Is Rhyming Ability Important in Reading?

  • Beginning Reading National Early Literacy Panel Phonological awareness
  • 15 April, 2015
  • 7 Comments

Teacher question:

Our district is wrestling with how much emphasis to give rhyming as an early literacy skill. We had previously downplayed rhyming as a necessary focus but the new CA ELA/ELD Framework and CCSS where rhyming is specifically called out has resurfaced old questions.  

  Our struggle is this.... with our very high (87%) English Learner population, rhyming is one of the later skills acquired for these students in Preschool through grade 1.  Reading research seems to support the idea of rhyming as a pre-requisite to reading; exposure to this kind of play with words and "word families" gives children another pathway to reading. However, students who are not native to English miss this early exposure and much of their cognitive energy seems to be taken up with meaning-making. Often in our classrooms it seems we are successful at teaching the students to decode and then have to go back and teach them to identify and produce rhyming words.  Doesn't this defeat the purpose for using rhyming as a building block for reading?

  This is not to say that our teachers aren't talking about rhyming words as they are encountered in text or pointing out word families but our question, as we decide where to put our educational dollar, is will an emphasis on rhyming give us a reading payout?

Shanahan response:

When I was a young reading specialist (a very long time ago), I wondered about this myself—though I certainly wasn’t aware of any research on it. I noticed that some of my low readers were surprisingly thick when it came to rhyme. Rhyme had always seemed automatic to me, and it made me wonder about its role in reading. As a result, I started to check out the rhyming ability of my students (grade 2-6). Just as I suspected, poor rhyming appeared to be an important marker of low reading ability.

  What I had informally noticed as a teacher, the research community noticed as well. In the 1980s (and especially the 1990s--though it continues today), rhyming as a precursor to reading became a big issue. It made sense: many low readers struggled with rhyming, the research community was increasingly interested in how kids perceive language sounds, and phonological awareness (PA) became a big deal. It is rare that one sees a list of those early PA skills that doesn’t include rhyming.

  There was so much research on this that the National Early Literacy Panel (2008) was able to meta-analyze it. Here is what we concluded:

  1.     Rhyming ability is predictive of later reading achievement, but it had the weakest correlation of any of the phonemic awareness skills. Being able to segment words into single phonemes or to blend phonemes together into words, were significantly better predictors of decoding. (There were no significant differences in these predictors with regard to later reading comprehension growth).

2.     With regard to the teaching of PA, it was concluded that there were few instructional interventions that used rhyming activities as a primary teaching approach, but that the teaching of letters and sounds had a significant impact on student learning.

  What do I conclude from this? First, rhyming ability is a predictor of later reading development, but it isn’t as accurate or sensitive as other skills (like letter naming or phonemic awareness—children’s ability to distinguish or segment single sounds in words). If I noticed a youngster was having trouble with rhymes, I would pay attention to it, but if I was setting up a screening program to identify potential problems, rhyming wouldn’t be the way that I would go.

  Given that there are no studies showing that teaching rhyming improves reading achievement (or even makes kids more amenable to and successful with phonemic awareness instruction), I wouldn’t want to spend much time teaching it. There are some recent studies that suggest that as students learn to read, their ability to rhyme improves (McNorgan, Awati, Desroches, & Booth, 2014). Thus, instead of better rhyming leading to better reading, the knowledge of words and letters and sounds allows students to gain access to this somewhat separate skill. 

That may be why your second language students do better with rhyming once they can read; they would have greater knowledge of vocabulary and the language in general once they were reading--and these skills are evidently important in rhyming. That is also probably why rhyming has a more similar relationship to reading comprehension as the other phonological skills: These skills have little or no functional relationship in reading comprehension, but they do serve as markers of language proficiency or sophistication. The better one is with language, the better one will be with comprehension. But since rhyming plays little or no functional role in decoding, it is less predictive of decoding skills. 

  There is no question that all of these various phonological awareness skills—awareness of the sound separation between words, the ability to separate syllables within words, the ability to segment onsets (first sounds) from rimes (b/ig), the ability to rhyme, the ability to segment or blend phonemes are all correlated with each other. But it is the segmenting and blending of phonemes that has functional value in reading.

  I would not put a lot of emphasis on the teaching of rhyme. It sounds to me like your teachers are approaching this appropriately and the policy is, perhaps unintentionally, steering them in the wrong direction.

Comments

See what others have to say about this topic.

Sally Fox
Jun 13, 2017 02:31 AM

4/16/2015

Although I agree that I would not spend much if any time "teach rhyming" explicitly, I do believe including many opportunities for English learners to hear and join in with chanting and singing poetry and songs is very supportive of the language development that precedes reading and literacy success. This immerses students in the rhythm and rhyme of the target language (English or other languages). When the poems/songs are repeated many times, with gestures, sketches, and picture file cards used to ensure comprehension, language is built very naturally. Especially effective is the practice of adapting familiar tunes and poem patterns to teach content with academic vocabulary, like this one to teach about the water cycle using a famous tune:

WATER, WATER CYCLE!
(to the tune of Queen's 1977 song, "We Will Rock You!")

