Silly Nilly Song to Teach Rhyming

Silly Nilly SongI love gathering inspiration from other music therapists who are working in private practice while also developing their online presence both locally and as a resource worldwide. When free resources are offered, I nearly always sign up for the mailing list so that I can see what others are offering and learn from how others do their marketing.

In this case, my inspiration came from Bonnie Hayhurst, MT-BC who blogs over at the I love the clean look of her site and the creative energy that comes from the work she does on her website and in the community in Hudson, Ohio.


Silly Nilly Song to Teach Literacy Skills

I downloaded “Silly Nilly Shaker Song” and was immediately inspired to adapt the song for my own use. While the original version focused on playing a shaker instrument in a variety of ways (soft/loud, slow/fast), I wanted to use this song in a large group setting with my “Learning and Literacy through Music” intergenerational group in Omro, Wisconsin.

The main focus of Bonnie’s version of the song was to follow the musical directions to play in a variety of ways on the chorus, but I didn’t want the distraction of instruments or to take time to hand out and collect them in this large group setting.

Instead, I changed the verse of the song to intentionally teach the skills of onset-rime blending and phoneme substitution. I used the chorus as a simple movement break and it was a big hit!


Onset-Rime Blending to Create Rhymes

Let’s break this down for a minute and explain in greater detail what I mean by “onset rime blending” and “phoneme substitution.”

The onset is the initial consonant sound of a syllable. The rime is the vowel and all that follows it. In the word “mop,” /m/ is the onset and /op/ is the rime.

Learning to blend an onset with a rime and then swap that initial sound for a new one is how rhymes are created. Start with “mop,” replace the /m/ with a /t/ and you get “top.”

So, even without seeing the word printed, children can say or sing “silly” and then create a new word by taking off the “s” and replacing it with a new letter. Silly becomes billy, tilly, and zilly. When it comes to creating rhymes, it’s perfectly okay to use nonsense words!


Playing With the Sounds of Language

In the early stages of developing phonological awareness, it is all about learning to play with sounds of language.

This song is also an example of phoneme substitution. Phonemes are the smallest sound unit that can change the meaning of a word. The ability to substitute one phoneme with another in order to create a new word is a skill that typically develops around 6 years of age.

In my experience, substituting phonemes in a repetitive, silly-sounding song like the “Silly Nilly Song” is accessible to children at a much younger age. Another example of this is “Silly Name Game,” explained in more detail—and with a free download—here.

For most kids, it seems to be easier to substitute the first phoneme in a word like “silly” than with a traditional CVC (Consonant-Vowel-Consonant) word like “mop.”


Free Resources for You!

If you’re interested in using this song to teach onset-rime blending and phoneme substitution, you can get a free download of the printed music by clicking here.

If you’d like to hear a recording and get a free download of the original version, head on over to www.Groovy and respond to the prompt to “Get a Free Song Album” or click on this link.

Who knows what inspiration will strike!

Learning & Literacy through Music

learning literacy musicConnecting Learning & Literacy

Aside from the fun alliteration of the L’s rolling off the tongue, there is a tremendous connection between literacy and learning. And many opportunities to make community connections—more alliteration!—when literacy is the focus.

In my private practice, I travel a large rural area to see clients primarily in their homes. Six months ago, I connected with the Omro Area Community Center to see if they had space so that a new client could meet me halfway.

They were very welcoming and they have a wonderful historical building that is well suited to the work I do. In meeting with the director to brainstorm some ideas about collaboration, she suggested connecting me with the Director of Curriculum and Instruction for the local school district.

It turns out that the community center has a focus on literacy with a volunteer program called Little Fox Literacy and a partnership with Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, a wonderful community program that puts books in the hands of children.

Most of my current work is one-on-one, but I used to travel to 19 special education classrooms each week and did most of my work in a group setting, seeing more than 200 kids each week.

I missed leading groups and I was itching to try out some of the songs from Alphabet Stew and Chocolate Too: Songs for Developing Phonological Awareness, Literacy and Communication Skills in a community setting, and these new connections turned out to be the perfect opportunity. It turns out that the local elementary school is within walking distance of the community center.

We were able to put together a five week program titled “Learning & Literacy through Music.” The program is being provided in an intergenerational setting with a different classroom each week and as many seniors as we can get to brave the Wisconsin winter weather coming together to connect through music and our love of reading.

