Why Use Poetry, Song Lyrics, and Rhymes for Teaching Phonics?

Quite simply, the reason we advocate poetry, song lyrics, and rhymes for teaching phonics is that this genre of writing contains word families, which are the rhyming portions of words....one approach for teaching phonics, the analytical approach, recognizes that many words share certain and relatively common spelling patterns that also have consistent pronunciations. Readers who recognize these letter combinations and associate the pronunciation with them can then apply this decoding knowledge to other words within that word family. Readers who can recognize these word families and transfer this knowledge to other words in a family increase their word recognition ability and, as a result, become more fluent readers and comprehenders.

The idea, then, is to teach young readers these word families so that they can use this knowledge to quickly and effortlessly recognize words that share these spelling patterns while reading. This approach to phonics instruction has been recognized and endorsed by leading scholars in reading (Adams, 1990; Cunningham, 2004; Ehri, 2005; Gaskins, Ehri, Cress, O’Hara, & Donnelly, 1996–1997; Gunning, 1995; Snow, Burns, & Griffin, 1998). The spelling patterns can take a variety of forms—prefixes, suffixes, and Latin and Greek roots, are just a few. However, we believe that the most important patterns to teach early readers are the vowel-consonant combinations called word families, phonograms, or rimes. Again, a word family is simply the part of a syllable that begins with the vowel and contains any subsequent letters. When a word family is placed in one-syllable words (or at the end of multisyllabic words), it creates rhyming words. As you can see, even a short and simple rhyme such as “Georgy Porgy” contains several word families.

Georgy Porgy
Georgy Porgy, pudding and pie, / Kissed the girls and made them cry;
When the boys came out to play, / Georgy Porgy ran away.

Word Families: -ay, -y ,-an, -out
These letter combinations are the part of a syllable that begins with the vowel and contains any letters that follow it; for example, the -at in hat and cat is a word family, as is the -ight in flight and sight. As we mentioned in Chapter 1, there are hundreds of word families worth teaching, and students who can recognize these word families in single and multisyllabic words have the ability to process such words rapidly, accurately, and efficiently. The beloved nursery rhyme “Jack and Jill” contains a treasure trove of repeated word families.

Jack and Jill
Jack and Jill went up the hill, / To fetch a pail of water;
Jack fell down and broke his crown, / And Jill came tumbling after.
Then up Jack got and home did trot, / As fast as he could caper.
He went to bed to mend his head / With vinegar and brown paper.

Word Families: -ack, -ell, -ent, -end, -ill, -ail, -ing, -ed, -ot, -own
While word families are commonly taught through word lists and decodable texts by teachers around the country, we again emphasize that the best types of text to support word family instruction are poetry, song lyrics, and rhymes. Rhythmic language in these texts draw attention to targeted word families that are authentic and engaging for children. As a final example, the following rhyme would be ideal for teaching, practicing, and enjoying the -ot, -old, and -ay, word families.

Peas Porridge Hot
Peas porridge hot / Peas porridge cold
Peas porridge in the pot / Nine days old.
Some like it hot, / Some like it cold,
Some like it in the pot, / Nine days old.

Why Use Poetry, Song Lyrics, and Rhymes for Teaching Fluency?

Repeated oral reading of texts (rehearsal), combined with modeling fluent reading and supporting students while reading orally by reading with them, have been identified as key methods for teaching reading fluency (Kuhn & Stahl, 2000; National Reading Panel, 2000; Rasinski, 2010; Rasinski & Hoffman, 2003). Studies have found that repeated reading leads to improvements in student automaticity, word recognition accuracy, reading rate, expressive and meaningful reading, reading comprehension, and confidence in reading. Such reading capabilities apply not only to the passages students have practiced, but they also transfer to new, never-before-seen texts.

Although the value of repeated readings has been well established, the mode of implementing it remains an issue. Many reading programs that promote fluency development primarily engage students in rote and somewhat mindless oral repetitions of texts for the primary purpose of increasing reading speed. Elster and Hanauer, however, note that reading poetry is different from story reading and other text types and that teachers naturally encourage multiple readings of poetry for expression or prosody. Poetry reading emphasizes the performance and the more aesthetic experiences with reading (2002). After assigning “There Was a Crooked Man” as a performance piece for your students, imagine how repeated readings of the rhyme will not only improve their fluency but also spark their imaginations as they work to bring the poem to life for themselves or an audience.

There Was a Crooked Man
There was a crooked man,
And he went a crooked mile,
He found a crooked sixpence,
Against a crooked stile;
He bought a crooked cat,
Which caught a crooked mouse,
And they all lived together
In a little crooked house.

The prosodic, performance, and aesthetic features of poetry, song lyrics, and rhymes are the primary reasons we have identified them as natural text types for improving fluency. If performing orally is a goal of repeated reading, then poetry, song lyrics, and rhymes are the appropriate texts because they can be performed for an audience. As Elster and Hanaeur note, rhythmic text promotes learner involvement through expressive reading and immediate rereading and by encouraging children to read along or to act out the text. After hearing an expressive reading and rereading of a rhyme such as “Whisky Frisky,” younger children will literally jump at the chance to act out the squirrel’s adventures. As the italicized words in the text show, the rhyme contains the following word families: -am, -ack, -ail, -ap, -ell, -op, -ow.

Whisky Frisky
Whisky Frisky / Hippity-Hop
Up he goes / To the treetop!
Whirly, Twirly, / Round and round,
Down he scampers / To the ground.
Furly, Curly, / What a tail!
Tall as a feather, / Broad as a sail!
Where’s his supper? / In the shell,
Snap, cracky, / Out it fell.

Poetry, song lyrics, and rhymes can easily be performed, even if the performer is someone reading a poem to himself or herself. Many poets write their poems to be performed orally for an audience. That is why we have poetry slams, poetry cafes, poetry readings, and poetry parties. Unfortunately, reading curricula are dominated by informational and narrative texts—poetry, song lyrics, and rhymes have been given a secondary or, in some cases, even a tertiary position. We feel that students are missing out on reading activities that allow them to appreciate the beauty of language from a number of vantage points, including meaning, sound, rhythm, and expression. A short text such as the familiar rhyme below contains an abundance of teaching opportunities to promote fluency and phonics, including work with the word families -ell and -ow.

Mistress Mary, Quite Contrary
Mistress Mary, quite contrary, how does your garden grow?
With cockle shells, and silver bells, and pretty maids all in a row.

Exposing children to the beauty, humor, and vitality of poetic language cannot begin too early and should come about naturally. The words used in poetry, songs, and nursery rhymes are a breath of freshness for language and make reading them and listening to them a pure delight!

This excerpt was taken from Phonics and Fluency Practice With Poetry by Timothy V. Rasinski, William Dee Nichols, and William H. Rupley!