I have long been frustrated by this quote in Mem Fox’s book Reading Magic: “Experts in literacy and child development have discovered that if children know eight nursery rhymes by heart by the time they’re four years old, they’re usually among the best readers by the time they’re eight.”
Because, you know, she doesn’t cite her sources, and there’s no bibliography, and of course what I want to know is WHEN and WHICH EXPERTS and HOW BIG WAS THE STUDY and WHAT’S UP WITH THAT SUPER SPECIFIC NUMBER OF RHYMES?
From time to time I Google it, trying to find the grain of sand I need to put into the databases’ clam shells and fish out a pearl.
Guess what? This time I got really, really close…and STILL couldn’t figure it out.
In the past, in addition to other strategies, I know I tried searching on phrases using the number 8…”8 nursery rhymes” or “8 Mother Goose” or “learning 8 rhymes” and I kept coming back to Mem Fox, but couldn’t get any further.
This time I searched “benefits of learning nursery rhymes” (did I do this before? who knows?) and came across a couple of nice articles:
The Surprising Meaning and Benefit of Nursery Rhymes (PBS Parents)
The Benefit of Rhymes (Bookstart.org)
Interestingly, the second article mentioned the authors I wound up with, but since it talks specifically about the ability to detect rhymes, and not necessarily the effect of learning nursery rhymes, I kept going.
And then on the second page of search results, I found this:
Which is a sample of a curriculum by Jo Wilson. In her introduction she says,
In the early 80’s Bryant and Bradley found that pre-schoolers who were given ‘nursery rhyme training’ subsequently made significantly greater progress with early reading skills than children who did not receive the training. Later work by Maclean, Bradley and Bryant (1987) found that these findings held even when influences such as intelligence, parents’ education and social class were taken account of.
But of course since this is a sample, there’s no works cited page.
But I took “Maclean, Bradley and Bryant (1987)” into Google Scholar, where I found a study that DID cite its sources: Shared Reading Correlates of Early Reading Skills, which gave me the name of this article:
In the abstract, which I found on JSTOR, the authors write
A strong, highly specific relationship was found between knowledge of nursery rhymes, and the development of phonological skills, which remained significant when differences in IQ and social background were controlled.
Unfortunately, once I ILL’d and read the whole report, I realized this wasn’t the source of Fox’s “8 nursery rhymes” tidbit, because the authors only looked for preschoolers’ knowledge of 5 rhymes. However, Bryant and Bradley continued their research and later wrote Nursery Rhymes, Phonological Skills, and Reading.
I got ahold of that one too–but it was a continuation of their earlier study, so more data over time, but same number of nursery rhymes.
So I’m still stumped! I have read sources and citations at the end of other articles, dissertations, and papers, surfed in ERIC and Wilson and a few other basic academic databases, looking for a study about nursery rhymes and reading readiness that would have been published before Mem Fox wrote Reading Magic in 2001…and I can’t find it. Bryant and Bradley are the names that keep coming up, but I can’t see if they continued their research into the 90s. (The revised edition of Reading Magic doesn’t have a bibliography either.)
It’s pretty clear, though, that having a working knowledge of nursery rhymes does have a positive impact on a child’s reading skills. For instance, the great Center for Early Literacy Learning published a research synthesis in 2011 called Relationship Between Young Children’s Nursery Rhyme Experiences and Knowledge and Phonological and Print-Related Abilities that reviewed 12 studies. It’s a cogent short overview and has two pages of citations if you want to keep reading. They say,
Results showed that the nursery rhyme measures were related to both phonological- and print-related literacy outcomes, and that nursery rhyme experiences and knowledge proved to be the best predictors of the study outcomes. The findings provide support for a relationship between young children’s nursery rhyme abilities and their phonological- and print-related skills, including emergent reading.
So, Mem Fox is right, in general, but I knew that going in–that exposure to rhyming words and games does help build a child’s phonological awareness, and through that, his or her pre-reading skills. But my admittedly seriously rusty research skills can not turn up a study that would have given her the idea to quote those specifics of 8 nursery rhymes by 4 years of age.
Are you aware of a study like this? Can you put me out of my misery?