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Poetry Friday: The Neuroscience of Mother Goose

Anna Maria she sat on the fire;
The fire was too hot, she sat on the pot;
The pot was too round, she sat on the ground;
The ground was too flat, she sat on the cat;
The cat ran away with Maria on her back.

There's no shortage of Mother Goose books on the market. Two that I like are Tomie dePaola's Mother Goose and Rosemary Wells' Here Comes Mother Goose. (The rhyme above comes from the dePaola book.) While I have only one of these on hand at the moment, I'd think there's some overlap; both author-illustrators use Iona and Peter Opie's classic versions of the rhymes. (The Opies, a husband-and-wife team, interviewed thousands of children and compiled The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes, among many other titles.) The pictures are distinctly dePaola and Wells, and such visual treats.

I've had Mother Goose on my mind since I've been reading Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, by Maryanne Wolf, a cognitive scientist and professor of child development at Tufts. Her book looks at how children learn to read—or, in some cases, why they don't learn to read. (I've not gotten to the dyslexia part yet.) Early language development is the most important precursor to reading, Wolf states. ("Early" refers to early in a child's life; she's not using it in the sense of "premature.") I was fascinated to hear what she has to say about nursery rhymes' contribution to the young child's reading brain. Keeping in mind that an example of a phoneme is just the /p/ sound in "pot," listen to this:

In addition to writing [with invented spelling, mentioned earlier in the book], there are other, equally entertaining ways to help children develop an awareness of phonemes. Mother Goose is one. Tucked inside "Hickory, dickory, dock, a mouse ran up the clock" and other rhymes can be found a host of potential aids to sound awareness—alliteration, assonance, rhyme, repetition. Alliterative and rhyming sounds teach the young ear that words can sound similar because they share a first or last sound.

No wonder reciting poetry helped some six year olds with dyslexia! That was the subject of a study I mentioned last summer. I've also noticed that some of my first-grade friends who struggle with reading do not know what a rhyme is.

Based on what I've read so far, I highly recommend Proust and the Reading Brain. Parents, classroom teachers, reading specialists, and everyone interested in children's literacy will find it particularly relevant. Kids will turn the pages of the dePaola and Wells books with glee because the rhymes are fun to hear and the pictures are delightful.

Today's Poetry Friday roundup is at AmoXcalli.


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Wow! That sounds really, really interesting. I'll have to check it out as fodder for possible school visits.

I noticed when I did school visits for poetry in the spring that the ADD/ADHD kids did really well with poetry (and shocked the hell out of their teachers in the process with what they knew (and brought to the table) and with what they heard, retained and took away). I think there's something about the compressed imagery and use of language that really seizes their attention. And it wasn't just short poems, but things like Jabberwocky and Casey at the Bat, which take a while to get through and have lots of invented words (Jabberwocky) or tell a long, narrative story (Casey). I really think the benefits of poetry for kids with learning disabilities merits serious study.

Oh, what a wonderful timely post. I'm intrigued to read the links you've given - thanks.
I homeschool my three kids, and we've always done a lot of poetry memorization. I think it has been incredibly helpful in teaching them awareness of the nuances in literature we read, plus it's just plain fun.

I also love that Rosemary Wells Mother Goose book. We have all her Max books, too. My eldest is named Max, so how could we not. And we still quote her: "Because, Max!" or "That's enough questions, Max, you have to go to sleep now."

Kelly, that's so interesting about the ADHD kids and writing poetry. I think you're onto something. I want to read more about the study on poetry recitation and dyslexia; I'm no neuroscientist (yeah, I know, do tell), but it sounds like the recitation of poetry is repairing--or creating--something in the brain.

Sheila, you're right: reading poetry is "just plain fun"! It's very cool to hear that y'all incorporate poetry and recitation into your homeschooling. I am completely amazed at the connections that Proust and the Reading Brain brings up.

Max and Ruby were two constant companions when my son was younger. Aren't they funny?

I've long heard about the connection of Mother Goose to learning to read. There are so many elements; rhyme, rhythm, phonemic awareness, musical language, imagery, humor, intense emotion, social relationships, connections, story, cultural information, vocabulary... the list goes on. The Proust book sounds like one I should read. We do a lot of poetry in our house, mostly because it's so much fun.

Did you hear the thing on NPR this week about the study of kids learning to read better/easier in families that eat dinner together? Again they found layers of important elements; some of which were social relationships, organizational skills, and conversational/narrative/vocabulary development.

No, I didn't hear the NPR thing. I'll look for that. Thanks! I'm finding the book really interesting, Cloudscome; I bet you would, too.

WHAT a great idea! When I was teaching kids with learning disabilities, we spent a little time each morning memorizing something to try and repeat it by the end of the week. I always felt it helped them remember other things, but it's amazing to know that it REALLY may have helped their brain development. This is really exciting, thanks for the title.

