For years, we have recognized the value of nursery rhyme lessons, even beyond the treasure of lap-time entertainment: rhyme and rhythm can boost kids’ cognitive development; the rich language gives children vocabulary nuggets; children who know nursery rhymes become good readers. This information is not new.
But we are just beginning to see another powerful gift from nursery rhymes—in building young writers. (Learn more about this topic from our Facebook Live event.)
Using the structures from the nursery rhymes, we can show students how writers move from one point to another. It’s simple, it’s natural, and it’s fun. But these structures also acquaint students with a huge range of topics, giving them a wide variety of ways to use their words in many different situations. Here are a few examples.
1. Naming feelings
Many nursery rhymes deal with feelings that all children experience.
After reading and exploring the text from Old Mother Hubbard, for example, we brainstorm with students about their own disappointments: when the store didn’t have what they were looking for, when a movie wasn’t showing any more, when a restaurant was closed.
Then, making up one sentence for each of the boxes below, we have a tiny essay. A kernel essay, like this one:
We drove to the store.
My mom was going to buy me some black tennis shoes.
They didn’t have them in my size.
I felt so disappointed.
2. Building problem-solving skills
There are many ways to talk through problems. This structure shows one way.
With students, we read Jack Sprat and explore the nursery rhyme. Jack and his wife had that terrible problem—he didn’t want to eat fat meat, and she didn’t want to eat lean meat. We can see how they solved their problem, and that takes us to our own lives. We turn the reading into writing, now exploring how this may have happened in our own lives. Sandwiches with or without the crusts, cookie outsides/cookie fillings, donuts/donut holes. Students can talk through or write down their own win-wins, whether it’s about food or something else.
I like to hear music, but I don’t like to sing.
My sister likes to sing.
She sings to me on our road trips.
3. Developing empathy
Essential to a civilized world is the ability to put ourselves into other people’s shoes. Many nursery rhymes offer us a chance to be curious about others and imagine their outlook.
For example, there’s Little Tommy Tucker. After we read it and enjoy the language, the rhythms, the silliness of it, we look again at the structure. We brainstorm with our students about times we have seem someone do something that made us curious.
The lady at the drive-through window was laughing when she gave us our food.
What was funny?
Does she always have fun and laugh, even while she’s not at work?
Does she have laughing children?
4. Explaining information
One of the key goals in school is information processing, both taking it in and explaining it to others. Many nursery rhymes have structures useful for this expository writing.
After reading about Mary’s little lamb, students can brainstorm their own favorite possessions and follow the structure from the nursery rhyme to compose their own expository kernel essay.
I have a little blanket.
It’s green and fuzzy.
I sleep with it every night.
When my mother was expecting me, someone gave it to her at a shower.
5. Rehearsing for academic writing
Are there long-term benefits of using these structures? Will children grow out of them? No. We use structures like these all the way through our lives. But now students will already be playing and talking with the same processes they will be using later in school, in their professions, and as citizens—organizing language into chunks to accomplish an objective.
There Was an Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe and the Declaration of Independence? Nearly the same structure. There is no limit to what we accomplish when we use our words. And nursery rhymes offer us a wonderful beginning.
What do you think, teachers? Do you use nursery rhymes in the classroom? Would you try incorporating nursery rhyme lessons into writing workshop? You can learn more about how Gretchen Bernabei uses nursery rhymes to teach writing in her new book, Text Structures From Nursery Rhymes.
Just like in years past, I begin our expository unit with explaining the difference between narrative and expository with my “Grandma” page. You can read more about that here.
After we grasp what an expository piece should be, I ask students to write a 12-minute essay (Gretchen does it in 11 minutes) based on a picture and a truism. We use the same truism each year to begin because it deals with pets…and most students have SOME sort of experience with pets.
Truism: Pets can be a big part of a family.
I give students about a minute to think about that statement. Then we begin: 2 minutes to describe what that statement means to us, 3 minutes to tell how it is true in a tv show or movie they have watched, 3 minutes to tell how it is true in a book they have read, 3 minutes to tell how it is true in their own lives or someone they know, and then 1 minute to tell what it makes them think or wonder.
And just like that…in 12 minutes…they wrote their very first expository essay. I explain that due to the things they wrote, they have explained something…they didn’t tell a story.
Students are always so proud after finishing. They count their words and the room begins to buzz with excitement. It’s pretty awesome.
If you want to try this with your kids, you can find the truisms here. You can use any of them that you like. I use several throughout the year. The one about pets isn’t too far down.
Curious what they wrote? Click here to read a sampling from my kiddos.
I couldn’t be more proud.
If you have time…leave them a little note to let them know what you think. Yeah…they read this.