How poetry can help non-English speakers to learn English.


We all know that reading to young children is very important. This is especially true when the child is learning another language. Reading improves their vocabulary, teaches sentence structure and gives the child a change to practice the new words they’ve learned. Anything the child enjoys hearing will have these benefits. But studies show that reading poetry to young children can have additional benefits.

What does the research say?

Research carried out in 1986 suggests that newborns recognise poems read to them before they were even born. In this study, pregnant mothers were asked to read an extract from The Cat in the Hat out loud every day for six weeks. After their babies were born, they read the same extract to their babies while the babies’ responses were measured by the researchers. The Cat in the Hat had been chosen because of it’s distinctive underlying rhythm, which the researchers believed would make it easier for the babies to recognise. The study confirmed this belief, showing that the infants were responsive to the extract, suggesting that it was familiar to them.

A similar study was undertaken around ten years later. Seeking to test the hypothesis that babies recognise the underlying rhythm of speak, the researchers spoke to the newborns of English-speaking parents in English, Dutch and Japanese. Dutch has a similar rhythm to English, while Japanese sounds very different. During the study, the babies were equally responsive to English and Dutch, and not very responsive to Japanese. This suggests that babies know the rhythm of their language long before they start learning individual words.

Many children love rhyme and parents often note that they learn words from poems and rhyming stories faster than from free verse prose. While this could be because rhymes are generally seen as more fun and easier to repeat, it may also be that poetry’s use of the underlying rhythm of our language feels more familiar to young children.

What does this mean for young EFL/ESL students?

For children learning English as a foreign or second language, this would be an additional difficulty. The underlying rhythm of their native language may be very different to that of English. The good news is that poetry can not only help with this problem, but improve the child’s reading, vocabulary and cultural knowledge at the same time. With the wide range of poems written for young children, every child will be able to find poems that they love and often repeat, which will increase their familiarity with the natural stresses and intonations of English.

The research can be found here:

Find some great children’s poems here:

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