Beware the Jabberwock! – Rhyme and cognitive development


Like most two year olds, our son loves to sing, he loves to dance and he loves to rhyme. He never gets sick of the songs and rhymes he knows well and nothing captures his attention more than when he hears something new.

While he loves those that are set to music, he also enjoys listening to rhyming prose and, along with books by the ever popular Julia Donaldson, Green Eggs and Ham, and Fox in Socks by Dr Seuss have been firm favourites since long before he could talk.

I was interested, therefore, to read an article the other day reflecting on why Dr. Seuss splits opinion amongst parents. Chief among the criticism seems to be that, if the purpose of reading is to help children learn language, then teaching them nonsense words is, at best, a waste of time and, at worst, actively counter-productive.

“I always thought the point of reading to children was to teach them about language. How does Dr. Seuss help? Heck, he knew so few words that he had to make most of his up.”

Jennifer Graham, National Review

Leaving aside the widely acknowledged cognitive and behavioural benefits of early shared reading in terms of parent-child bonding, preparedness for learning and levelling the socio-economic playing field for later educational and economic success, reading this reminded me of two things from my student days.

Firstly, how effective Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky poem was as a tool for teaching English Language GCSE students about parts of speech when I was a post-grad tutor  – beware, if you can’t stomach Dr Seuss, you won’t like this!

Secondly, that as an undergraduate psychology student I read a number of journal papers suggesting that, for English speaking children, the ability to rhyme aged 4 is one of the strongest predictors of academic performance (GCSE results) aged 16. Other studies that this results from dramatic and sustained benefits to literacy arising from early exposure to rhyme.

“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.”

The Benefit of Rhymes, Bookstart 

Whilst not explicitly addressed in these studies, there is no reason why such benefits couldn’t be drawn equally from nonsense words as not. Indeed our ability to read and enjoy nonsense rhymes relies on this ability to analogise from spelling patterns to phonetics.

All of which inclines me to conclude that, while one’s enjoyment or not of the silliness of nonsense verse comes down purely to personal preference, the potential benefits of it to literacy remain beyond question.

To the parents who are struggling to explain nonsense words to their children, in the inimitable words of Spike Milligan (whose poems were firm favourites of mine as a child), I advise a conversation along the following lines:

‘What is a Bongaloo, Daddy?’
‘A Bongaloo, Son,’ said I,
‘Is a tall bag of cheese
Plus a Chinaman’s knees
And the leg of a nanny goat’s eye.’

‘How strange is a Bongaloo, Daddy?’
‘As strange as strange,’ I replied.
‘When the sun’s in the West
It appears in a vest
Sailing out with the noonday tide.’

‘What shape is a Bongaloo, Daddy?’
‘The shape, my Son, I’ll explain:
It’s tall round the nose
Which continually grows
In the general direction of Spain.’

‘Are you sure there’s a Bongaloo, Daddy?’
‘Am I sure, my Son?’ said I.
‘Why, I’ve seen it, not quite
On a dark sunny night

Do you think that I’d tell you a lie?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s