Nursery Rhymes Old Fashioned? Not A Chance – Systematic Interventions for Teaching KEY Phonological Awareness Skills in SPED

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 phonological and language-related abilities (e.g., Morris & Leavey, 2006; Neuman, 2004). Harper (2011) found that the knowledge of nursery rhymes enhances children’s phonological awareness and sensitivity to individual phonemes and rhyme, and stimulates phonemic skill development. Nursery rhymes can be effective in teaching the intonation patterns of language, new words and concepts. The rhymes help convey the characteristic speech rhythms of language (Danielson, 2000).

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Common Phonological Measures in Research

Rhyme Production Child’s ability to produce words that rhyme with target words (Maclean et al. 1987).

Rhyme Detection Child’s ability to identify among a group of words or pictures which two rhyme (Bryant et al. 1990).

Rhyme Oddity Child’s ability to identify among a group of three of four words the one that does not rhyme with the other words (Sadlier-Oxford 2000).

Phoneme Awareness Child’s ability to understand that spoken words are composed of individual sounds (Snow et al. 1998).

Phoneme Detection Child’s ability to identify the onset, middle, or ending sounds of words that sound like those from other words (Murray et al. 2000).

Alliteration Production/ Detection Child’s ability to produce or identify a sound or word that begins with the target sound or word presented in text, as a picture or object, or orally (Maclean et al. 1987).

Alliteration Oddity Child’s ability to identify words that have a different beginning sound than other words or a target word (Sadlier-Oxford 2000).

Common Print-Related Measures in Research

Alphabet Knowledge Child’s ability to recognize or produce the forms and names associated with written letters of the alphabet (Townsend & Konold 2010).

Letter Sound Awareness Child’s ability to recognize or produce the sound corresponding to each letter (Clay 1979).

Name and Age Writing Child’s ability to write his or her name and age (Weigel et al. 2006).

Print Concepts Child’s ability to answer questions related to knowledge about print such as book orientation, word orientation, and print conventions (e.g.: text moving from left to right) (Clay 1979).

Print Knowledge Child’s ability to identify or understand common logos/labels Clay (1979)

Vocabulary Child’s ability to identify a picture that best matches an orally described word or choose the word that best matches a presented picture Dunn & Dunn (2007)

Reading Competence Child’s ability to match words with pictures or sounds of a word or to read a short sentence correctly (Yopp 1995).

Story Retelling Child’s ability to retell a story using a wordless picture book (Clay 1979).

Comprehensive reviews of research published from 1980 to 2015 by the Center for Early Literacy Learning showed the following facts and correlations:

Fact: Nursery rhyme measures were related to both the phonological- and print-related literacy outcomes regardless of child age or developmental condition.


  • Introducing nursery rhymes to young children early in the preschool years can influence later literacy-related abilities
  • Nursery rhyme experiences benefit both children with and without delays or learning 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; Peeters et al., 2009).

Correlation: The results showed that the nursery rhyme measures were more strongly related to the phonological-related measures compared to the print-related measures.

Indication: Simply put, learning letters and sounds will not going to get it done!

What Should be the Special Educators Focus?

Get all of those lap games, fingerplays, and nursery rhyme books out! They ARE NOT “old fashioned” and we must get out of that mindset as special educators. Support shared book readings that include rhyming stories or repetitious rhyming verse. Sing rhyming songs! So many of these activities are truly highly engaging and enjoyable for the most rambunctious student in your classroom. 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, floor time/circle time or center.

Where Do I Start?

The Old School Continuum is outlined in the following manner. Many regular education students continue to learn rhyming skills in this manner but, what about those that do not?

Rhyme exposure -The first step in developing rhyme awareness is to have students listen to many stories, poems, fingerplays and songs in which rhyming occurs.

Rhyming Books: (no affiliate links here)

Rhyme recognition – Next, students will determine if word pairs rhyme after hearing them.