Learning & Literacy Program – Week One

rub a friends backOur first group was Mrs. Desch’s kindergarten class from HB Patch Elementary. Following a greeting song which included letter recognition and social interactions (including an impromptu back rub), we sequenced a series of body parts and practiced echo singing with “Song In My Heart.”

We warmed up our brain to recognize rhymes by singing about a snowflake on my “delbow” (elbow), in my “rair” (hair), and on my “welly” (belly). During another rhyming song called the “Silly Name Game,” the kids enjoyed changing my name from Kathy to Pathy, Dathy, and Wathy.  This is a fun way to teach rhyming and also introduces the more complex skill of onset-rime blending.  During this song, we were treated to an impromptu echo song from one of our Seniors called “Little Sir Echo!”

We talked about impulse control during “Blending Compound Words” when kids learned to follow the structure of the music and WAIT until the end to tell us that “jelly” + “bean” = jellybean.

We also practiced syllable deletion with a fun song that told us we had a “birdhouse out back in the shed. Someone took the house, what’s left instead? It’s just a… bird!”

Phonological Awareness

All of these skills—alliteration, rhyming, blending, and segmenting—are important building blocks for learning to read. Before learning to blend individual sounds into words, we need to learn how to do this with larger “chunks” such as syllables and words.

This is called phonological awareness, fancy terminology that means kids are aware of the sounds of speech separate from their meaning. They notice when words start with the same sound (alliteration) and they are aware when they hear words that rhyme. They also understand that sentences are made up of words, words are made up of syllables, and syllables are made of sounds or phonemes.

Many kids pick up by these skills simply by being read to and through “playing with language.” Other kids—especially our strong visual learners and those who have frequent ear infections when they are young—need to be taught these skills very intentionally. The motivating medium of music is the perfect way to accomplish this task!

Closing Connections

To end our program, we sang “The Green Grass Grows All Around” to practice sequencing and to exercise our working memory. We spent about five minutes reading with a friend and ended with every child having a chance to strum the guitar during our goodbye song. On the way out, our Seniors were treated to hugs from the little ones.

We sure can pack a lot into 45 minutes when music helps to keep us on task and focused!

The seniors in our community connected with some of our youngest citizens. And we all had fun connecting through music.

music therapy2016 Social Media Advocacy Project

January brings with it an opportunity—organized by the American Music Therapy Association and the Certification Board for Music Therapists—to advocate for music therapy through social media. Part of this year’s challenge was to comment on my role as a connector. You can read more about this project here.

Sentence Segmentation to Improve Communication – Part 2 of 2

phonological awareness continuum


Visual and Rhythmic Prompt

In part one of this post, you learned how I use echo singing to work on auditory comprehension, turn taking, and keeping a steady beat.  I also briefly introduced a strategy for cuing speech using a dry erase board and dotted sentence segmentation.  Having my client point to each word or the dot under each word as he or she says each word provides a visual for becoming aware of sentence segmentation, develops the speech to print connection, and provides both a tactile and rhythmic prompt for getting the words out successfully.


Gradual Release of Responsibility

The rhythmic echoing and visual with dots under each word is a strategy that I have developed over time as it targets phonological awareness skills as well as provides pacing and a visual focus.  While taking a graduate class at UW-Oshkosh in 2014 — Reading in the Elementary School — I realized that I was following the “Gradual Release of Responsibility” when using this strategy.  It was also during this class that I became aware of how easy it is to constantly “test” rather than “teach” within the structure of a session.

Gradual Release of Responsibility is an educational model that has been adopted by several schools in my area.  As far as I can tell, it originated in a 1983 manuscript by Pearson and Gallagher, available as a pdf download through Google Scholar.  In more recent years, Fischer and Frey have published a book on the topic and several others have presented on a similar model using different terminology.


Testing or Teaching

One of points that stuck with me during the grad class is that the number one thing new educators need to overcome is their tendency to “test” rather than “teach.”  I found that I could relate to this in my one-on-one clinical work, as I was often taking data (i.e. how many times was the child successful out of five attempts) to measure progress.  Granted, I also gave a variety of prompts, but it often felt like I was hoping to see if they’d get it on their own, and if not, then I would provide the least intrusive prompt.

