Stories, Rhythm and Learning

Rhythmic Patterns in Stories

This paper reports on an Action Research project carried out in a kindergarten classroom in a private school in the city of Buenos Aires, Argentina, in October 2011. The project involved 25 native Spanish speakers of four years of age, learning English as a foreign language. These English lessons (with the language as the focus of instruction) covered 40 minutes of a three-hour school day, with the rest of the lessons in Spanish. Its aim was to explore whether rhythmic patterns in stories enhance word order production. To narrow the scope, this investigation focused on the oral production of adjective + noun word order, which, in this case, was the opposite to its use in the children’s first language (e.g. “blue horse” would be translated as “caballo azul” (“horse blue”) in Spanish, the modifier occurring after the noun).

This linguistic feature was considered of interest due to its complexity in terms of language transfer occurrences, as the children’s mother tongue interfered with their learning of such a feature in their acquisition of the English language.

Stories, rhythm and learning

Stories are a valuable tool in classrooms of young learners learning a foreign language; more so, some authors suggest, when they involve repeated rhythmic utterances that enable children to grasp the language in a natural way (Brewster et al., 2002).

Cameron (2001) suggests that the built-in repetition of words and phrases is one of the aspects of stories that allow children to learn language in an “incidental” way, defined by Brown (1994: 66) as the “acquisition of linguistic patterns without explicit attention or instruction”. That is to say, as very young learners are not “aware” that they are acquiring a foreign language, through stories, the learning process becomes natural.

Some stories repeat a set phrase with different words added in particular places, which students can then internalise easily and quickly (Roth, 1998). It seems that these patterns, repeated rhythmically, serve as a basic framework of language structure in which lexical elements can be replaced, as in the case of word order (e.g. adjective + noun).

When these rhythmic utterances are continually repeated in the context of a line of events, children can spontaneously interact with the telling of the story, using the language in oral production (Kolsawalla, 1999).

According to the Macmillan English Dictionary (2002) “rhythm” is not only “a regular pattern of sounds or movements” or “a regular pattern of syllables in poetry”, but also “a pattern in an activity that makes it enjoyable to watch or easy to do”.

Many well-known stories used to teach English involve regular rhythmic patterns (like the ones chosen for this investigation), which children seem to naturally pick up (Kolsawalla, 1999). Clark and Clark (in Kolsawalla, 1999) state that “regular articulatory patterns are easier to pronounce than irregular ones”. Not only are rhythmic patterns easier to pronounce, they also provide a predictable framework that can enhance linguistic processing (Kolsawalla, 1999). Kolsawalla (ibid) states that few systematic studies have been made to research this area. As such, this research study follows on from Kolsawalla’s action research (ibid).

The context

The context for this research project was a private Catholic girls’ school in the city of Buenos Aires, Argentina, composed mainly of upper-class families. The 25 female students of four years of age in this kindergarten classroom spoke Spanish as their mother tongue. The teacher was a native English speaker who was also fluent in Spanish. These children had 40-minute English lessons four times a week. Most of them began their English lessons at the same school at the age of three and their exposure to the foreign language was limited, mainly to the school environment.

The four stories

This project involved four lessons, with each lesson focusing on one story, and each story told using a different approach. First, the teacher told a story once and then the children were engaged in a second retelling immediately after, which encouraged participation. The retelling consisted of the children either producing the exact words used in the story or providing their own suggestions to expand on the story, with the purpose of noting whether they were able to produce the correct adjective plus noun word order. This research follows the assumption that in interactive storytelling, rhythmic utterances and the repetition of patterns aid learning (Kolsawalla, 1999). These rhythmic patterns involve the prose being written in rhyme. The rhyme and rhythm of poems, songs and stories provide regular beats, a certain uniform swing, when being read aloud or performed.

