Hickory, Dickory, Dock, rhymes run out the clock; Missing: Childhood verses that were so well known to so many previous generations are nowhere to be found for many children today.


Hey, diddle, diddle,

An old nursery rhyme

Makes little Miss Muffet

A reader sublime

WHAT EVER happened to nursery rhymes?

Jacqueline Griswold, a kindergarten teacher at Curtis Bay Elementary School in Baltimore, wants to know. "People don't read nursery rhymes at home," Griswold says.

To which might be added that people aren't exposed to rhymes in shopping malls and many libraries and schools. It's almost as though these childhood verses skipped over a generation, like the cow jumping over the moon.

It's a shame, too, because rhymes are useful teaching tools, and they're particularly helpful in the teaching of reading. (They're also in the public domain, meaning they can be reproduced at will.)

Nursery rhymes employ rhyming and alliterative words, and most of them have a rhythm or beat. All are characteristics of the "phonemic awareness" children must acquire before they learn to read.

Children have to know that some words sound alike ("Georgie, Porgie," the "bells" and "shells" in "Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary") and that many words begin with the same sound ("Diddle, diddle, dumpling").

A nursery rhyme exists to sound out every letter in the alphabet, even vowels ("Eencey Weencey Spider"), even the letter X:

X, Y and tumbledown Z,

The cat's in the cupboard

And can't see me.

In classrooms, teachers can have their children draw pictures about the stories in the rhymes or make puppets of main characters. Children can act out the rhymes while singing them -- although performing "Jack Be Nimble" with a lighted candle isn't recommended.

They can also learn about telling time ("A Diller, A Dollar," "Hickory, Dickory, Dock") and about counting to 20 ("One, Two, Buckle My Shoe"). Lessons in astronomy are available: What is the first star seen at dusk in "Star Light, Star Bright"?

Some have objected to nursery rhymes because of their sad and violent images. True, Jack did fracture his skull, London Bridge collapsed, Humpty Dumpty fell to a horrible death, Georgie Porgie was a sexual harasser and Ladybug flew home to find her house on fire and her children missing.

But are these images any more sad and violent than those children are exposed to every evening on television?

Another criticism of nursery rhymes is that some of them make no sense.

"That's exactly the point," Griswold says.

Her kindergartners are at the age when their imaginations run amok, and nursery rhymes, with all their silly imagery, are ideal. Kids love them.

Perhaps the all-time classic is "Hey, Diddle, Diddle," a verse that features a cat fiddling, a cow vaulting the moon, a dog laughing and a dish eloping with a spoon -- all in six lines.

Fortunately, Griswold's school, Curtis Bay, is one of 18 in the city and nearly 1,000 nationwide that uses the Core Knowledge Curriculum, a program that specifies the knowledge children need to learn grade by grade. Firmly anchored in the Core Knowledge kindergarten and first-grade curriculum is the nursery rhyme.

E. D. Hirsch Jr., a University of Virginia professor who is the architect of Core Knowledge, writes in "What Your 1st Grader Needs to Know" that nursery rhymes are among the "mystic chords of memory" -- in Abraham Lincoln's words -- that unite us in a common culture.

"We often remember best what we learned first," says Hirsch, author of "Cultural Literacy," a 1989 best seller, "and among the 'mystic chords of memory' few echoes are more vivid than these small fragments of rhyme from our early years."

How terribly sad it would be if we were to lose those fragments.

Kits for preschoolers offer help learning skills

Michigan is handing "reading readiness kits" to all new parents -- about 18,000 each month.

The kits provide written, audio and visual information designed to help preschool children learn the skills they will need to start school.

The program will cost about $15 million, paid for by corporate contributions and state and federal grants.

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