Learning and Development

How Songs and Rhymes Can Support Young Children with Dyslexia

Songs and rhymes can play a vital role in enabling children with dyslexia to develop their phonological awareness, says Maria Kay…

Whilst some children learn to read and write with little or no difficulty, others find it a struggle. Some of these children may ultimately be identified as being dyslexic. Dyslexia is a learning difficulty caused by a defect in the brain’s processing of graphic symbols. It presents as a problem with the learning of reading and writing, is not linked to intelligence and can run in families. Children with dyslexia may show strengths in other areas such as problem solving, spatial skills or art.

Children with dyslexia often have a range of difficulties, which may include

● paying attention;

● sitting still;

● listening to stories;

● learning rhymes;

● learning sequences;

● producing speech sounds in the correct order;

● keeping time (moving in time to music);

● following more than one instruction at a time;

● gross motor skills – kicking, throwing a ball, general movement; and

● fine motor skills – cutting and sticking, using a pencil.

Identifying such problems early and putting in place practices that may help to alleviate them can be beneficial to all children, but especially those with dyslexia.

The process of learning to read and write is complex and involves the culmination of a variety of skills and experiences. Children need to know about text, how it is read, where it may be found and that it imparts information. This is why reading with children, encouraging their participation and fostering their ability to tell a story or gain meaning from text themselves (‘dialogic reading’*) is so important. A good vocabulary and facility with spoken language are important too. Children need to be able to produce speech sounds before they can attempt to commit these sounds to paper. Children who possess the ability to play easily with the sounds in words tend to become good at reading and writing. This awareness of the various sound elements of words is termed ‘phonological awareness’, which is an auditory skill.

Research tells us that phonological awareness is of great importance on the journey to literacy competence. Words may be segmented at three main levels: syllable (rhythm), rime (syllable ending) and phoneme (the smallest unit of sound in a word). These can be explained as follows:

Syllables – the ‘chunks’ of sounds within a word, e.g. croc-o-dile (three syllables). To help to identify the number of syllables in a word, place a hand under the chin whilst speaking the word aloud; the mouth will open each time a syllable is enunciated.

Onset and rime – Each syllable can be broken down into its onset and rime. In the syllable ‘croc’ – ‘cr’ is the onset (the initial sound unit in a syllable) and ‘oc’ is the rime (the part of the syllable which consists of the vowel and subsequent consonants). Note the spelling here of ‘rime’. Not all words have onsets, for example, the word ‘at’.

Phonemes – A phoneme is the smallest unit of sound within a syllable. For example, in the syllable ‘croc’ there are four individual phonemes: ‘c’, ‘r’, ‘o’ and ‘c’. There are 44 phonemes in the English language. Children need to learn how these sounds are represented through the written symbols of the alphabet.

Children generally learn the initial letter sounds of words before they put letter sounds together to make words. Teaching reading by correlating sounds with symbols is termed ‘phonics’.  Putting sounds together to read a word is termed ‘blending’. The method of teaching reading this way is known as ‘synthetic phonics’ in the UK and ‘blended phonics’ in the USA.

The role of music

Children with dyslexia generally have difficulty with phonological skills, which may be attributable to auditory processing, rather than hearing or listening (Goswami, 2013). Goswami further identified specific difficulties with the auditory processing of speech rhythm and speech timing. Children with dyslexia have also been found to have difficulties in perceiving and moving to musical rhythms.

Moving in time with music may improve temporal (related to time) processing, and also helps coordination through rhythmic entrainment (pulling along to the rhythm). Music is motoric and it stimulates both sides of the brain. The undertaking of musical activities also assists memory retention and recall, and improves focus and attention. When an activity is undertaken regularly the brain is stimulated to remember and recall it.

Music offers opportunity for regular practice and pleasurable repetition. Musical activities can therefore offer a perfect medium for the promotion of the skills required for phonological awareness for children with and without dyslexia.

Learning to syllabify

Any activities that help children to move and speak/sing/chant together whilst emphasising the syllables in words will help them to embody the correct syllabic units. Care must be taken to emphasise the sounds used in spelling. In this way children’s attention will be drawn to the correct spellings. For example, although the word ‘chocolate’ may be spoken as ‘choc-late’, it is important to know that there is another vowel in the middle – ‘choc-o-late’. This can be easily accomplished through song, where syllables can be emphasised more strongly than in everyday speech.