TadMack, that sounds like such a good strategy! I think so many kids could benefit from seemingly little things like that.
I think this might have been the NPR link...? I love it when they have items like this on the radio. Such a deceptively simple suggestion.

WOW! I need to get that book. I am totally into using poetry in the classroom, and I am totally interested in the science of learning. I am going to NPR now. :) I may have underestimated my students' ability to memorize some poetry. Better go add that to next week's lesson plans.

Thanks for the link, Sheila. I'm going to take a listen later this evening.

Lisa, if you are into the science of learning (great phrase, by the way!), you should get a hold of the book. My copy is from the library, but I'm getting so much out of it that I may have to buy one for myself. Thanks for stopping by!

I was reading Janet Stevens' THE DISH RAN AWAY WITH THE SPOON to some fourth graders this week, and it was amazing/disheartening how many of the Mother Goose references they didn't know! Hopefully, it's never too late for Mother Goose to make a difference in a child's brain!

I agree, Mary Lee! I don't know that Janet Stevens book; I'll have to look for it. I'm going to take the dePaola book along the next time I read with the first graders. Sometimes I used to give clues to words they weren't familiar with by saying something like "it rhymes with bump," but that only confused them. Many don't know what I mean. But they're eager to learn, and that's a good thing!

Oooh, sounds like a fascinating book. Thanks for the recommendation!

I love to look into how the brain works, how learning develops. My kids and I play a little game with books sometimes -- we read the book backwards: start on the last page and read each sentence completely backwards, too. Ramona simply finds it silly and fun, but here's what *I* got out of it: a renewed sensitivity to what it means to decipher symbols and learn to read. As I sometimes stumble on the backward-reading, I realize anew that I normally can take in huge chunks at a time, but a little one ... ah, such renewed compassion for the process!

Process the for compassion renewed such, ah! :-)

Oops. :-o ... that wasn't Tom E., that was Me E. Karen. Sorry. My husband must've been the last one to comment on Typepad. :-)

Karen, reading a book backwards sounds like fun! I'm going to have to try that.

If you do try the book, I hope you'll report back. I'm finding it fascinating. Wolf really lays out exactly how these things we've heard about work--such as read early and often with your children.

This is very interesting and I'm going on the hunt for Proust and the Squid.

A few links that might be of interest. This is a newspaper article I wrote a while back about Mother Goose literacy programs:

I'd also recommend the Kids Can Press Visions in Poetry series. They've done beautiful editions of several of the poems mentioned above - Jaberrwocky, Casey at the Bat etc. I've written about them recently at my blog (

Finally, a recommendation for one more Mother Goose - a beautiful edition perfect for very small readers was done by artist Barbara Reid (Scholastic) this year.

Thanks for those excellent resources, Sara. I'm looking forward to reading your article on literacy. Volunteering as a "reading buddy" with first graders is a highlight of my week.

Thank you for this - Proust and the Squid sounds amazing. It seems such a great loss for children not to be exposed to verse, Mother Goose or any other small-person poetry, when they so easily absorb rhyme and rhythm and any inherent literacy skills.

My younger son's school project for this half of term was nursery rhymes and their meanings and last week he went to school dressed as Jack Sprat/King Charles First... So he's really into Mother Goose in any shape or form at the moment, including parodies - here's our favourite so far:

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
He didn't get bruised,
He didn't get bumped:
Humpty Dumpty bungee-jumped!

I thought you might like it!

And, on another light note, have you ever come across MotsD'Heures Gousses Rames?

That's a good one. Thank you for posting about the bungee-jumping Humpty Dumpty. Funny.

No, I don't know the Mots D'Heures: Gousses, Rames. Je ne parles much Francais. It that necessary?

How can 10 days go by so quickly?!? Anyway, Mots D'Heures Gousses Rames is a spoof mediaeval French poetry book, complete with erudite footnotes (in English) and wood engravings, which when you read them aloud turn out to be nursery rhymes.

I first came across them when we walked into a French lesson at school and were told to translate the words on the blackboard... after enjoying watching us struggle, the teacher read it aloud to us:

Un petit d'un petit
S'ètonne aux Halles
Un petit d'un petit
Ah! degrès te fallent...

So no, you don't need to know French to read them - the French is total nonsense, you just need to put on a very French accent to read them!

Here's a link -

I found your site looking for the name of the Mots D'heure (etc) book which I obtained years ago and recently remembered again. It is a fun book! I really like your site and hope to come back many times.

Thanks so much for the kind words. I hope you'll visit often!

I am a children's poet who writes mostly in rhyme and rhythm for children, and having been a teacher myself, fully understand the link between rhyming and rhythm and the development of Phonemic awareness (ie the ability to break words down into sounds) which, of course leads to better literacy. [edited]

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