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Shanahan on Literacy

Timothy Shanahan

Literacy expert Timothy Shanahan shares best practices for teaching reading and writing. Dr. Shanahan is an internationally recognized professor of urban education and reading researcher who has extensive experience with children in inner-city schools and children with special needs. All posts are reprinted with permission from Shanahan on Literacy.

Is Rhyming Ability Important in Reading?

April 16, 2015

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 prerequisite 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 is — as we decide where to put our educational dollar — will an emphasis on rhyming give us a reading payout?

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

I would agree that teaching rhyming is not that useful. It is far more valuable as an indicator of an at-risk reader for the reasons cited above. That's not to say though that exercising of pre-reading cognitive skills is not valuable, and in fact advisable, particularly for children who find rhyming difficult. This is includes all English Second Language Learners.

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"The man who does not read good books is no better than the man who can't." — Mark Twain