Activity: ‘Poor Johnny’
Tapping to a beat to help with the identification of syllables.

This song is sung to the tune of ‘Did You Ever See a Lassie’. Ensure that you sing one note for ‘Poor’ and not ‘Po-or’, as the purpose is to emphasise the correct syllables. When a syllable in a song is sung over more than one musical note, the music is termed ‘melismatic’. Using ‘syllabic’ music, where one note matches one syllable, is preferable when trying to teach children to segment words into syllables.

Poor Johnny lies a weeping, a weeping, a weeping.
Poor Johnny lies a weeping, ’cos he ate…

Child 1 adds the name of some food, and at the same time beats out the syllables on a drum (or claps), e.g. ‘choc-o-late cake’ (four syllables).

Child 2, after the first part of the verse is sung, repeats the first item of food and adds a second, e.g. ‘choc-o-late cake’ and ‘straw-ber-ry ice-cream’ (five syllables)

Everyone sings and taps the items already added, and the next person adds a new item. When everyone has added an item, sing the last verse:

Poor Johnny lies a weeping, a weeping, a weeping.
He has a poorly tummy and must stay in his bed!

Movement added to the music and language helps to further embed learning as it reinforces memory and recall. Change the name to that of a member of the group, and they can act out feeling more ill as they consume more food!

Learning to identify rhymes

Learning rhymes is important to children as it helps them to recognise, match and generate sound patterns. When singing and reciting rhymes it is important to emphasise the sound patterns of words that match, and to help children to generate their own matching words. Using a technique named ‘cloze’ can be useful for this purpose. Cloze exercises are those where a word is omitted and the learner chooses a word to complete the sentence.

Activity: ‘I’m a Humpty Dumpty’
Generating rhyming words.

This song is sung to the tune of ‘I’m a Little Teapot’. Children stand in a circle, doing actions to the words and adding in the rhyming words (‘ground’ and ‘high’, respectively). After singing the song, ask children if they can think of any other words that rhyme with ‘round’ or ‘sky’.

I’m a Humpty Dumpty short and round,
I can reach down to the __.
I can reach up to the sky,
Stretching, stretching very __.

©M Kay 2017

Learning to listen for phonemes

Helping children to listen to differences in musical sounds can help their ability to listen for the differences in spoken sounds. Some children do not automatically attune to the different levels of language sounds.

Using raps and chants help children to remember in the same way as music. Try this one to help children to learn initial letter sounds. Clap each syllable as you sound out the letters and words. Ensure that you use the letter sounds, not the letter names. Think up new words, but for younger children use initial letter sounds which are clear; do not use consonant blends (not starting with ‘bl’, ‘sm’, ‘tr’, for example). Use pictures and actions for greater impact.

Activity: ‘Alphabet Rap’
Learning initial letter sounds and other individual phonemes

A a apple
B b bog
C c cow and Christmas
D d dog

E e elephant
F f five
G g garden
H h hive

I I inky
J j jam
K k key and kettle
L l lamb

M m monkey
N n net
O o octopus
P p pet

Q q question (pronounce the ‘q’ as ‘kw’)
R r rhyme

S s sun and sandwich
T t time

U u umbrella (enunciate – um-brel-la)
V v van
W w water
X exam

Y y yellow
Z z zed
Sounds of the alphabet
Sticking in my head.

©M Kay 2017

It is necessary to explain that words do not start with a ‘cs’(x) sound. Talk about words ending in ‘x’ – ‘box’, ‘fox’.

Children learn by association, so use plenty of actions and pictures to support learning.  Ensure that children understand that letters and words represent the sounds of language and present plenty of opportunities for matching them together.

*The term ‘dialogic reading’ is one developed by G. J. Whitehurst from research by himself and others in the 1990s. It refers to the way in which preschoolers are read to. It involves giving children the opportunity to become active participants in the reading experience through answering questions and being encouraged to tell a story along with an adult, rather than simply being read to.

Maria is the author of Sound Before Symbol: Developing Literacy through Music and Alphabet Book + More: A Sounds and Symbols ‘literacy through music’ book. To find out more, visit bryantandkaypublishing.co.uk

Maria’s Sounds and Symbols Literacy through Music Resource Pack (£489) is available now. It is a comprehensive, research-based and informative resource, full of engaging activities and is perfect for building foundational literacy skills in the early years (0–8 years). Email .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) to order your pack.