With more of a teaching mindset, I find myself modeling exactly what I want them to do first and then gradually fading the prompts as they become successful.  It is significantly more effective to teach the skills and provide supports with a gradual move toward independence.

In a classroom, this might look more like:

A focus lesson  —  “I do it”
Guided Instruction  —  “We do it”
Collaborative  —  “You do it together”
Independent  —  “You do it alone”

In a one-on-one setting, it may look like this:

Demonstration  —  “I Do, You Watch”
Shared Demonstration — “I Do, You Help”
Guided Practice —  “You Do, I Help”
Independent Practice —  “You Do, I Watch”

These are the phrases used in the published literature and in the published visuals you will find if you google “Gradual Release of Responsibility.”  Teachers in the classroom are being instructed to use these phrases while teaching so that kids know what is expected of them.


Gradual Release of Responsibility — Adapted

In my work with kids on the autism spectrum, I find that the heavy use of pronouns is confusing.  If I say “I do, you watch,” I can’t be certain that child isn’t thinking that “I” refers to him or herself.  For those clients that benefit from the structure of knowing what to expect, I label the process as:

Shared Practice
Independent Practice

If we are working on a math skill, my clients on the spectrum experience less anxiety and know exactly what to expect if they know that I will “model” two problems, we will do two problems together with “shared practice,” and then they will be asked to do two problems independently.  We use the term “shared practice” and talk about how practice means we are learning a new skill and it’s okay to make mistakes or ask for help if needed.graudal release of responsibility

Where is the Music?

You may be wondering where the music is?  This is supposed to be music therapy, right?  There are many components of music that can be manipulated to create a successful learning experience — melody, rhythm, accompaniment, timbre, volume, and tempo.  I find that a rhythmic prompt (without a melody or singing) is sometimes the most effective in a one-on-one teaching situation.


In Summary

The structure of turn taking and rhythmic call and response is a skill which will be extremely useful as literacy skills continue to develop.  Entraining to a steady beat results in improved connectivity for kids on the autism spectrum and provides focus and a template for a response for all kids.

Combining this turn taking skill with what has become known as the “gradual release of responsibility” is an extremely effective way to target literacy skills.

Using turn taking, rhythmic cues, and intentional teaching with a gradual release of responsibility are all strategies that will help a child learn the skill of sentence segmentation.

Learning to attend to larger “chunks” (i.e. words) will set the foundation for later being able to manipulate the smaller “chunks” of syllables and phonemes.  And that, my friends, will lead to successful readers and communicators in life!


Fischer, D., & Frey, N.  (2008).  Better Learning Through Structured Teaching:  A Framework for the Gradual Release of Responsibility.  Alexandria, VA:  Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

LaGasse, A. B.  (2013).  Influence of an external rhythm on oral motor control in children
and adults.  Journal of Music Therapy, 50(1), 6-24.

Pearson, P.D. and Gallagher, M.C.  (1983).  “The Instruction of Reading Comprehension,”  Contemporary Educational Psychology, 8, 317-344.

Sentence Segmentation to Improve Communication – Part 1 of 2


phonological awareness developmental continuum



Echo Singing or Chanting

One of the skills I almost always include in both one-on-one and group music therapy sessions with young children is an echo song or rhythmic exchange.  During this type of intervention, the following areas in the Phonological Awareness Developmental Continuum are targeted simultaneously:  Listening Games, Beat Competence (ability to keep a steady beat), Auditory Discrimination, and Sound Matching.  It is also a preparatory skill that will improve focus and help with academic learning during all stages of a child’s education.

In the downloadable FREEBIE for a simple echo experience available at the bottom of this post, I use the lyrics of “I sing, you sing, my turn first.”  A variation of this is “My turn, your turn, listen to me first.”  I recently have experienced success using this variation and the skill of sentence segmentation to improve communication abilities for a little girl who just turned six.

With Emma (not her real name), we focus on echoing a sequence of 3 body parts including the verbal label and touching the body part at the start of each session.  We have been working on this for quite a while.  Originally, if I said, “knees–knees–tummy,” she would often repeat as “knees–knees–knees–tummy–tummy” or some other variation.  As she has become more accurate in her ability to echo accurately, I have seen improvement in other goal areas.


Sentence Segmentation as a Visual and Rhythmic Prompt

sentence segmentationWhen Emma takes her turn being the leader, rather than saying, “My turn, your turn, listen to me first,” she will usually say, “Myturn, listen me first.”  That’s not a typo, as I recently discovered that for Emma, “my turn” was one word.

