 months. In each test, the child was given three words with pictures, two rhymed and the third did not (e.g. peg, cot, leg; fish, dish, book). The child’s task was to inform the evaluator which one did not rhyme. When the children were 6 years 7 months they were given three different reading tests to assess the understanding of words and simple sentences, knowledge of frequent words, and spelling. The evaluation showed a strong correlation between high scores in the earlier rhyme test and results produced in reading and spelling. As indicated by other studies, this relationship was also found to hold true independent of the influence of the mother’s educational level, and child’s IQ and vocabulary level.

This striking evidence shows how important this type of activity can be. Parents from all types of background can give their children a real head start in their education by introducing them to rhymes at a young age. The evidence gives an emphatic endorsement to Bookstart rhymetimes and the rhyming activities between parents and young children taking place in homes and in libraries across the country. 


Ellis, N & Large, B (1987). ‘The development of reading: As you seek you shall find.’ British Journal of Psychology, 1, 329-342.

Bradley, L (1988). ‘Rhyme recognition and reading and spelling in young children’. In R L Masland & M R Masland (eds.), Pre-school prevention of reading failure’. Parkton, MD: York Press.

Bradley, L & Bryant, P E (1983). ‘Categorising sounds and learning to read- A casual connection’. Nature, 301, 419-421.

Goswami, U (1986) ‘Children’s use of analogy in learning to read: A developmental study. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 42, 73-83.

Goswami,U (1988) ‘Children’s use of analogy in learning to spell’. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 6, 21-34.

MacLean, M. Bryant, P E & Bradley, L (1987) ‘Rhymes, nursery rhymes and reading in childhood’. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly, 33, 255-282.

Bryant, P E, MacLean, M, Bradley, L L & Crossland, J (1990). ‘Rhyme and Alliteration, Phoneme Detection, and Learning to Read’. Developmental Psychology, 26, 3, 429-438.