Allowing Little Bo Peep and Old King Cole to Enter the Adult ESL/ EFL Classroom [Part One]

Have you ever made use of nursery rhymes and other children’s literature with adult ELLs? It may seem a little strange to ask grown-ups to work with such material, and I don’t recommend heavy doses of it for extended periods of time, but my own use of this genre has always been a positive experience. With teenagers, university students, and older professionals, I’ve shared works by such authors as Shel Silverstein and Maurice Sendak. I’ve also incorporated more than one rhyme in my pronunciation lessons.  Short works, particularly when written in rhyme and/ or with much repetition, lend themselves well to a language lesson, and I’ve explained to adult learners that familiarity with children’s literature provides cultural background. Jokes, advertisements, TV shows, and other common contexts can contain cultural references. Understanding the literature people grew up with can help a language learner understand the mindset and communication of adults in the target culture.

In my next posting I’ll explore the instructional potential of some common nursery rhymes:

  • Little Bo Peep has lost her sheep and can’t tell where to find them. Leave them alone and they’ll come home, wagging their tails behind them.
  • Old King Cole was a merry old soul. A merry old soul was he. He called for his pipe, and he called for his bowl, and he called for his fiddlers three.
  • Peter, Peter, pumpkin-eater had a wife and couldn’t keep her. He put her in a pumpkin shell, and there he kept her very well.
  • Baa baa black sheep, have you any wool? Yes, sir. Yes, sir. Three bags full. One for the master, one for the dame, and one for the little boy who lives down the lane.
  • There was an old woman who lived in a shoe. She had so many children she didn’t know what to do. So she gave them some broth without any bread, then scolded them soundly and sent them to bed.

Until my next posting, give some thought to what you have done or what you might do with the rhymes listed above. Let’s see how many activities we can come up with together.

Peter, Peter, pumpkin-eater
Image from Additional images and nursery rhymes available on

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