To get Emma to produce all eight words, I wrote the words on a dry erase board with dots under each word.  In my charting after each session, I refer to this strategy as “Dotted Sentence Segmentation.”  To practice left to right directionality and the return sweep (moving from the end of the first line to the beginning of the second line), I make a point of writing the text as two lines.


Gradual Release of Responsibility

We then used a strategy of fading prompts that I recently realized meets the criteria for using the “Gradual Release of Responsibility.”  It is fun to have a functional example of what that means, as Gradual Release of Responsibility is currently in “vogue” when it comes to educational verbiage.  But when it comes down to it, what really matters is that it works!

Here are the specific steps:

Step 1)  I model the sentence slowly and clearly while pointing to each word.

Step 2)  I point to each word but wait for Emma to repeat each word before moving on the next one.

Step 3)  Emma points to each word while I read the words one at a time and wait for her to repeat each word.

Step 4)  Emma reads the sentence independently while pointing.

Step 5)  Emma says the sentence within the context of our echo game without the visual.


Rhythmic and Visual Cues to Increase Sentence Length

Of course, Emma is not truly “reading” at this point.  Although she has picked up some sight words and does attend to the clues provided by the first letter of each word, she has essentially memorized what we rehearsed.

In the process, however, she has developed a very clear understanding of sentence segmentation — essentially, the awareness that a sentence can be segmented into words.  AND the visual and rhythmic cues help significantly with her ability to clearly enunciate a complete sentence.

More about intentional teaching and the gradual release of responsibility in my next post!


Oh, and don’t forget to click here for your freebie — a pdf download of a simple Echo Experience!

Read part 2 of this post here.

Recipe for Reading Success

literacy through music phonological awarenessI’ve been thinking lately about what it takes to raise a successful reader.  My oldest daughter, now 12, was reading Boxcar Children when she entered Kindergarten.  The reading specialist who tested her reading level was amazed at her ability to read with expression.

My middle child, also a girl, was reading before she entered school, but not at the same level as her big sister.  Her reading abilities took off in 3rd grade and now (in 4th grade), she is clearly an advanced reader.

My youngest, an 8 year old boy, wasn’t reading when he entered school.  Now in 2nd grade, he is making quick gains and has just recently started reading for long periods of time without being prompted by mom.  Watching him read for fun and learning brings much joy to this mama’s heart!

The difference?  Of course, genetics and individualized personalities, but I’m also convinced that the main thing that made a tremendous impact on my oldest daughter’s development was this:  2 books and 2 songs at every single naptime and bedtime.  Our tradition was for us each to choose a song and a book.

I read and sang with all of my children, but not with the consistency that I did with my oldest.  This is what it takes to raise a reader:  consistent modeling by a fluent reader, the resulting discussions that build comprehension and schema, and the fun of playing with language throughout the day (rhyming, alliteration, and more).  That “playing with language” bit — which results in phonological awareness —  is easy to accomplish for most children by simply reading high quality books and by singing with your child!

The “secret” ingredient for reading success isn’t really a secret at all.  It’s the development of phonological awareness.

Phonological awareness is the understanding that spoken words are made up of individual sounds. These sounds can be pulled apart and blended back together again or manipulated to create new words.

For approximately two-thirds of all children, phonological awareness and the ability to read develops by osmosis.  Kids are exposed to books, modeling of fluent reading, lots of rhyming and “word play” and they start to read, almost as if by magic — or so it seems.

But, what about those kids who won’t sit still while a parent or caregiver reads a book?  What about those kids who have frequent ear infections and are not hearing a clear signal?  What about kids on the autism spectrum who are often so focused on the visual images that their brains don’t process the auditory input.

In many situations, kids that will not sit still for a book to be read out loud to them will sit for the duration of a book that is put to music.  Start with a recording as these kids will often respond to the consistent structure of a defined beginning and end.

After this becomes part of your daily routine, try the same book sung without the recording.  Introduce more music-based books, some with recorded music and some sung a cappella.  This is a HUGE step in the right direction, but is often not enough for development of phonological awareness.