Rhyme judgment – Present students with a set of three words – two of which rhyme and one which is the distractor. Ask students to determine which word does not rhyme.

  • Odd Word Out Let the students know that they will be listening for the “odd word out” in groups of words that rhyme (e.g. man, can, fan, pan, book). For students struggling with this task, provide word cards with picture prompts or use books with rhyming pictures (see above).

Rhyme completion – Rhyme completion tasks require students to fill in a possible rhyming word to complete a sentence or phrase. A closure task.

  • Rhyming Riddle – Students fill in the rhyming word after you start the riddles or poem (e.g. “The black cat is very ____ (fat)” or “Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall. Humpty Dumpty had a big ____ (fall)”. Finding a word that rhymes may be challenging for students, repeat the riddle or poem and give the first sound of the rhyme as a prompt (e.g. “The black cat is very f___”).

Rhyme production – Production tasks ask students to produce rhyming words. 

  • I Spy Play a game of I Spy using items around the room that rhyme (e.g. “I spy something that rhymes with four…” “door!”). If students are doing well at this game, ask them to take a turn spying a rhyming object. Initially, allow students to use made-up words during their turns (e.g. “I spy something that rhymes with lacket”… “Jacket!”) then move to only utilizing real words.

“The development of phonological awareness proceeds along a continuum from awareness of large, concrete units of sound, such as words and syllables, to awareness of smaller abstract units of sound, such as phonemes. This is not a stage model in which a child has to master one level before moving to the next. Rather, as the overlap between levels in the figure indicates, children show beginning levels of skill on more complex levels while still working toward mastery of less complex levels. Children’s ability to combine words to form a compound word (e.g., hot + dog = hotdog) or to remove one word from a compound word and say what remains (e.g., baseball – ball = base) is one way to measure children’s word awareness. Children’s ability to detect words that rhyme with each other (e.g., indicating that hat rhymes with flat and cat but not ham or man) is one way to measure children’s onset-rime awareness.”

Been There – Done That – What’s Next

Try the Mass Prompting, Mass Trials Technique commonly used in discrete trial therapy.

  1. Mass Prompting:  When introducing a new skill, the therapist would use a mass prompting technique which involves repeating the same SD multiple times as in the following: (example of a receptive/expressive task)

Therapist: “What rhymes with cat” while holding up a photo of a cat.

Therapist: Prompt “Hat” while selecting the photo of the hat from a field size of 3.

Child: Says, “Hat” and selects the hat photo.

Therapist: (Reinforce correct answer) “Great!”

Therapist: “What rhymes with cat” while holding up a photo of a cat.

Therapist: Prompt “Hat” while selecting the photo of the hat from a field size of 3.

Child: Says, “Hat”

Therapist: (Reinforce correct answer) “Super! Cat and hat rhyme!”

This would be scored as MP (mass prompt) 2/2.  The therapist prompted twice and the child answered twice while selecting the correct photo.  The number on the bottom the equation is how many times the therapist prompted and the top number is the number of times the child answered correctly.

  1. Mass Trial:  After the mass prompting is completed, the therapist moves to a mass trial which involves presenting the SD several times without prompting.  In this step, the therapist only prompts if the child is nonresponsive or answers incorrectly. 

                  Example of correct responses from the child:                 

Therapist: “What rhymes with cat?” while holding up a cat photo.

Child: “Hat” and selects the hat photo.

Therapist: (Reinforce correct answer) “Wow!  You are right!  Cat and hat rhyme.”

Therapist: “What rhymes with cat?”

Child: “Hat” and selects the hat photo.

Therapist (Reinforce correct answer) “Perfect! Cat and hat rhyme!”


Example of an incorrect response from the child and using “No” for incorrect responses:

Therapist: “What rhymes with cat?” while holding up the photo of a cat.

Child: “Shoe”

Therapist: “No”

Therapist: “What rhymes with cat?” while holding up the photo of the cat.

