The extent to which young children’s nursery rhyme experiences and knowledge are related to phonological- and print-related early literacy skills is the focus of this research synthesis. Nursery rhyme experiences and knowledge are considered important precursors and determinants of later literacy abilities (Sadlier-Oxford, 2000; Zuralski, 2005) and are often used to facilitate young children’s phonologicaland language-related abilities (e.g., Morris & Leavey, 2006; Neuman, 2004). Maclean, Bryant, Bradley and colleagues (Bryant, Bradley, Maclean, & Crossland, 1989; Bryant, Maclean, & Bradley, 1990; Maclean, Bryant, & Bradley, 1987), in a prospective study of the relationship between nursery rhyme knowledge and phonological sensitivity, vocabulary, and both early and later reading abilities, found that young children’s ability to recite familiar nursery rhymes was both directly and indirectly related to later literacy and language abilities. Whether the relationships reported by McLean et al. were found in other investigations using the same as well as other measures of nursery rhymes and the same as well as other early literacy and language outcome measures was the focus of the analyses reported in this CELLreview.
The origins of nursery rhymes can be traced to the early 1700s (Zuralski, 2005). Nursery rhymes are short poems or songs that often are made up of trivial musical verse. Several of the more popular nursery rhymes are Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star, Jack and Jill, Hickory, Dickory Dock, Itsy, Bitsy Spider, Hey Diddle Diddle, and Rock-a-Bye Baby. The relationships between nursery rhymes and early literacy skills have been examined by investigating young children’s nursery rhyme abilities in three different ways (Table 1). The first asks young children to recite popular nursery rhymes (e.g., Fernandez-Fein & Baker, 1997; Layton, Deeny, Tall, & Upton, 1996; Maclean et al., 1987; Murray, Smith, & Murray, 2000). The second uses parents’ reports of young children’s experiences with nursery rhymes and rhyming games as a measure of nursery rhyme capabilities (Boudreau, 2005; Peeters, Verhoeven, van Balkom, & van Leeuwe, 2009; Weigel, Martin, & Bennett, 2006). A third asks young children to supply the last word of familiar nursery rhymes (Terry, 2010; Townsend & Konold, 2010). The extent to which these different ways of measuring nursery rhyme experiences and knowledge were related to early literacy skills in the same or dissimilar manners was also examined in the research synthesis.
Studies were identified using “nursery” and “rhyme” or “nursery rhyme” or “nursery-rhyme” or “nursery” and rime” AND knowledge or experience or awareness or completion as search terms. Both controlled vocabulary and natural language searches were conducted (Lucas & Cutspec, 2007). Psychological Abstracts (PsychInfo), Educational Resource Information Center (ERIC), MEDLINE, Academic Search Premier, Education Research Complete, and Dissertation Abstracts International were searched. These were supplemented by Google Scholar and Ingenta searches and a search of an extensive EndNote Library maintained by our Institute. Hand searches of the reference sections of all identified journal articles, book chapters, and books were also examined to locate additional studies. Studies were included if the majority of the study participants were six years of age or younger, a nursery rhyme experience, knowledge or awareness measure (Table 1) was used, and the nursery rhyme measure was correlated with one or more early literacy and language measures. Studies that used rhyming tasks that asked a child to say a word that sounded the same as one orally presented by an investigator were excluded because they did not include traditional nursery rhymes as part of the rhyming tasks.
Twelve studies were located that included 14 samples of children (Appendix A). The 14 samples included 5,299 children (Range = 17 to 2260). Fifty three percent of the children were female and 47% were male. The average age of the children at the time the nursery rhyme measures were administered was 59 months (range 40 to 75). Seven samples of children had no developmental delays nor were they considered at-risk for poor outcomes (typically developing), five samples included a mix of typically developing children and children considered at-risk for poor outcomes, and two samples of children had identified disabilities (language impairments or cerebral palsy). In those studies where ethnicity was reported, most of the study participants were either African American (48%) or Caucasian (39%). The other participants were Latino or Hispanic (5%), Asian American (3%) or had other ethnicities (5%). A nursery rhyme knowledge measure was used in six studies, a nursery rhyme experiences measure was used in five studies, and a nursery rhyme awareness measure was used in two studies (Table 1). Fifteen different kinds of phonological- and print-related literacy outcome measures were administered to the study participants (Table 2). The phonological-related outcome measures included rhyming tasks (production, detection, oddity), phoneme tasks (awareness, detection), and alliteration tasks (production, detection, oddity). The particular phonological-related measures used in the studies constitute a subset of skills considered indices of phonological awareness (Anthony et al., 2002; Blachman, 2000) and are considered important precursors of later reading competence (Whitehurst & Lonigan, 1998). The print-related outcome measures included alphabet tasks (knowledge, letter sound awareness, name writing), printrelated tasks (concepts, knowledge), and early reading tasks (vocabulary, emergent reading, story retelling). The printrelated measures included the kinds of skills that are considered important for emergent writing and reading (Treiman & Rodriguez, 1999).
