Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Some thoughts on rhythm in picture books - Moira Butterfield

When I first started to think about this blog 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 the BBC, I’ve discovered that rhythm is even more important than that. Turns out it’s vital to humankind!

Good rhyme helps to anchor a text beautifully and is great fun to read, 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. 

A couple of weeks ago I saw a TV programme (Science Club) in which a small baby had 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. The baby 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.

"Hey Mum, my brain's getting smarter!"

So a tiny baby is already receptive to rhythm, and 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 apparently helps to create the neural pathways and repetition helps to strengthen them.

Perhaps all this is why adults instinctively sing nursery rhymes and ‘coo’ to babies. 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.

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

Rhythmic sentences could be said to be a form of spoken music– the structure of a tune without the tune. In fact, a good rhythmic picture book text is easy to sing, and after countless reads of the same picture book to my sons I’ve been known to do exactly that, to vary the experience for us all.

So rhythm helps the reader to make the experience of reading a picture book an engaging one for all concerned.

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 vital aid to the reader.

"I think I'll read War and Peace next."

In my next blog I’ll do some deconstructing of the best rhythmic non-rhyming sentences in picture book examples, to discover what works best. I’ll also be examining where problems can occur. All recommended text examples welcome. 

In the meantime 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 so, but now scientists have said so!


  1. Basking, thanks Moira :-) Re. rhythmic non-rhyming sentences - 'I'm going on a Bear Hunt' (or Michael Rosen's version 'We're going on a Bear Hunt' is the one I instantly thought of.

  2. Good suggestion, Jane! I read that one so many times, and I never minded repeating the read - suggesting that really good rhythm makes repeated reading so much easier.

  3. I like Noisy Nora, by Rosemary Wells - I am always happy to read it, and the rhythm and rhyme stick in my brain. Good rhyming text is like music, as you say, and is a pleasure to share with a child.

  4. Even when there is no rhyme, good rhythm provides music, I think. I don't think text necessarily needs a rhyme, but to be successfully read out and perhaps remembered it must have rhythm. Doing rhythm but not rhyme successfully takes skill, and needs some tools such as repetition, I think. I thought I'd take a closer look at those tools next time I blog.

  5. Interesting post and I'm with Jane the first book that came to mind was We're Going On A bear Hunt. Look forward to your next post - and will go through my stock of picture books to see if I can find one suitable for you.

  6. Great! Thanks Lynne. Any suggestions for non-rhyming but rhythmic picture texts welcome everyone. I'll take a good look and write up some thoughts.

  7. What about 'Little Rabbit Foo Foo'? Plus for really young children, 'Dear Zoo' is very simple but also rhythmic with its repetition. Also, some of the early readers can be very rhythmic with their repetition - in particular I'm thinking of a basic one that is a hit with all the young children I read with: 'Little Bear' by Diane Namm.
    Looking forward to reading your next post on the subject, Moira.

    1. Thanks for those great suggestions, Paeony. Yes, I think repetition is probably the great secret weapon of non-rhyming picture books!

  8. Rhythm remains very important too in chapter books read aloud to older kids - I know I enjoy those which are a pleasure to feel on my tongue as well as having a great story. Of course the rhythm might not be all pervasive, but I think great writers will still make use of it for older kids.

    1. I agree entirely. Good authors use rhythm naturally in their sentences, I think. I love the phrase 'a pleasure to feel on my tongue'. That's exactly it!

  9. Obvious rhyme being a turn-off for many publishers, because of the perceived difficulties it might make for translation and therefore sale of foreign rights, a really good rhythm is essential, I feel. I try and sneak in some internal rhyme too, if I think I can get away with it.

  10. Did you write the follow-up blog? I could really use help in this area.

    "deconstructing of the best rhythmic non-rhyming sentences in picture book examples, to discover what works best. I’ll also be examining where problems can occur"