Many articles have been written on the subject of the importance of poetic rhyme and metre in connection with the learning of the English language.

 

However, without even having studied this subject at university, English people realize this link and have applied it, from the earliest days, to their own children's learning of English.  We feed our children with nursery rhymes even before they can speak.  The fact that there is strong metre in nursery rhymes which is soothing to a small child's mind is one aspect of it, but this metre is there to emphasise the fact that in English our words have natural stresses and accentuations that a poet uses to the full when writing rhythmic poetry. English speaking children listen to these stresses and accentuations in the speech of their parents, and so they pick them up naturally, but the problem for many students who are learning English away from a native English speaker is that they may not hear a true native English speaking voice, and how are they to pick up on these things?

 

For example, look at the following words: important, development, university, mathematics.  

 

Each of these words has several syllables, but which syllable carries the heavier stress?  From words on the page it would be difficult to know.  I am English and I learned my language from my parents in my early years.  If they had had strong accents I would have learned those also. I would have picked up the language in its entirety from them, learning first and foremost the sounds of the language well before I saw the written word.  ESL students may not have this opportunity, naturally, and this is the problem.  English speaking people meet people from overseas in our streets etc and when someone speaks to us they may well put the emphasis on the wrong part of the word (as I have done when I have spoken Italian to Italians).  They and I have seen the other person's face cloud over a bit because they have not understood.  Why? It is probable that they or I, in Italy, have put the stress on the wrong part of the word.  The word, therefore, has not been said properly and it is this which causes the confusion.  Am I correct?  Yes, of course

 

Our language, unlike many others in the world, is multi-syllabic and when you hear English spoken, you will hear the beauty of the language shining through in the rise and fall of the speech and the naural stress pattern within the words.  So I would put the stresses in this way on the above words:

 

imPORtant, deVELopment, uniVERsity, matheMATics etc.

 

We also speak in such a way that we run quickly over many of our smaller words, and put extra stress within the multisyllabic words.  In poetry, a good poet will use all of this to bring metre or rhythm into the poem.  This is why it is so important to hear poetry read, especially if you are using it to help you with learning the languge.  Poetic words are written with metre, and English poetry uses iambic metre, eg ti TUM ti TUM ti TUM ti TUM with a light stress followed by a heavier one.  It is this which has divided poetry from prose since the very beginning of poetry writing. and the metre is measured in  feet which links it to dance, song and music as well.  For this reason, many of my poems can easily be put to music as a song.  It is the same with the nursery rhymes which we recite to our children.  It doesn't seem to matter about the fact that the language in the nursery rhymes is so old fashioned that many words we don't use in English any more, for many of these rhymes were written hundreds of years ago.  The fact is that they are written with good metre all the way through and children and adults love this. So our children learn where the natural stresses lay from these soothing rhymes.  Little children, in particular, therefore, love poetry which is written in this way and without studying they are learning to speak well.

 

Overseas students of English will also realize the value of these rhymes and from my Google Analytics tool on this computer, I know that teachers from many overseas countries are using my poems in their classrooms.  Last year the poems went into 188 countries of the world. I welcome notes from all teachers in my guestbook.  Please let us know where you are from and which poems your children/students have enjoyed.

 

ENGLISH SPELLING

 

When it comes to literacy, both English speaking children and ESL students really find where the problem with English lies - ie spelling.  Our language is not phonetic by any means and there is no way of learning English but to keep hearing and seeing words written in the same way.  I learned, as a teacher, that in the formation of habits, you need to see and hear the same thing three times to begin to build a lifelong habit.  I used to teach a very difficult subject:  Pitman's shorthand.  This is a phonetic way of writing our language.  So words such as 'pay' would just be written with the p and the a.  Students knew that the strong A was there because the word was written on the line.  If it was written above the line then they knew it was the light 'a' as in apple.  They omitted the vowels in their writing altogether.  They would write the word 'rhyme' above the line with just a 'r' and 'm' but if the word was 'rim' as in 'the rim of a glass' they would write the 'r' through the line.  It sounds easy, but it was indeed a very difficult subject indeed and equal to any language. I was a 140 words per minute writer at one time - more than two words a second.   So I guess I became an expert on phonetics, teaching this subject as I did.  The problem was that my students had to have an excellent command of English in order to transcribe the words.  They would know that although 'time' and 'rhyme' might sound the same, the spelling was completely different.

 

When students use rhyming poetry to learn the English language, it certainly helps them to both read and hear the pronunciation of words at the same time, and I have always added my voice recording many of my poems, space on my website permitting.

 

Rhyming poetry helps with vocabulary extension also.  When I read poems to children, I will read the poem through first of all and tell the children to listen carefully because on the second reading I will stop at the rhyming word and ask them to supply it.  They absolutely love this game.  Yesterday I spoke to a friend's little son who was playing with his toy giraffe.  I said:  'Don't laugh at the giraffe' for this is the title of one of my poems.  His face lit up.  Here were two rhyming words that were fun to him.  He didn't realize that these words, with the same sounds, had completely different spellings.  He just enjoyed the sounds.  When he is older and learns to read, he will suddenly see this and remember it because they are words he loves.  If you are teaching English to children or ESL students, I would suggest the following:  Allow them to read the poems three times, noting as they go along the words which sound alike and their spellings.  They could even prepare this for homework.  The next day you could read the poem and stop at the rhyming word and ask them to write it down and then check their spellings.  Children love repetition, so it would be no hardship to do this again the next day and make it a fun exercise.  For adults, even without the voice recording, it would be easy from a rhyming poem to know that the word 'laugh' would be pronounced 'laf' if the word it rhymed with ended with the sound of 'af' wouldn't it?

 

I get letters from all over the world from teachers who use poetry to teach the English language.  Already teachers are realizing the importance of using rhyming poetry in the learning of English for both children and overseas students.  

By Josie Whitehead

THE LINK BETWEEN LITERACY

RHYME AND METRE

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