For these reluctant readers, the skill of phonological awareness often needs to be explicitly taught in a step-by-step concrete manner.  That is the topic of Alphabet Stew and Chocolate Too:  Songs for Developing Literacy, Phonological Awareness, and Communication Skills available here.  This book includes 70 songs, intervention ideas, and visuals for teaching the following skills:

    • left to right directionality
    • rhyming
    • sound matching
    • segmentation and blending
    • speech-to-print
    • sight words
    • inflection
    • reading comprehension

If you have a child or client who is a struggling reader, the interventions in this book may be the “secret ingredient” you need to give the gift of literacy to all children.

Rhythm, Rhyme & Repetition – Part 2 of 2

phonological awareness development

As promised in my previous post, it’s time to delve further into the topic of rhyming. We learned last time that the onset is the first sound in a one syllable word and all that follows it is a rime. Nope, that’s not a typo.

Rimes are sometimes referred to as word families and are important patterns for kids to recognize when learning to read. A critical step prior to learning these patterns by sight, however, is to play with the sounds of language by manipulating these “word chunks” to verbally create rhyming words.

There are multiple skill levels for rhyme: rhyme recognition, rhyme judgment, rhyme oddity, rhyme completion and rhyme production. The ability to recognize rhymes, an auditory skill, has been successfully taught by initially involving a series of visual cues structured with the motivating medium of music.

The following video clip shows a 4 1/2 year old boy with autism spectrum disorder. Nine months prior to this video, Spencer started receiving individual music therapy twice a week. At that point, he was just starting to use language. In the initial assessment and early weeks of therapy, Spencer inconsistently spoke very quietly in one to two word phrases but only when cued.

Around the age of four, he demonstrated the ability to read. In the video clip, you will see him learning to recognize rhyming words. Initially, we rehearsed a series of rhyming words with the rime printed in red. rhyming visual


At the point of this video, the words are being shown to Spencer in black print and he is being asked to provide the rime. rhyming visual black



The music provides a focus and improves Spencer’s ability to attend to the task. The inherent rhythm of the melody and the guitar accompaniment provide a template for a response and the anticipatory nature of rhythm creates predictability.

Research has clearly established that entrainment can be utilized to improve gait and other gross motor skills. Evidence suggests that brain waves and oral motor skills can also be coordinated with an external rhythm due to the synchronized firing of neurons (LaGasse, 2013).

Another benefit to structuring learning through music is that more repetitions are possible without losing the child’s attention.

Imagine giving verbal directives for a child to touch 22 body parts in the span of approximately 30 seconds. It becomes a bit monotonous for the child and the teacher. Try this with a simple song like “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes” and you have an enjoyable context for repetition.

The more that a skill is repeated, the more dense the myelination of axons and the quicker the recall of information.

It is important for you to know that following the step shown in the video clip, we rehearsed all sixty rime sets without any visual cue.

With scaffolding and fading prompts, Spencer was able to tune in to the auditory sounds and not rely on the visual cue of the printed word. Soon after, his ability to spontaneously generate rhyming words started to develop.

If our little students learn to rhyme and manipulate the sounds of language in early childhood, they will experience more success in their ability to read and communicate throughout life. Teaching these skills through music and rhythm make them truly accessible for all learners.


 A slightly revised version of this article was recently published as a podcast in imagine, an online magazine with a mission to share “evidence-based information and trends related to early childhood music therapy.”  If you prefer to hear an audio version of this article, you can listen to it here.


learn rhyme recognition with musicClick here for a FREE Rhyming Song — “Spider On My Delbow” is a super fun and slightly spooky song that can be easily adapted for any time of the year.





References and Recommended Resources:

Gillon, G. T. (2004). Phonological Awareness: From Research to Practice. New York,
NY: The Guilford Press.

LaGasse, A. B. (2013). Influence of an external rhythm on oral motor control in children
and adults. Journal of Music Therapy, 50(1), 6-24.

Newman, T. M., Macomber, D., Naples, A., Babitz, T., Volkmar, F., & Grigorenko, E. L.
(2007). Hyperlexia in children with autism spectrum disorders. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 37, 760-774.

Phillips, B. M., Clancy-Menchetti, J. C., & Lonigan, C. J. (2008). Successful
phonological awareness instruction with preschool children. Topics in Early Childhood Special Education, 28(1), 3-17.

Schumacher, K. (2013). Alphabet Stew and Chocolate Too: Songs for Developing Phonological Awareness, Literacy, and Communication Skills. Available from