It is important to reinforce the skill of rhyming with your child as you move through their early learning-to-read process. You can work on rhyming before they have any letter recognition at all, just using objects around your home and asking whether they recognize if two things rhyme (for example, “Does hat rhyme with cat?”). Repeat the words several times to help encourage the recognition of the rhyme (“Cat, hat, they sound alike, right?”). This will be easier than asking them to generate a rhyme (“What rhymes with hat?”). Get in the habit of asking them if two words rhyme and then helping them generate rhymes (“What rhymes with dog?” “Does log rhyme with dog?”). You can also show them pictures of items that rhyme, and then say the words that represent the pictures, helping them understand that those two words rhyme (show them a picture of a cat and a picture of a hat, say, “cat,” and “hat,” and tell/ask your child whether these rhyme).
The value of learning rhymes is that it provides a deeper understanding of how words are constructed and gives children a short cut when they are reading. As we talked about with word families, words that rhyme are spelled alike (for example, in the -at word family, all the words have the same last two letters). When children can already decode the -at part of a word, they have a short cut to reading the whole word, because they just have to blend the initial letter with the -at sound (c + -at = cat).
As children continue to read, they will recognize more patterns between words, which will increase their fluency so they can read more quickly. If they see a word that ends with -an and then a moment later see another word that ends with -an, they will know these words rhyme, make the same sound, and end the word in the same way. This is a remarkable amount of help to them, so they do not need to decode every word from scratch each time they come to it.
To practice recognizing words that rhyme, use the game of Memory: find pictures of rhyming objects online or draw rhyming objects, and make one card for each rhyming pair. So you would have a picture of a bat and a picture of a cat, and then a picture of a cake and a picture of a rake, etc. Use at least five rhyming pairs, place the pictures face down, and then play the game of Memory. Once they have the hang of that, switch over to rhyming words instead of the pictures, by writing the words that rhyme on the cards. Make sure to use simple rhyming patterns to start, like taking two words out of each of the word families (mug and bug, cat and hat, log and dog, etc.). They might actually find the rhyming words easier than the pictures, because they can visually see that the words rhyme because they have the same ending (if two cards both end in -an then they rhyme). Even if this seems easy for them, it is reinforcing the idea that when they come across words with the same ending when they are reading, they can use that shortcut to help them decode more quickly. They will quickly learn to recognize words that end in -an, -at, etc. with this repeated practice.
You can also use Hot Potato again, and toss the potato back and forth as you generate words that rhyme (cake, bake, rake, etc.). This will help reinforce the auditory element of rhyming. One thing that you will notice when your child generates rhymes out loud is that they will come up with words that rhyme but do not have the same spelling. This is especially the case with the way the English language uses vowels in so many ways to spell words. For example, bear and bare rhyme, and actually sound like the same word (they are homophones), but use two different vowel rules. We will talk more about vowel pairs (like bear) and Magic E (like bare) in blog number seven. At this point, don’t worry about correcting your child to make sure they are getting the correct spelling of words. It’s okay if two words rhyme but don’t look alike. This is something they are going to have to get use to as they progress in their reading skills.
Rhyming Words Dominoes is a great activity for learning rhyming pairs through pictures and words (you can purchase it here). It is a game which allows your child to learn rhyming by matching rhyming pictures or by matching rhyming words, so you have two levels of difficulty in the same game. With the rhyming words, there are spelling variations like sea and knee or head and red. This works well in a group game or with just you and your child, and reinforces all of these skills very well.
Working on rhyming is a great opportunity to reinforce the idea that every rule is meant to be broken. Once they get the hang of the idea that words that have the same endings sound alike, they need to see variations in spelling so they can learn other patterns in words. A great book for this is See You Later Alligator… by Barbara Strauss and Helen Friedland. This book has rhyming sentences with many words that rhyme but are not spelled alike, such as towel and owl, honey and bunny, laughs and giraffes, pillow and armadillo, and skis and fleas. All of these rhyming pairs have different patterns that your child needs to get used to as they progress in their reading skills. The more exposure they get to spelling variations, the more they will be comfortable with new words as they move along in their reading. Additionally, this will also help them as they move into writing, because they will retain many rules and have more flexibility in their understanding of spelling.