I had to confess to some surprise the other day listening to the P.M. programme on Radio 4. The programme included a piece in which people were interviewed and asked to recite 'Jack and Jill' and other, what I thought were well known, nursery rhymes. What did I know? Hardly anyone who was interviewed could!
One woman said that she didn't sing the rhymes to her child because they were short on content. 'I don't see them as particularly educational,' she declared. She preferred to read books to her child - We're Going on a Bear Hunt, The Gruffalo, etc. While I think it's terrific to read books such as these and they may well be, as the woman suggested, the 'new generation of rhymes', it seems such a shame that parents are so fixated on instrumental learning these days.
The current obsession with instrumental learning - there must be a target to reach or an outcome to be got – can smother so much that is pleasurable. What about fun, pure and simple, immersing oneself in the pleasure of oral language? I blame the suffocating effects of the bureaucratic approach to everything educational these days.
Not that I think, as some who contributed to the PM blog, that chanting and singing nursery rhymes contributes directly to teaching children to read. The research evidence does NOT support this view: the teaching of reading needs to be much more systematically presented. Nevertheless, nursery rhymes are valuable for all sorts of less easily quantifiable reasons – enhancing children's vocabulary, introducing a range of different prosodic features of the language, and, as Albert Jack, who wrote Pop Goes the Weasel: the Secret Meanings of Nursery Rhymes, pointed out on the programme, they contain, at least in part, an oral history of the culture.
A similar point was made recently by Anthony Browne, the new Children's Laureate. He remarked that picture books were becoming increasingly marginalised and wondered whether this wasn't driven by the focus on national tests. He thought that children may be being pushed too soon towards 'more serious books', when they ought to be enjoying favourites such as Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are.
The fundamental truth is that speech precedes literacy and is essential for full human communication. We do not normally speak as we write because when we are writing we are usually trying to communicate with others who are not present with us and therefore cannot see the visual expressions on our face as we talk, nor hear the changing auditory expressions of our voice as we try to explain what we wish to say. The rhythms, rhymes and cadences found in nursery rhymes are all beneficial in terms of teaching children about how to communicate ideas – but they are just as important in terms of adults and children sharing fun situations together. It is in these simple enjoyable interactions with nursery rhymes that much can be done to initiate children's life-long love of theatre, music and literature.