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Recognizing patterns of rhyme and rhythm in a poem is similar to recognizing patterns in numbers, shapes, or logic. "How do you know a number is divisible by 5?" requires the same kind of thinking—in a way—as "How do you know this is a limerick?"

You have to look at many cases and infer the pattern—the rules that distinguish the ones that fit from the ones that don't. In this case, however, you do it entirely without numbers. This activity may, therefore, attract and excite those students who have yet to find number patterns (such as 5, 10, 15, 20,?) meaningful.

Very young children will recognize that a limerick rhymes. Here's an opportunity to help them discover the limerick rhyme scheme (A-A-B-B-A) by contrasting it with other poems they know, such as nursery rhymes and popular songs.

Middle school students will be able to recognize some metrical properties. While they don't have to distinguish anapests from trochees, they can observe that the "A" lines have three accented syllables and the "B" lines have only two. Allowing students to count the "feet" in other poems will help them recognize and name the metrical patterns they are familiar with.

Besides links with NCTM Standard 2, this activity aligns with different sets of standards for the English language arts. For example, the Virginia Standards of Learning state:
4.6 The student will read a variety of poetry [so that he or she will be able to]:

  • Describe the rhyme scheme (approximate, end, and internal).

  • Identify the sensory words used and their effect on the reader.

  • Write rhymed, unrhymed, and patterned poetry.

Explore word patterns beyond limericks. Look for patterns in any poem you read. Nursery rhymes are appropriate for very young students.

Rhythm and music have patterns, too. See Program I of Math: What's the Big Idea?. Andee Rubin and a guest demonstrate the relationship between "Old MacDonald," "The Hokey-Pokey," algebra, and functions.

Upon reflection, the astute reader will realize that the challenge is finding suitable limericks. A web search for "clean limericks" will be fruitful. Highly recommended is Jed Hartman's column Words & Stuff.

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