As Kolsawalla (1999) states, rhythmic sections in stories are one of the most popular formats of stories and it seems that they lead to “spontaneous joining in” by young learners. Therefore, the four stories chosen contain a similar number of adjective + noun samples. Each was told in a different way so as to add four different variables: two with no rhythmic patterns and two with rhythmic patterns, some with the aid of pictures, acting out the story or using a puppet:

  • The Grouchy Ladybug (by Eric Carle) told with no rhythmic patterns but showing the pictures.
  • Brown Bear, Brown Bear (by Bill Martin Jr.) with rhythmic patterns and showing the children the pictures in the book.
  • I Went Walking (by Sue Williams and Julie Rivas) with rhythmic patterns but without showing the children the pictures – by acting it out without a puppet or any visuals.
  • The Very Busy Spider (by Eric Carle) with no rhythmic patterns and no pictures shown – by acting it out with a puppet.

These stories were chosen because they all include many examples of the structure of adjective-noun word order, which in all cases focus on “colour-animal” (e.g. “red bird”). Due to cross-linguistic transfer from Spanish (word order being the opposite in these children’s mother tongue, e.g. “pájaro rojo” = “bird red”), this structure had been interfering with the children’s acquisition of the linguistic feature in English, becoming explicit in their oral production of the target structure.

Most of the animals and colours in all stories were familiar to the children, to facilitate the production of the animal and colour, and to instead be able to focus on word order. For instance, the rhythmic pattern from “Brown Bear, Brown Bear” is “colour+animal, what do you see? I see a colour+animal looking at me”: “Brown bear, brown bear, what do you see? I see a red bird looking at me. Red bird, red bird what do you see? I see a yellow duck looking at me.”

After each story, the children were asked to help the teacher retell the story by providing a novel adjective + noun word order utterance, e.g. “yellow bee”.

Data collection methods

For the collection of data, three methods were used:

Video recordings of four lessons were carried out by the teacher-researcher. These lessons were delivered as part of the normal everyday class routine so that they did not interfere with the syllabus and were complementary to normal lessons.

Field notes were kept to record general impressionistic views on the students’ language learning and any interesting comments based on observations.

A simple assessment tool was designed as an observation sheet in which each student’s relevant responses was recorded and an analysis of whether the correct word order was used or not was made.

The research questions were: How many adjective-noun responses were produced for each story? How many of these responses were spontaneous and how many were produced with help or as completions of others’ utterances or the teacher’s utterance? How many unsuccessful word order utterances were produced for each story?

The data

The data was measured in percentages and the utterances fell into different categories:

“Spontaneous” response: a student was able to produce the correct word order alone, with no help or clue given by other students or the teacher.

“With help”: a student read the teacher’s lips (as the teacher realised the student needed help to produce the utterance), the structure was provided after the animal and colour was produced separately and the teacher intervened to help with word order by providing the first letter of the structure (“v…”), or the student repeated after the teacher.

“Completion”: responses that came after another student had begun the answer or the teacher had started to answer and the student completed the phrase.

The data was analysed and a histogram was created to identify which story ranked higher and lower in terms of number of correct word order utterances.

Story number 1: The Grouchy Ladybug

The highest number of correct responses of adjective + noun word order were observed in The Grouchy Ladybug story. In this lesson, the pictures in the storybook were shown, but no rhythmic patterns were used. 75 per cent of the responses were spontaneous and the remaining 25 per cent needed help or were completions of others’ utterances. 67 per cent of the responses involved the correct use of adjective + noun word order and the other 33 per cent of the responses did not contain the expected structure. Certain students were even able to produce a whole structure such as “it’s a brown cheetah”.

Moreover, children produced the fewest incorrect answers with this

Story number 4: The Very Busy Spider

In The Very Busy Spider no rhythmic patterns were used, no illustrations were shown, and the story was acted out by the teacher with a puppet. 100 per cent of the responses were spontaneous, with 57 per cent being correct word order responses, 43 per cent of the answers did not include adjective-noun word order and no responses were produced with any type of help. Here, too, answers such as “it’s a green bunny” were achieved.

Story number 2: Brown Bear, Brown Bear

Brown Bear, Brown Bear included both illustrations in the book and rhythmic patterns. Spontaneous responses amounted to 75 per cent and those with help or completions were the remaining 25 per cent. 50 per cent of the responses included the correct word order, 37.5 per cent did not produce the structure, and the remaining 12.5 per cent were able to produce the adjective + noun structure with help. However, certain students were able to produce the whole pattern: “green frog, green frog, what do you see? I see a purple cat looking at me”.

