To Rime, or Not to Rime?


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After posting my last piece extolling the virtues of rime, I’ve been forwarded critiques suggesting rime awareness is in actuality not all that useful, with links to corresponding research, from a few critical friends on Twitter. Thank you, critical friends!

Like I said in my last post, I’m no reading specialist, just an educator trying to figure this stuff out as best I can so I can better serve and support the Bronx teachers and schools I work with. The schools I mostly work with are the ones with the lowest ELA proficiency rates in the city, and the highest concentrations of students in poverty. The students in my schools need their teachers to teach them how to read the most. The situation is dire, and urgent, and massive. So when I hear challenges to the way I’m developing my understanding of reading, I take them very seriously, because I need to get this right.

Also I want to give a little more context about where I’m coming from: I work with some elementary schools, but the majority of my schools are middle schools, and my background is special education, so my guiding focus tends to be: how do I help students who are struggling the most and who are way, way behind? So the lens I tend to use is looking backward, rather than forward from a preventative preK – 2 stance. This may complicate some of the way I also present what I’m learning. One of the reasons I got so excited about rime is that it seemed like a potential way to begin intervention for students way behind with phonological awareness and orthographic mapping.

One other thing before we look at the critiques: I have been relying heavily on David Kilpatrick’s Equipped for Reading Success manual as a guide, and I don’t want to misrepresent his presentation of the science. He in no way suggests that onset-rime teaching is sufficient — he outlines the importance of letter-sound proficiency and basic phonological awareness before beginning word study activities, and he stress the importance of phonemic awareness as the basis for strong reading throughout. He also notes that his program should be taught alongside of a phonics program.

The Claims Against Rime

OK, let’s get to the criticisms of rime, in order of the published date of the research. First off is a 1997 study, “Phonemic segmentation, not onset-rime segmentation, predicts early reading and spelling skills.” This was shared with me by Jo-Anne Gross, who has warned me against an onset-rime focus since I first tweeted mention of it:

This critique, as in the next study we’ll look at, argues specifically against a theory proposed in the early 1990s by Goswami and Bryant, in which they seemed to echo very strongly the ideas I proposed in my last post:

According to their view, most children are aware of onsets and rimes (e.g., train (/tr/ – /ein/) before they are able to analyse and manipulate words at the level of the phoneme, and awareness of onset and rime is crucial to the very earliest stages of literacy acquisition. Goswami and Bryant argued that children who are able to recognise and categorise words that rhyme are sensitive to the phonological rime unit and this awareness, in turn, phonologically underpins early reading in that it allows children to map between sound and spelling at the level of the rime unit (Goswami, 1993).

Nation, Kate & Hulme, Charles. (1997). Phonemic segmentation, not onset-rime segmentation, predicts early reading and spelling skills

But in this study, they fail to find any correlation between onset-rime segmentation and reading or spelling ability, whereas they found a strong correlation with phonemic segmentation. This suggests that time spent on instruction is best spent on phonemes, rather than on rime units.

I received a similar piece from Miriam Fein that also critiques Goswami and Bryan’s stress on onset-rime importance, this one a meta-analysis from 2002, “Rhyme and reading: a critical review of the research methodology.”

Their review looked for evidence of 3 claims: 1) rhyme awareness is not only related to, but is predictive of reading ability, 2) rhyme awareness affects or determines reading ability, and 3) rhyme awareness leads to phoneme awareness.

It is claim 3 that is most relevant to my last post, since the theory I proposed was that an understanding of rime supports development to the further abstraction of individual phonemes. The author, Macmillan, lays out a few different studies that directly contradict that theory, and much like the conclusion drawn by the 1997 study above, they argue that time is better spent on individual phonemes, rather than rimes.

“Much of this evidence suggests that it is letter-sound teaching, not rhyme or rime instruction, which is responsible for producing phoneme awareness. . . there is no reliable evidence to date that teaching children how to link spoken rhyme segments with printed rime units, or how to use a rime analogy strategy will speed early reading progress over other forms of instruction.”