Relationship Between Young Children’s Nursery Rhyme Experiences and Knowledge and Phonological and Print-Related Abilities
Appendix B includes the effect sizes (correlations) between the nursery rhyme measures and the literacy-related outcomes in each study. The pooled weighted correlations between the nursery rhyme and outcome measures were used as the sizes of effect because of the large differences in the sample sizes in the individual studies (Shadish & Haddock, 2009). The 95% confidence interval of the pooled weighted average correlations was used for substantive interpretation. A confidence interval with a lower bound not including zero indicates that the average weighted correlation is statistically significant at the 0.05 level (Shadish & Haddock, 2009). The average weighted effect sizes between the nursery rhyme measures and the 15 different categories of literacy outcome measures are included in Appendix C. The effect sizes were examined in a number of ways to identify the nature of the relationships among measures. Table 3 shows the average effect sizes and 95% confidence intervals between the three different nursery rhyme measures and both the phonological- and print-related outcomes. All three nursery rhyme measures were related to both categories of literacy outcomes as evidenced by confidence intervals not including zero. In all three sets of analyses, however, the nursery rhyme measures were more strongly related to the phonological-related outcomes compared to the print-related outcomes. The sizes of effect between the nursery rhyme measures and the two categories of literacyrelated outcomes were larger for nursery rhyme knowledge and experiences compared to nursery rhyme awareness. The average effect sizes for the relationships between all three nursery rhyme measures and the different phonological- and print-related outcomes are shown in Table 4. For all three types of phonological- outcome measures combined, the average effect size was 0.39 (95% CI = 0.37 – 0.41). The nursery rhyme measures were similarly related to both the rhyming and alliteration outcomes, but somewhat less related to the phoneme outcomes. For all three types of print related outcome measures combined, the average effect size for the relationship between the nursery rhyme measures and the outcomes was 0.22 (95% CI = 0.21 – 0.23). The nursery rhyme measures were most strongly related to the early reading-related measures, followed by the print measures, and then the alphabet measures. In most studies, the nursery rhyme and literacy outcome measures were obtained when the children were the same age. In a number of studies, the nursery rhyme measures were obtained at one age and the literacy outcome measures were administered when the children were older (see Appendix B). Figure 1 shows the average effect sizes and 95% confidence intervals for the concurrent and predictive relationships between the nursery rhyme measures and both the phonological- and print-related outcomes. In both sets of analyses, the nursery rhyme measures were more strongly related to the outcomes when they were administered at a later time than when the nursery rhyme and outcome measures were administered concurrently. rhyme measures and the literacy outcomes were moderated by either study or child variables is shown in Table 5. The differences in the sizes of effects between the nursery rhyme and outcome measures for both year of publication and study sample size are partly confounded by the nursery rhyme measure. This is the case because nursery rhyme awareness (Invernizzi, Sullivan, & Meier, 2001) was used only in studies published after 2005 and in one study using this measure there were more than 4000 study participants (Townsend & Konold, 2010) and, as already noted, nursery rhyme awareness was not as strongly related to the literacy outcomes compared to nursery rhyme experiences and knowledge. The nursery rhyme measures were related to both the phonological- and print-related literacy outcomes regardless of the child moderator variables as evidenced by confidence intervals not including zero for all the moderator subgroups. There were however several noteworthy findings. First, the average effect sizes for the relationships between nursery rhymes and both the phonological- and print-related outcomes were larger for children with identified disabilities. 6 CELLReviews Volume 4, Number 1 Second, the average effect sizes between nursery rhymes and both categories of literacy outcomes were relatively similar regardless of the age of the children when the nursery rhyme measures were administered. Third, the effect sizes for the nursery rhyme measures and the print-related outcomes were larger for studies that included more female then male participants.
