Using nursery rhymes to search for meanings

Marianne Kimura, Tsukuba Daigaku

Quick Guide

Key Words: Interpretation, nursery rhyme, meaning
Learner English Level: Intermediate and higher
Learner Maturity Level: High school and college
Preparation Time: Moderate
Activity Time: Depends on number of nursery rhymes selected
Materials: Copies of selected nursery rhymes for each student

Students are so used to using dictionaries to check definitions of words that they can sometimes think of language as something to be simply "defined" in a narrow sense. This exercise helps them to see the rich layers of meaning which make literature a kind of prism with many meanings possible depending on how you look at it. Also, the assignment to view the poems through the eyes of a small child may help them to see language as part of a broader cultural context. Since nursery rhymes are quite old, students may also gain a historical perspective of language.


Step 1: Students and instructor read Humpty Dumpty together from handouts or the blackboard.

Step 2: The instructor talks for a few minutes about the basic plot of the poem including the fact that Humpty Dumpty is often portrayed as an egg, and the obvious age of the poem—horses were still in use; kings were powerful.

Step 3: The instructor explains that nursery rhymes are often read aloud to children, then asks, What could a small child learn from hearing this rhyme? Usually no one will grasp the concept of interpretation yet, so the instructor may hint that the lessons in nursery rhymes are so basic that adults take them for granted, and can thus miss them easily. The instructor defines the word interpretation, either verbally, or by writing it on the board. Depending on the class, a student may volunteer the answer at this point, or the instructor may need to explain the interpretation—some problems can't be fixed or solved no matter how much power and influence is brought to bear.

Step 4: The instructor hands out copies of the other nursery rhymes, and students divide up into groups of two, three, or four.

Step 5: The instructor asks the students to read each nursery rhyme and consider the question, What might a young child learn from this nursery rhyme? Groups are requested to discuss the nursery rhymes, and their interpretations, in English, and to write their conclusions on paper. The instructor tells the students that nursery rhymes may carry more than one message or interpretation, so that groups may list as many interpretations as they can come up with.

Step 6: The instructor circulates and monitors the progress of the groups. As there is no "one" right answer, but rather a few (or many!) possibilities for each nursery rhyme, the activity provides a chance for the students and teacher to engage together in a real search for meaning, using the target language as a medium.

Step 7: Students present their interpretations on the blackboard. Groups may explain their thoughts and compare them with those presented by other groups.


This activity occurred to me after I asked some graduate students in a class I was teaching at Tsukuba University to use excerpts from Bettelheim (1989) to interpret Japanese fairytales, such as Momotaro, using Fairytale Interpretation Methodology. I wanted to give my undergraduate students a similarly valuable interpretive experience, yet I knew that the much larger undergraduate classes and the overall lower level of language made using excerpts from Bettelheim (1989), and thus fairy tales, difficult. I decided to turn to other, simpler, shorter forms of literature which had also been passed down as part of an oral tradition, in hopes that these, too, might carry some "overt and covert meanings" (Bettelheim, 1989, p. 5) and "important messages"(Bettelheim, 1989, p.6).

Mother Goose, participating in the rich world of received folk wisdom, seemed to fit the bill. I noted that Humpty Dumpty could be read, for example, as a valuable lesson to children about the irremediable nature of some problems. I selected five or six other nursery rhymes which seemed to carry important underlying (but basic) messages about, for example, life, language, nature, and physical properties of things, which would be useful for small children. I used The Arnold Lobel Book of Mother Goose because of its witty, apt illustrations that appeal to all ages and copies very well in black and white. Please ensure that you honor copyright agreements when using printed or electronic sources. Details of the rhymes I used are presented in Appendix 1.


Bettelheim, B. (1989). The uses of enchantment. New York: Random House.
Lobel, A. (1986). The Arnold Lobel book of Mother Goose: A treasury of more than 300 classic nursery rhymes. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Appendix 1

Nursery rhymes useful for interpretation.

Page Number Name of Rhyme What it teaches
53 For Want of a Nail cause and effect
53 How Much Wood Would a Woodchuck Chuck language complexity through language play
88 The Man in the Wilderness origins of plants and animals used as food; desirability of wit and humor; other interpretations possible
97 Solomon Grundy birth-death cycle of life; days of week; renewal through subsequent generations being born
113 Rich Man, Poor Man possible jobs or paths in life, that these are to be chosen