Story number 3: I Went Walking

I Went Walking came last, with the smallest number of correct adjective-noun word order utterances. In this lesson the story was told using rhythmic patterns, with the children being involved in acting out the story, but with no illustrations being shown. The amount of total spontaneous responses was 83 per cent, while the remaining 17 per cent were uttered with help or were completions. 43 per cent of the responses included the use of adjective-noun, 48 per cent did not, and nine per cent required help. Moreover, the children produced more incorrect word order structures than correct utterances (for instance: “a cat pink”).

Analysis

A higher number of correct responses were produced in the stories that did not include rhythmic patterns. Therefore, this finding does not provide evidence to support the idea that the presence of rhyme in the story prose would facilitate correct adjective + noun word order. Many other factors and conditions may have influenced the students’ ease or difficulty in using correct adjective-noun word order:

  • The pictures and colors in one book may have been more attractive than in another.
  • The storytelling techniques used by the teacher may have influenced their understanding and enjoyment of the stories.
  • The use of a puppet may have encouraged the children to answer more or less.
  • One plot may have been more engaging than another.
  • The way the children were involved in the stories when a response was required – interacting physically or visually – may have influenced their answers. This interpretation could also be evidenced in the teacher-researcher’s field notes. Each story seemed to have engaged the children in a different way.

The field notes suggested that:

  • The stories read with illustrations seemed to have been helpful because the colors of the images may have aided production in a visual way.
  • The story which encouraged movement seemed to have engaged children in a physical way (acting out the animals, making animal noises and following the teacher around the classroom), although there was no aid for the production of colors.
  • Children seemed motivated by the appearance of a spider puppet spinning its web in the last story, but again there were no visual images to aid the production of colors.

During the planning stage, the teacher-researcher was concerned that, after the first lesson, the students would have had exposure to the structure, and this factor was expected to influence children’s production in subsequent stories, thus possibly affecting the validity of the data. However, it is surprising that the data does not necessarily reflect better results with subsequent exposure to the structure.

Reflecting on this, it may be possible to infer that there are many other factors apart from exposure alone that influence learning, as argued in Murphy (2014). Furthermore, it may be interesting to note that in all cases except one (the third story, with rhythmic patterns and acted out), there were more successful word order utterances without help than incorrect ones.

Discussion

Although this Action Research project did not furnish conclusive results in showing whether rhythmic patterns in stories enhance acquisition of word order, it has provided some examples of how very young EFL learners are able to produce word order correctly, some alone and some with help, even if it is contrary to their use in their mother tongue.

Each story provided the framework for a repeated structure (adjective + noun) that allowed children to substitute words and share their own contributions to extend the content of a story. Therefore, this project supports the notion that children are able to grasp a given structure and use the framework provided in the story with the purpose of substituting vocabulary (e.g. substitute “black cat” with “brown cat”), personalising (e.g. providing their own contributions and suggestions) and using language creatively (e.g. “multicoloured cat”).

The teacher-researcher’s field notes showed that the children became engaged by the telling of stories and were motivated to produce the language successfully to be able to participate in the process of retelling. The repetitive phrases and the rhythm involved in the telling of the stories invited the children to interact spontaneously, producing the language in a safe context, due to the predictability of the expected utterances, which in turn allowed them to learn the structure “incidentally”, in Brown’s (1994: 66) terms, as opposed to through explicit instruction. It must be considered that this small-scale investigation was limited to a reduced number of students in one school only and in one particular context. This class of 25 female four-year-olds had been having problems acquiring the correct word order structure in the foreign language. Therefore, the teacher carried out this Action Research project with the aim of trying to find ways to aid her students in learning this specific structure.

As Kolsawalla (1999) claims, it may be interesting to carry out other systematic studies to research this area, as there seems to be a lack of research in this field. This is of course only a very narrow analysis of descriptive data in a limited context and no statistical analysis has been carried out so as to furnish more conclusive results.

However, the findings have been helpful for the practising teacher in her specific context, as one of the aims of Action Research is, in Elliott’s (1991) terms, to be a professional development tool that provides practical judgment and enables the teacher to reflect on her practice.

 

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