Findings showed that the different measures of young children’s nursery rhyme experiences, knowledge, and awareness were related to the different early literacy outcome measures in the studies included in the research synthesis. The results showed that the nursery rhyme measures were more strongly related to the phonological-related measures compared to the print-related measures, although the children’s nursery rhyme experiences and knowledge were related to the three different emergent print-related outcomes (Table 4). The fact that the nursery rhyme experiences and knowledge measures proved better predictors of the literacy outcomes compared to the nursery rhyme awareness measure deserves comment. Nursery rhyme knowledge was a direct measure of the children’s nursery rhyme abilities inasmuch as the children were asked to recite familiar nursery rhymes. Nursery rhyme experiences was a proxy measure of children’s nursery rhyme abilities based on parents’ reports of their children’s rhyming abilities. In contrast, nursery rhyme awareness was an indirect measure of the children’s nursery rhyme abilities since the children were only asked to provide the last word of familiar rhymes and this proved not to be as good a predictor of the literacy outcomes. The fact that the nursery rhyme measures were related to both the phonological- and print-related literacy outcomes regardless of child age or developmental condition (Table 5) indicates that introducing nursery rhymes to young children early in the preschool years can influence later literacy-related abilities and that nursery rhyme experiences benefit both children with and without disabilities. Especially noteworthy is the fact that nursery rhyme experiences and knowledge were most strongly related to the literacy outcomes among children with identified disabilities (Boudreau, 2005 [Sample 2]; Peeters et al., 2009).
The findings from the studies examined in this research synthesis were the basis for a number of Center for Early Literacy Learning practice guides for both parents (www.carlyliteracylearning.org/pgparents.php) and early childhood practitioners (www.earlyliteracylearning.org/pgpract.php). There are eight infant, eight toddler, and three preschooler practice guides that include ideas, games, fingerplays, and other activities that use rhymes to promote young children’s sound awareness and early phonological sensitivity skills. In addition to lap games, fingerplays, and nursery rhymes, shared book reading that include rhyming stories (e.g., Hayes, 2001) or repetitious rhyming verse (e.g., Merttens & Robertson, 2005; Neuman, 2004) are other ways of using rhymes as part of early literacy learning activities to support the acquisition of phonological-related skills. Singing rhyming songs is also an activity that can promote young children’s phonological-related abilities (e.g., Custodero, Britto, & Brooks-Gunn, 2003). Many of the lap games parents play with their infants and toddlers include the kinds of repetitious rhymes that children find highly engaging and enjoyable (e.g., Fernald & O'Neill, 1993; van Hoorn, 1987). The extent to which nursery rhymes, rhyming games, and activities are both engaging and beneficial is likely to be influenced by how interesting the rhymes are to a child (e.g., Frijters, Barron, & Brunello, 2000; Gardner, 1991; Laakso, Poikkeus, Eklund, & Lyytinen, 2004). Young children delight in hearing rhymes and stories over and over when they are either personally or situationally interesting (Arnold, 2005; Lewman, 1999; Martinez & Roser, 1985). The best advice is to identify nursery rhymes and rhyming games that a young child especially enjoys and actively engage the child in the activities as part of routine play (e.g., Pruden, HirshPasek, Golinkoff, & Hennon, 2006; Renninger, 1990). Nursery rhyme games and activities are likely to be beneficial to most children but are especially important for young children with disabilities as described in this CELLreview. Intervention studies of young children with disabilities indicate, regardless of a child’s particular disability, that rhyme-related interventions are associated with a host of positive literacy outcomes (e.g., Blondel & Miller, 2001; Glenn & Cunningham, 1984; Rogow, 1982). Traditional nursery rhymes and rhyming games have long been a part of early childhood intervention with young children with disabilities (e.g., Blos, 1974). Recent surveys (Booktrust, 2009), studies (e.g., Libenson, 2007), and both the educational (Scholastic Education PLUS, 2009) and popular (Syson, 2009) media report that fewer parents nowadays engage their children in nursery rhyme activities either because they do not consider them to have educational value or that they believe nursery rhymes are “old fashioned” or find them embarrassing to recite to their children. More disconcerting is the fact that only about 50% of the youngest generation of parents know all the words to traditional nursery rhymes (Booktrust, 2009). An important role early childhood practitioners can play as part of early literacy learning interventions for young children with disabilities is to promote parents’ understanding of the importance of nursery rhymes for their children’s emergent reading and writing competence.