Macmillan, Bonnie. (2002). Rhyme and reading: a critical review of the research methodology.

The Wind Is Let Out of My Sails . . . BUT

Man. I was so excited to think I was gaining a deeper understanding of phonological awareness, and these two papers really blew a hole in my sail!

Yet. . . that last study was 2002. And there’s a few things still holding me up from jumping on the teaching and assessing onset-rime is a complete waste of time bandwagon just yet.

  1. The PAST assessment of phonological awareness moves from syllable-level, to onset-rime-level, to phoneme-level, and in the assessments I’ve administered thus far, I can witness a clear progression in difficulty as students move up the levels. So if onset-rime awareness isn’t indicative of reading ability, while phonemic awareness is, it still seems to make sense that onset-rime awareness is a progression towards phonemic awareness.
  2. Goswami and Bryant, the originators of the theory on the importance of onset-rime awareness, are still kicking it, and in a 2017 chapter of Reading Acquisition, they state: “Three longitudinal studies have shown a striking relationship between children’s early rhyming skills and their later progress in reading.” (Update 1/1/2020: Sarah Glaser corrected me and noted that this is actually a chapter from 1992, it was just an updated edition. Goswami does have more current stuff, which is fascinating in and of itself, but Tiffany Peltier has also forwarded a long piece by Goswami and Ziegler in 2005 that actually addresses Hulme’s 2002 critique and goes quite in depth. It lays out a theory called “psycholinguistic grain size theory” that is relevant to rime and everything else discussed here. More to come!)
  3. A chapter on spelling instruction and intervention provides an overview of linguistic strategies that seem very closely aligned with David Kilpatrick’s outline in Equipped for Reading Success, and also notes some more recent studies that seem to present some benefit for rime unit instruction when implemented in a specific manner:

This chapter from the 2013 Handbook of Language and Literacy was forwarded to me by Sarah Glaser:

This chapter is available online at ResearchGate. There’s a lot of good stuff in there on the importance of teaching morphology and word study activities that allow students to problem-solve and apply their reading and spelling skills.

They refer to a concept new to me, “mental graphemic representations,” (MGRs) which sounds in their first description disturbingly similar to the idea of “sight words” as whole word memorization. But they then outline a specific form of MGR formation, termed the analogy method, that sounds very closely related to orthographic mapping and the word study strategies Kilpatrick describes. The analogy method:

“. . . is a strategic method for memory of letter combinations within words is the analogy method. This method can be generalized to words that students have not directly memorized and refers to the process of applying MGRs of familiar words to an unknown word that has a similar rime unit. . . . Although this strategy of using analogies requires some phonological awareness in that the rime unit is blended with the onset, the main focus is on the application of the MGR spelling of the rime unit.”

Wolter, Julie & Squires, Katie. (2013). Spelling: Instructional and intervention frameworks.

I also did a quick Google Scholar search for “rime reading” since 2002, and I can say that it looks like there is still healthy debate ongoing between researchers about this.

So I’m not going to rule out the magic of the rime just yet, folks! I’m certainly open to it, and those two aforementioned studies seemed to clearly poke major holes in the way I laid it out, but I’m beginning to think I may have just laid it out too simplistically.

Let me test out another way of saying where the teaching of rime units can fit in:

  • Students need proficiency with letter-sounds
  • Then they need proficiency with basic phonological skills
  • As they begin deepening their phonemic awareness, teach explicit rime units and engage them in word study activities that support their ability to recognize and map those rime units into spelling (analogy method)
  • Work with rime units in this way can support the statistical learning and orthographic mapping process as they encounter new words on their own

OK, that’s where I’m going to leave this for now. I can see myself going down a rabbit hole, so will open it up to other practitioners and any experts who can share their expertise. Please continue to push my thinking, share relevant research, and help me get this clear so I can support clarity in the thinking of others!

And wishing you all a very happy new year, filled with new learning on the science of reading.