Saturday, January 06, 2007

Exercise your brain -- a Poetry Friday Post

As I've been preparing for my first-ever school visit, which will probably occur in April (the organizers are a bit uncertain at present, but I hope to nail it down very, very soon), I've been giving some thought to why it is that rhyme is used so often in children's poems. And I've figured out an answer. It may or may not be THE answer, but since I've been thinking about it, I've decided to share my thoughts with you. Aren't you lucky. Plus, I've decided that memorizing rhyme is excellent for exercising one's brain -- and I've got the research to bear me out on that one. No need to buy that new Gameboy for adults, folks, you can do wonders with poetry.

In Victorian times, many, if not most, children were taught at home (or were not taught, as the case may be). In their early youth, teaching was done by the mother or a nanny in what was known as the "nursery," a term for the room or rooms that were in-bounds for children, who were pretty much NOT given the run of the house, what with them being "seen and not heard" and all.

Also in Victorian times, rote memorization of rhymes was a big deal. You can see it skewered/parodied in Lewis Carroll's books about Alice, which involves more than one instance of Alice (or another character) being asked to "stand and recite." (You can find prior discussion of Carroll's use of parody poems here.) Also, wordplay was considered a clever conversational art back in the day, and so rhymes with double meanings or tongue-twisters or lots of alliteration were considered great fun. Yep, it's pretty much how and why nursery rhymes developed. Although I should note that some of them are actually political commentary, that started in the higher levels of society, but eventually became so commonplace (and so dissociated from their original meanings) that they were passed into the realm of children. You can read more about it in a book I once mentioned called Heavy Words Lightly Thrown.

But that's not the key point of this Poetry Friday post.

The reason that rhyme is successful with children (and, let's face it, with adults as well), is that it provides your brain with a second way of storing information. That's right, I've been doing some brain/memory research, all for you. Turns out that memories are stored in multiple ways. Kind of like cross-indexing, actually, in the great card catalogue that is your brain.

Here's a working example for you. Say I ask you to read the following and learn it. And this happens to small children across the United States and many other countries every day.


If you are me, you immediately burst into a song by Big Bird in which he tries to read it as a word, pronounced phonetically as Abcadefskijekyllmuhnockwerstuvwicksez, but that's not the point.

If I read the individual letters aloud to you as you look at them, you stand a slightly greater chance of remembering them.

If, however, I group them as follows:

Y and

then I've created a rhythmic rhyme scheme. Now you see the letters, hear the letters, and oh yeah -- the rhythm thing is so akin to music that it gets saved another time, and becomes much easier to recall than a simple string of letters. And hey, for good measure, we'll set it to Mozart (Twinkle Twinkle), and it'll get saved yet another time. And you will learn it very, very quickly and never, ever forget it.

Here's a quote from a study* I found summarized online:
Memory is not stored in a single location in the brain. When an experience enters the brain, it is "deconstructed" and distributed all over the cortex. The affect (or the emotional content) is stored in the amygdala, visual images in the occipital lobes, source memory in the frontal lobes, and where you were during the experience is stored in the parietal lobes. When you recall information, you have to reconstruct it. Since memories are reconstructed, the more ways students have the information represented in the brain (through seeing, hearing, being involved with, etc.), the more pathways they have for reconstructing, the richer the memory. Multimodal instruction makes a lot of sense.

Oh, and that's not all it has to say. Turns out that your memories actually decay, like so many old newspapers exposed to the heat and light of time. However, "this natural decay can be minimized by using elaborative rehearsal strategies. Visualizing, writing, symbolizing, singing, semantic mapping, simulating, and devising mnemonics are strategies that can be used to reinforce and increase the likelihood of recall. They often have the added benefit of enhancing students' understanding of concepts as well as retention."

Yep, all that rhyming and repetition helps to ensure that the memory sticks. It is stored in more places, and imprinted more strongly, because of the rhyme. Use of form poetry helps as well, due to the structure (and usually the repetition or rhyme that comes with it). Free verse just doesn't "stick" the same way, because it doesn't have as many "hooks" ready to grab onto the various places in your brain.

I've written both rhyming and non-rhyming poems, and here's the thing. I can recall most or all of my rhyming poems, even if I haven't looked at them for quite a while. I may bungle an interior word here or there, but I can get through the whole thing and give you at least 95% of it verbatim. However. If I try to recite a free verse poem that I haven't looked at in quite some time, I will usually end up summarizing what it said.

One of the best known examples of free verse is Carl Sandburg's "Fog", which is a total of 6 lines in length, containing 21 words. Some folks can do the whole thing from memory, but most people can't -- they remember the beginning, about the fog and the little cat feet, but won't recall the rest, and won't get the beginning precisely right. And yet, most people can recite "Humpty Dumpty" in an instant, and without error. It has 26 words, and is longer than "Fog," but because of its rhyme scheme, it's more easily recalled. And there are still a fair number of people who can recite all of "Do Not Go Gentle Into that Good Night" by Dylan Thomas (it's a villanelle, and boasts both repetition and rhyme), "The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere" by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (13 lengthy stanzas, with lots of rhyme and a catchy metre), or "The Raven" by Edgar Allen Poe (18 lengthy stanzas, with lots of rhyme and assonance), or "Jabberwocky" by Lewis Carroll (7 stanzas full of nonsense words, with rhyme).

My conclusion about rhyme is that it's used with children because it sounds good, and children still delight in wordplay. And also because children will remember more of what they heard/read because of the rhyme. And if it's set to music, then so much the better for your brain.

* I should note that it's not the only study to say the same thing, just one that was more easily parsed than some others I looked at.

1 comment:

Nancy said...


This was interesting and informative. I think I've read similar studies in the past, but (perhaps due to lack of rhyme?) I had forgotten them.

As much as I appreciate free verse, I'm still partial to poems that have great sound, meaning rhyme, yes, but also interior rhyme, alliteration, etc. Not only do I remember these poems better, but I also appreciate the artistry and absolute care taken with the language.

Thanks for this post. Good reading!