Reading rhyming stories 101 (for parents)

This post is for parents who are neither musically-inclined, nor poetically-inclined but who find themselves suddenly confronted by brightly coloured books by authors such as Dr Seuss, Mem Fox, Julia Donaldson, Pamela Allen – you know, authors who write in rhyme.

Reading rhyming stories can make the most accomplished parent break out in cold sweats.  But you better get used to it because you know your kid is going to ask for Green Eggs and Ham roughly about nine thousand times before they are over it and move onto more high-brow stuff… like The Lorax.

But don’t sweat, I’m here to help.  With just a little bit of background knowledge, you’ll be practically singing those “Sam-I-ams”.

Other than overcoming your discomfort, what benefit is there in improving your reading of rhyming stories?  Well, there’s this thing called rhythm. Rhyming picture book authors spend a lot of time getting the rhythm – the meter – of each line just so.  When it comes to picture books, a flowing, satisfying rhythm is more important than the rhyme.  You could just read them as they are and hit a nice rhyme at the end of each line, but it will benefit your child and feel much more satisfying if you can read these books rhythmically, the way they were intended. It’s not a skill that’s out of reach, you don’t need a Masters degree, it just takes a bit of know-how and practice.

So, school’s in, read on…

Step 1: Get stressed

Rhythm is “the measured flow of words and phrases in verse or prose as determined by the relation of long and short or stressed and unstressed syllables” (thanks Google).  What’s important here is stress.  Stress is where you put the emphasis on words.

For example: hungry, hotel, carton, barbecue, material, bureaucracy, accomplishment, Australia.

When reading rhyming picture books, always read with your natural stress. You may occasionally find that the stress or pronunciation of a word won’t work but it may be because it was written in another country (for example, in the US “z” is “zee”, while we in Australia say “zed”).  Also keep in mind that French words in Australian and British English tend to have the emphasis on the first syllable (ballet, café), but in American English the emphasis falls on the last syllable (ballet, café). Another thing to keep in mind is that sometimes the end syllables of longer words may be joined into one syllable, reducing the syllable count, for example “Aus-tray-lee-a” vs. “Aus-trail-ya”*.

Step 2: Find your rhythm

This is the hard part.  There are a few variations of rhythmic patterns used in children’s books but not too many and you’ll get the hang of picking them up with a few tips and a bit of practice.   The pattern of rhythm that is used in a song or poem is called the meter.  The meter determines where the stressed and unstressed beats fall.

One of the simplest meter patterns is “common meter”.  Common meter is read as such:
da DUM da DUM da DUM da DOO,
da DUM da DUM da DA,
da DUM da DUM da DUM da DOO,
da DUM da DUM da DA.

Here you can see the stress is on the bold words.  Common meter uses an iambic meter which is a technical way of saying that the stress pattern is da-DUM.  You’ll notice also that in common meter, the lines have an alternating rhyming pattern.

Here is an example of common meter:

Amazing Grace! how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me;
I once was lost, but now am found;
Was blind, but now I see.

Try reading Amazing Grace aloud (not singing it, though by all means sing it later!)  Can you hear the stressed and unstressed beats?  Do you automatically take a breath at the end of the second and fourth lines?  Did you notice that in one line the first stressed beat was in the first word (Amazing) but in the others, the first stressed beat was the second word (saved, once, blind)?

Dr Seuss was a great user of common meter.  Here is an example from Green Eggs and Ham:

I would not like them here or there.
I would not like them anywhere.
I do not like green eggs and ham.
I do not like them, Sam-I-am.

The following table may make this clearer:

da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM
I would not like them here or there.
I would not like them an y where.
I do not like green eggs and ham.
I do not like them Sam I- am.

Now try reading the first stanza of the famous William Blake poem, The Tyger.  It is no longer in common meter, it uses rhyming couplets and the meter form is trochaic – which means that rather than a da-DUM stress pattern, it is DUM-da.

Here is the pattern:
DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM x2
DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM x2

And here is the poem:
Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
Notice how the last line adds an extra “da” beat before the first DUM – “could”.
Here is the poem set out in a table:
  DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM
  Ty ger Ty ger Burn ing bright,
  In the for- ests of the night;
  What im mor tal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fear ful sym me- try?

Now that you have these simple meter patterns, let’s move on, because it does become more complicated than this.

Picture books are a little different from songs or poetry because they need to tell a story that is clear to children, so they need to be able to scan as proper sentences, rather than poetic lines.  In order for this to work, most picture books use a slightly more complex meter pattern.  While the above meter forms are what you would think of as a marching beat, many picture books use a more waltz-like beat, or in poetic terms: anapaest.

For example:
da da DUM da da DUM da da DUM da da DUM

See how there are more unstressed beats, two da’s for every DUM?

Let’s break down a couple of lines from some famous picture books. Here are the first two lines from Julia Donaldson’s The Gruffalo:

A mouse took a stroll through the deep dark wood,
A fox saw the mouse and the mouse looked good.

It may help to break these down more visually:

  DUM da da DUM da da DUM da da DUM
A mouse took a stroll through the deep, dark   wood
A fox saw the mouse  and the mouse looked   good

And the following couplet would be:

  DUM da da DUM da da DUM da da DUM
  Where are you go ing to lit tle brown mouse?
  Come and have lunch in my un der ground house

See how neatly the syllables, the stressed and unstressed beats, fit into the meter pattern?

Here is another one, from Aaron Blabey’s Pig the Fibber:

Pig was a pug
and I’m sorry to say,
He would often tell lies
just to get his own way.

 da  da DUM da da DUM da da DUM da da DUM
    Pig was a pug and I’m sor ry to say
He  would oft en tell lies just to get his own way

Now I challenge you to pick up a picture book and see if you can fit it into this pattern.  Most rhyming picture books, especially modern ones, use the anapaest meter pattern, though the rhyming pattern may differ.  Some books squeeze in extra syllables more than others and so are less easy to scan, but with some practice you’ll begin to figure it out.  And if you simply can’t work out the pattern, then perhaps the book’s editor hasn’t done a good enough job in making it readable!

STEP 3: Listen to others

Learning by ear is a great way to become more comfortable with rhyming patterns, along with repetition (and you’ll get plenty of that when your little learns the word “again”!). There are a few easy ways to listen to others reading children’s books: you can download audiobooks and listen to them with your child, or even put them on in the car as a great distraction; you can seek out story time at your local library or bookshop; and you can also purchase some picture books with CDs that contain audio versions of the book.

I hope that this has helped to make your story-reading sessions slightly more comfortable and pleasant and gives you peace knowing that you’re passing on your new-found rhythm to your child.

So now I’m off to dance a jig, this rhythm post has grown too big.

See what I did there…? 🙂

*Remember when I said you don’t need a Master’s degree? Well, I might! This stuff can get pretty complicated.

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