Therapist: (Verbal prompt) “Hat” and point or tap the photo of the hat on the table.

Therapist: “What rhymes with cat?” while holding up the photo of the cat.

 Child: “Hat” and selects the photo of the hat from the table.

Therapist: “Yes, you’re right!  Cat and hat rhyme!”

Therapist: “What rhymes with cat?” while holding the cat photo.

Child: “hat” and selects the hat photo from the table.

Therapist: “You are the greatest!  Cat and hat rhyme!


Research Consulted

Arnold, R. (2005, April). Encore! Encore! There’s a good reason why kids love to hear the same story over and over. School Library Journal, 35.

Bryant, P. E., Bradley, L., Maclean, M., & Crossland, J. (1989). Nursery rhymes, phonological skills and reading. Journal of Child Language, 16, 407-428.

Bryant, P. E., Maclean, M., & Bradley, L. (1990). Rhyme, language, and children’s reading. Applied Psycholinguistics, 11, 237-252.

Clay, M. M. (1979). The early detection of reading difficulties (2nd ed.). Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Curenton, S. M., & Justice, L. M. (2008). Children’s preliteracy skills: Influence of mothers’ education and beliefs about shared-reading interactions. Early Education and Development, 19, 261-283.

Custodero, L. A., Britto, P. R., & Brooks-Gunn, J. (2003). Musical lives: A collective portrait of American parents and their young children. Applied Developmental Psychology, 24, 553-572.

Dunn, L. M., & Dunn, D. M. (2007). Peabody picture vocabulary test, fourth edition. San Antonio, TX: Pearson.

Fernald, A., & O’Neill, D. K. (1993). Peekaboo across cultures: How mothers and infants play with voices, faces, and expectations. In K. B. MacDonald (Ed.), Parent-child play: Descriptions and implications (pp. 259-285). Albany: State University of New York.

Fernandez-Fein, S., & Baker, L. (1997). Rhyme and alliteration sensitivity and relevant experiences among preschoolers from diverse backgrounds. Journal of Literacy Research, 29, 433-459.

Lewman, B. (1999). Read it again! How rereading–and– rereading stories heightens children’s literacy. Children and Families, 8(1), 12-15.

Libenson, A. (2007). The role of lexical stress, metrical stress, and nursery rhyme knowledge in phonological awareness development. Unpublished honor’s thesis, Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario, Canada.

Lucas, S. M., & Cutspec, P. A. (2007). The role and process of literature searching in the preparation of research synthesis (Winterberry Research Perspectives Vol. 1, No. 10). Asheville, NC: Winterberry Press.

Morris, T., & Leavey, G. (2006). Promoting phonological awareness in nursery-aged children through a Sure Start Early Listening program. International Journal of Early Years Education, 14, 155-168.

Morris, T., & Leavey, G. (2006). Promoting phonological awareness in nursery-aged children through a Sure Start Early Listening program. International Journal of Early Years Education, 14, 155-168.

Sadlier-Oxford. (2000). Nursery rhymes and phonemic awareness (Professional Development Series, Vol. 3). New York, NY: Author.

Townsend, M., & Konold, T. R. (2010). Measuring early literacy skills: A latent variable investigation of the Phonological Awareness Literacy Screening for Preschool. Journal of Psychoeducational Assessment, 28, 115-128.

Weigel, D. J., Martin, S. S., & Bennett, K. K. (2005). Ecological influences of the home and the child-care center on preschool-age children’s literacy development. Reading Research Quarterly, 40, 204-233.

Weigel, D. J., Martin, S. S., & Bennett, K. K. (2006). Contributions of the home literacy environment to preschool-aged children’s emerging literacy and language skills. Early Child Development and Care, 176, 357-378.

Weigel, D. J., Martin, S. S., & Bennett, K. K. (2010). Pathways to literacy: Connections between family assets and preschool children’s emergent literacy skills. Journal of Early Childhood Research, 8, 5-22.

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