Water molecules move in many different ways--
Changing states is what scientists say.
Solid when it’s ice, gas when in the air.
Liquid form is water, it’s almost everywhere!

CHORUS: Water, water cycle! Cycle! Cycle!

Ice changes to water when it melts, you see.
Water evaporates into gas we can breathe.
Round ‘n’ round it goes; the water cycle turns.
From one state to another it always returns!
CHORUS

By Sally Fox, 2013, inspired by
Perry Colapinto, Lemon Grove School District

Or, for upper graders here in California, the campfire song about squirrels can be adapted, as follows:

I’M A CALIFORNIO’S COW - MOO! MOO!
(to the tune of “I’m a Nut!)

I’m a cow in an old rancho,
Eating grass in a big meadow.
El ranchero raises me
To sell my hide to captains at sea.

CHORUS: I’m a cow…Moo! Moo!
I’m a cow…Moo! Moo!

When I grow up so big and strong,
Ranchero will decide if I’ll live long.
If I make milk I might stay alive.
He’ll make cheese for his family to survive.
CHORUS

Ranchero slaughters cows for meat,
Saves the skin and dries it in a sheet.
The sheet’s called rawhide; good as gold.
Take it to San Diego where it’s sold.
CHORUS

Early San Diego’s economy
Depended a lot on me, you see!
Rawhide went to Boston and the East.
Leather products were increased!
CHORUS

By Sally Fox, 2011

If rhyming ability is important in reading, but "teaching rhyming" as an isolated skill in not effective, consider immersing students in the fun performance of adapted poems and songs that teach language and content in tandem!

Timothy Shanahan
Jun 13, 2017 02:32 AM

4/16/2015

Sally--

I'm definitely not against these kinds of activities. However, I would not dedicated reading instruction time to these, as there are many activities with a clearer impact on reading and writing achievement. I see no reason why activities like those that you describe couldn't be part of a child's school day, but they definitely shouldn't replace instruction in phonological/ phonemic awareness, decoding, oral reading fluency, reading comprehension, and writing.

thanks.

Sally Fox
Jun 13, 2017 02:32 AM

4/16/2015

Agreed! I include them during content instruction time, or right before recess, or whenever students need to stand and stretch and pump some oxygen to the brain. Poems and chants support English learners' language development in so many ways, and the benefits will overflow into the time spent dedicated to reading instruction.

Toni Rader
Jun 13, 2017 02:33 AM

5/8/2015

You wrote, "Rhyming has a more similar relationship to reading comprehension as the other phonological skills." I'm not sure that I understand how rhyming connects to reading comprehension. Would you please explain this in more detail? I will be facilitating a professional learning session on phonological awareness on 5/16/15. I would like to include this information in my session.

Timothy Shanahan
Jun 13, 2017 02:34 AM

5/8/2015

Toni--

It is believed that phonological awareness has a relationship with comprehension -- but mainly through decoding. That is, the reason why kids with stronger PA do best in reading isn't because PA improves reasoning or memory or those kinds of variables, but because it facilitates the ability to decode--to translate print into language.

Consequently, PA--by any measure--has a stronger relationship with decoding than with reading comprehension. My hunch is that this small direct relationship (between PA and comprehension) is likely just due to the most mature kids being the best comprehenders rather than to any functional benefit of PA during the comprehension process. That is probably why there is no difference in the size of relationship between any of the PA measures and comprehension. However, skills like phonemic segmenting are clearly much more closely related to decoding, than rhyming is--and this difference appears to be a functional difference. PA affects comprehension, but it does so, not directly, but through decoding ability. Rhyming doesn't help kids to decode as much as the other PA skills do.

Toni Rader
Jun 13, 2017 02:34 AM

5/9/2015

Tim--

Thank you for this information. It has help me understand how PA affects comprehension indirectly; however, I am still unsure why "rhyming has a more similar relationship to reading comprehension than the other PA skills." Is this perhaps because some rhyming tasks may require children to use information from the text to close the rhyme?

Timothy Shanahan
Jun 13, 2017 02:35 AM

5/11/2015

Toni--

I think what it means is that the direct connection between PA, however it is measured, is not particularly important (including rhyme). All measures will directly predict comprehension poorly. However, several measures of PA (e.g. segmenting, onset/rime, blending) have a markedly stronger connections with decoding and through decoding to comprehension than is true for rhyming.

tim

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Is Rhyming Ability Important in Reading?

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