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International schools in Hong Kong

Why no nursery rhymes at Hong Kong kindergarten? They’re a great way of learning to read and spell – and have some fun

Nursery rhymes are an effective way for children to develop early phonic skills. If their school is not teaching them, then do it at home with your child

PUBLISHED : Monday, 11 December, 2017, 12:49pm
UPDATED : Monday, 11 December, 2017, 8:06pm

A Hong Kong parent writes: We often sing nursery rhymes with our daughter at home, but she doesn’t seem to sing any at her international kindergarten. I presumed this was an important and natural part of a young child’s education.

According to research, many young children today cannot recite famous nursery rhymes. Parents are now more likely to see them as old-fashioned and, as a result, are no longer singing them with their children.

A leading UK school inspector recently warned that this growing trend is leaving young children poorly prepared for starting kindergarten and school. He describes learning and singing nursery rhymes by heart as a crucial part of their language development.

You are right to suggest that nursery rhymes are certainly an important part of a young child’s education, and that these days this is not always recognised in kindergartens and schools. Research by literacy experts shows that four-year-old children who know eight nursery rhymes from memory are usually among the best spellers and readers by the time they reach their third year at school.

Nursery rhymes are an effective way of developing early phonic skills, enabling children to practise experimenting with volume and pitch, and embedding an understanding of language rhythm that stories alone do not necessarily provide.

Sharing these rhymes also provides a shared social experience both with family and larger school groups, and provides great fun, particularly when actions are added. They are full of quirky ideas that expand a child’s imagination, transporting them into a world of fantasy and play.

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Peter and Iona Opie, well known folklorists and specialists in children’s literature, collated The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes in 1951. It brings together more than 500 rhymes, songs, and lullabies traditionally handed down to children through their families.

They highlighted the impact that nursery rhymes have on culture and customs. Many of us don’t consider the origins or meanings of nursery rhymes. Some are based on political songs from long ago.

Losing these rhymes that have been sung through the ages would mean losing social history and ancient wisdom.

Over four decades, the Opies also did extensive analysis of games children played in the street and playground, including skipping and clapping rhymes. They discovered children’s amazing natural capacity for organisation and rule-making, while teaching and learning from each other.

These findings back up a good deal of educational research that advocates that children who learn through play in the early years are essentially happier and more successful. Hong Kong parents can use this information to choose an appropriate kindergarten from the impressive range available.

My daughter struggles with reading; how can I help her?

While some facilities focus on academic skills, others follow a more child-centred approach through structured play and group activities, which ideally should include the singing of nursery rhymes.

The buddy system in primary schools can be a great model for sharing and learning nursery rhymes. Older students are paired with younger ones to read stories, poems and rhymes to them. This not only benefits younger children, but also helps the older pupils to feel mature and responsible, allowing them to reconnect with rhymes and picture books they used to read.

I was once privileged to witness an inspirational EAL (English as an additional language) teacher who got Year Six pupils to translate nursery rhymes for younger children. Once the young children could sing these in their own language they then introduced the English version.

Hopefully more parents will follow in your footsteps. You can extend nursery rhyme fun with your daughter by encouraging her to devise her own actions, paint pictures of her favourite characters, and by having a “prop” or dressing-up box for role-play. Try missing out rhyming words so she can finish the line and “accidentally” say the wrong words so she relishes in correcting you.

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These playful verses can be enjoyed in any place at any time. Sing them in the bath, at the park or in the car. They can also be a very effective tantrum diffuser for toddlers.

I remember singing nursery rhymes for hours on long car journeys as a child. I then continued this tradition with my own family. As well as the proven academic advantages, it is great way to bond and have fun, nurturing a love of language and singing while creating treasured memories.

Julie McGuire is a former Hong Kong primary-school teacher