Do we spend too much time on rhyming books? What else should we do to prepare pre-schoolers to read?

Duck in the Truck
The Cat in the Hat
Madeline, with her vines and twelve little girls in two straight lines

All great, fun books to read aloud – my sons love them; and so do I. But do we spend too much time playing around with rhyming books and not enough time working on other skills children need for reading before they go to school?



Sing a song of sixpence,
A pocket full of rye;
Four-and-twenty blackbirds
Baked in a pie;
When the pie was opened
The birds began to sing;
Was not that a dainty dish
To set before the King?

(During the next verse, somebody’s nose gets nipped.)

Before I answer this, let me back up for a moment and explain a couple of key concepts.

Phonological awareness

A strong predictor of later reading and spelling skills in pre-schoolers is what we call their “phonological awareness”. Phonological awareness is hard to explain. Essentially, it’s the child’s ability to attend to, identify and manipulate sounds in spoken words. It covers a bunch of sub-skills, including an understanding of:

  • rhyme (e.g. cat-hat-mat-sat, etc.);
  • stress patterns in words (e.g. the stress is on the first syllable of “water”; and on the second syllable of “begin”);
  • syllables or “beats” (e.g. elephant has three syllables: el-e-phant);
  • how words can be broken down or “segmented” into individual sounds (e.g. dog (d-o-g) is not the same word as dot (d-o-t)); and
  • how individual sounds can be put together or “blended” to make words (e.g. d+o+g = dog, a four-legged canine.)

Speech pathologists and other experts in early education agree that the explicit teaching of these skills is critical for later literacy education. This is because, in English, our written language uses an alphabet, a type of code. Written words are made up of letters (not sounds). But, for most of our words (over 80% of the time), the letters we use to spell are determined by the sounds they usually make. In other words, to understand the alphabetic code and to be able to read efficiently, children must not only know their letters, but the sounds they make.

Phonological awareness skills and literacy – which skills are needed most?

The research evidence tells us that, for pre-schoolers who are going to school next year:

  • phonological awareness activities should focus on the development of skills at the sound (phonemic) level (Brennan & Ireson, 1997);
  • sound segmentation and blending skills, and recognising the relationships between letters and sounds, are more strongly related to later reading and spelling than syllable or rhyme awareness skills (Hulme, Goetz, Gooch, Adams, & Snowling, 2007);
  • teaching letter knowledge and phoneme/sound awareness together may help both skills develop more efficiently than teaching the skills separately; and
  • skills like rhyme awareness may develop with improvement in speech production – either naturally or with therapy – and through general language stimulation at home or in school (Gillon, 2005).

So, yes, by all means have fun with rhyming books, nursery rhymes and songs. But make some time to play with sounds with sound segmentation, blending and letter-sound activities and games.

Your speech pathologist can offer some suggestions, and help you design a phonological awareness program for your child, either in therapy or for you to deliver at home.

Related articles:

Image and poem source:


Hi there, I’m David Kinnane.

Principal Speech Pathologist, Banter Speech & Language

Our talented team of certified practising speech pathologists provide unhurried, personalised and evidence-based speech pathology care to children and adults in the Inner West of Sydney and beyond, both in our clinic and via telehealth.

David Kinnane
Speech-Language Pathologist. Lawyer. Father. Reader. Writer. Speaker.

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