Language encounters - Education Matters Magazine

Language encounters

Senior lecturer in Education at the University of Technology Sydney, Dr Don Carter, examines the role that children’s rhymes and poetry play in their language development.

Maybe I’m old fashioned, but aren’t there lessons to be learnt from the past? And in education, shouldn’t we always be looking to draw on previous experience to inform the present and help shape our plans for the future? And here, I’m thinking of a seminal research project published in the 1950s which investigated oral traditions amongst schoolchildren throughout the United Kingdom.

Conducted by the English folklorists, Peter and Iona Opie and documented in their 1959 work The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren, the project surveyed and interviewed some 5000 children in 70 schools across England, Scotland, Wales and Dublin about the patterns of oral language demonstrated by these children. The Opies found that children use oral language in the form of rhymes such as nonsense, satirical and playground rhymes; street jeers; riddles; tongue twisters; parodies; puns and joke rhymes for different purposes and effects.

The point I am making is that children learn about language by using language in contexts that are not only authentic and purposeful to them but are also often fun. And while we seem to be testing the daylights out of our children via the NAPLAN regime, in-school assessments and arguing about how we should teach and assess reading, we are forgetting that one of the most valuable resources for language development are children’s rhymes. And again, at the risk of sounding old fashioned, poetry. But first, back to the Opies.

Their research reported that oral rhymes fall into two broad categories, the first of which is those rhymes which are important in the regulation of games and relationships; and the second category, rhymes that act as expressions of exuberance. Children similarly develop a sense of belonging and security by joining in songs, chants and rhymes peculiar to groups such as boy scouts and girl guides.

The Opies also concluded that children use language – in the forms of rhymes – for a variety of purposes including the managing of confronting topics such as death and illness; having the last word; exploring vulgar topics; and developing a repertoire of quick-fire responses as they learn to be adept with the language because as the report asserted, “Schoolchildren, constantly fending for themselves amongst their fellows, acquire an armoury of ready responses.”

Their research, in my view, still resonates. Think about when you were young. Most of us are wordsmiths of a sort from an early age, chanting rhymes as we learn how to use language, reciting nursery rhymes, substituting and changing rhyming words to make our friends laugh or to be naughty. This was our introduction to poetry in an informal but fun way, the perfect lead-in for teachers who use rhymes and poetic forms to expose children to structures and forms of language and to teach them about how language works.

Learning to use language in a fun way through rhymes and rhythm provides a platform for the more formal study of poetry. Then to develop the student’s ability to use language in a concentrated and distilled manner – as required by poetry – is the next step. Perhaps in this digital age some might see the study of poetry as archaic but encouragingly, the popularity of slam poetry is on the rise clearly showing young people’s interest in exploring a range of social and personal issues through creative and exciting use of the English language.

Primary school teachers in particular know the benefits of children playing with language through nursery rhymes, chants and oral games. And the Australian Curriculum, for example, requires that Year 1 students need to “listen to, recite and perform poems, chants, rhymes and songs, imitating and inventing sound patterns including alliteration and rhyme.” Similarly, the NSW English syllabus, in the development of phonemic knowledge for kindergarten children, requires students to join in rhymes and chants as well as recognise rhymes, syllables and phonemes in spoken words.

And from these innocent and playful uses of language, teachers are able to build the critical capacities of students to not only use language effectively but also to identify how language is being used for a variety of purposes, including how it is used to manipulate behaviour and attitudes.

The development of student critical capacities was the focus of a recent research study in the United Kingdom released in June this year. Over a period of nine months in 2017, the ‘Commission on Fake News and the Teaching of Critical Literacy Skills in Schools’ surveyed over 2200 school students and 400 teachers to “explore the impact of fake news on young people in the UK” and to identify the approaches that support the teaching of critical literacy skills in schools. Amongst a series of findings, the project revealed that half of the students surveyed are worried they don’t have the skills to spot fake news and nearly two-thirds of their teachers believe that fake news is increasing student levels of anxiety, damaging self-esteem and distorting the world view of students.

Such findings not only require the analysis and critiquing of digital media platforms but also require the investigation of how language can influence and potentially skew attitudes, beliefs and behaviour.

So, once again – at the risk of sounding old fashioned, it’s worth identifying all the opportunities that engage children in meaningful language encounters. And it’s worth parents sparking family discussions around the dinner table to discuss the day’s events, for example. It’s also worth asking their children to put the laptops, iPhones or tablets away (as well as those of the parents) and play word games, recite jokes and limericks at home, in the car – in any context. And it will be worth it when children are able to activate their informed and highly developed critical capacities when inevitably they are confronted with misleading and spurious information.