Rhythm and rhyme

Author: Rebecca Place 

Rebecca Place is a teacher of Young Learners at the British Council in Bilbao. She has trained teachers in Synthetic Phonics and has spoken about rhythm and rhyme at various Macmillan Teachers’ Days around Spain. In this article Rebecca discusses how chants, rhymes and songs can help to develop young learners’ communicative skills and, in particular, she focuses on the mechanics behind the rhythm of English.

Clapping, counting, dipping, dancing and chanting…

Filling your class with songs and rhymes motivates and energises young learners but learners of all ages can benefit from being introduced to the rhythm of spoken English. As the trend for Synthetic Phonics has brought the teaching of pronunciation very explicitly into Infant and Primary classrooms, so more and more learners are being exposed to the more practical aspects of studying spoken English. There are still those – learners and teachers alike – who shudder at the thought of velar fricatives and intonation patterns, but spending a little valuable class time pondering and practising the sounds of English makes for more confident speakers who are better understood.

If our focus is the rhythm of the language, a theoretical label which sets English apart from Spanish is that the former is a stress-timed language whilst the latter is syllable-timed. This is quite clearly illustrated by revisiting the baby talk of the Teletubbies – where the earliest English-speaking viewers fully comprehended “Hello LaLa” “Hello Po” – and the clapping chant of a class of Spanish-speaking infants – “Mi ma-ma me mi-ma”. To give these exchanges a pictorial code, the Teletubbies said “Oo Oo” “Oo O”, whereas the pattern in the Spanish chant was more like “O  O  O  O  O  O”. If the purple creature with a bag (Tinky-Winky) had a similar exchange with the green creature in a hat (Dipsy) and all we heard was “Oo Oo” “Oo ooOo”, the meaning would still come through.

One characteristic of a syllable-timed language is that equal prominence is given to every syllable and there is a scarcity of reduced vowels, whereas an important feature of stress-timed English is the widespread use of weak forms. A study of any spoken utterance of English will reveal an important number of unstressed syllables which are vital for natural-sounding speech, yet often seem unimportant to the core message. Statisticians of English phonetics have counted schwas (/?/) in 30% of all spoken exchanges. To see how this works, simply take an everyday (classroom) utterance “Can I go to the loo, please?”. The core words here are “go” and “loo”, and possibly “please” if you are a stickler for politeness. However, the rest of the words in the sentence are purely functional – a modal auxiliary, a personal pronoun, a preposition of direction and a definite article – and their pronunciation is correspondingly weak and expressed using schwas. When we hear “go…loo…please?”, or even only “loo?”, we will understand the message and act accordingly. The code does not sound like natural English if every element is stressed – “O  O  O  O  O  O,  O?”, but it does if the mix of strong and weak syllables is correct – “o  o  O  o  o  O,  O?”.

You might feel that rhythm belongs in the music classroom and has little relevance in a serious language class. However, a simple task such as counting from one to twenty will highlight the need to keep an eye on rhythm and syllable stress at all times. Try this brief experiment, clapping – or using the music teacher’s or online metronome– to keep time.


The beat remains the same, whether you have 3 or 11 syllables – with a bit of practice!

If you want to count a bit higher and are still interested in the phenomenon of stress-timed rhythm, have a go with this one:


If we sing a song, chant a chant or recite a rhyme, we soon see the need to keep to the beat, and, in the process, gobble up sounds – often entire words – which are not central to the rhythm. These “lost” sounds in a poem may well be what, in normal connected speech, we view as “content words”, but poetic licence allows for the weakening of otherwise strong syllables, much in the same way that song etiquette allows for “gonna” and “wanna”.

Think about the way a nursery rhyme breaks or adjusts the rules of “normal” speech in the interests of a good beat. When you recite Three Blind Mice – or, even more fun, get your class to sing it as a round – it won’t scan (it won’t sound good and fit the beat or the music) if you stress every word equally.

silabas 3

This version sounds (scans) much better!


Of course, there are times when the sing-song rhythm helps the speaker to actually get their mouth around what they are trying to say. Think about tongue twisters and how the steady Oo  Oo  rhythm of Peter Piper carries the ditty along and supports the speaker while they tackle the tricky alliteration.


And sometimes the rhythm-scheme is so strong it overshadows meaning in favour of the end result – think now of clapping or skipping songs or dips. Each time hands meet, the rope turns or a finger is pointed to discover who is going to be “It” for the next game, a syllable is stressed and the natural flow of connected speech takes second place to a strong rhythmic beat. Here are some examples.



One of the key elements affecting the sound of human speech is pitch – how high or low the tone of our voice is – which is determined by the vibration of our vocal cords. Pitch is divided into four levels running from extra high, to high, normal and low, and it is here, at the lowest level, where weak sounds are produced. At a normal level of pitch consonants and vowels are louder, and to make the stressed syllables of our content words stand out in an utterance we often also slow them down and lengthen them, whilst unstressed syllables are quieter, faster and shorter.

So the speed of delivery is yet another important element to think about if we are making a presentation, reading a story or giving instructions to our class. If we speak too fast we are likely to fall into the same trap as the incomprehensible airline pilot…Have you ever sat nervously on a plane and been incapable of following the “Welcome aboard” spiel because it is simply too fast? Or maybe you’ve been listening to the weather forecast and, try as you might, you cannot decipher whether or not it’ll rain tomorrow because the radio announcer is reading all the data in a monotone fashion, without pausing or lilting their voice at any point. (Better take your brolly, just in case).

What has probably happened is that the vital information you were listening out for was not being delivered in digestible, bite-sized chunks; there was far too much of it coming at you at an uncomfortable speed and little or no help as far as pitch, stress or intonation differentiation. What the two speakers need to do is slow down, think about the main points of their message and convey the rhythm rather than every single word. In the same way that good chocolate has to be rationed in the right sized chunks to be savoured, spoken English has to be delivered in a way which will help the listener understand the message as clearly as possible. Thus, a public speaker, a newsreader or a teacher will do well to review their text, look for the natural breaks – whether these be signalled by written punctuation, conjunctions or phrasing – decide where the strong sentence stress falls, and feel the rhythm of their words.

And these are tips we can pass on to our learners just as we practise them ourselves, so they too will benefit from the confidence-building experience of feeling the rhythm of English and knowing they have a tool which will help them to communicate better.

Extra Resources:

  • For a video explanation of the difference between stress-timed and syllable-times languages, click here.
  • For a video of Peter Piper, click here.
  • More examples of tongue twisters can be found from the Gutenberg project.


Source: Macmillan Iberia


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