Thursday, 10 September 2020

Rhythm in language– it’s vital to humankind! Moira Butterfield

Forgive me for recycling today. I have adapted and updated a blog on rhythm, which first appeared a few years ago on Picture Book Den. This is because a) we have a new baby in our extended family this week and b) I have a new book out on Sept 17th, which brings rhythm and dance to first non-fiction (3 or 4+ age-group). It’s called Dance Like a Flamingo, illustrated by Claudia Boldt (published by Welbeck). Anyway I think it’s worth repeating what scientists have discovered - It turns out rhythm is probably vital to humankind!
Book cover - learn and move, too!  


Good rhyme helps to anchor a text beautifully and is a joy, of course, but this blog is about rhythm – a pattern of beats in a sentence that makes it easy, natural and fun to read. It does a lot more than that, it seems. I was going to relay the good news that rhythm, offered to small children in the form of songs, poetry and picture books, helps to develop the brain. Now, thanks to scientists, I’ve discovered that rhythm is even more important than that. It turns out it’s probably had a hand in making us who we are. 

A BBC TV programme (see link below) featured a toddler with a little hatful of brain sensors popped on her tiny head. Experiments proved that her brain was not merely responding to rhythm but predicting what would come next. She had the innate ability to follow sound patterns, which would in turn help her to develop language (and possibly maths, too). This, the scientists suggested, was what separated humans from the rest of animal kind and might have helped them to start communicating in a sophisticated language when everything else was still squeaking and growling. 

 In other words, it seems we’re hard-wired to pick up on rhythm and it helps us eventually to learn to speak. 

Scientists studying brain development confirm that rhythm helps small children to grow their neural pathways. Very young humans grow their brains at a phenomenal rate, sparking up these neural pathways all over the place – like a tree growing branches. These brain connections help us to do things. Babies start off not doing very much, and as they grow into toddlers and beyond they make more and more neural connections and so start engaging with the world. Rhythm helps to create the neural pathways and repetition helps to strengthen them. 

Perhaps all this is why adults instinctively sing nursery rhymes, ‘coo’ to babies and speak in what the scientists call ‘parentese’. It most definitely suggests that it’s a good idea to read and reread rhythmic text to all small growing children, even the tiny ones. It turns out that babies quickly start to look intently at lips to work out how to copy the shapes that talking makes. So repeated rhythmic sentences (rereading that seemingly simple but well-crafted picture book regularly) can only help. 

 Science is beginning to prove what we already innately sense. I like to think of parents in prehistory starting it off, perhaps imitating a rhythmic bird call for their babies, then trying it on a drum. 

 For my part, I think rhythm has an amazing power to help memory. Many’s the time I’ve marvelled at how my brain recalls great chunks of meaningless non-rhyming pop lyrics from long-forgotten songs that weren’t important to me. They just stuck in my head. I think they were glued in by the musical rhythm. So hey presto! Why not combine learning about animnals with rhythm?

Apart from having these learning superpowers, rhythm in a sentence is a great help to someone reading out loud, of course. It makes the reading smooth and natural. Bad rhythm snags the reader, like tripping over a stone. 

 So, to sum up, rhythmic sentences – those that have a good working beat pattern like the beats of a song line – are a powerful tool for helping children learn communication, and they are a great aid to the reader. You can bask in the knowledge that by writing rhythmic sentences you are not only making them easier to read but you are helping to develop children’s brains. 

 You probably knew that, but now scientists have said so! 

A link to the research: 

Two spreads from the new book are below. No rhyme, but plenty of rhythm.

Moira Butterfield 

Twitter @moiraworld 

Instagram @moirabutterfieldauthor


Penny Dolan said...

That's so affirming, Moira - and it also makes me feel happy about enjoying and emphasising rhythm and rhyme when I'm reading to young children from picture books, or simply telling them stories.

Pippa Goodhart said...

Fascinating! Thank you so much, Moira. And the new book looks a treat.