Nursery Rhymes and Reading Skills

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 (

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:

Phonological Awareness Training: Learning to Read with Nursery Rhymes

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:

Rhymes, Nursery Rhymes, and Reading in Early Childhood.

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?

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40 Responses to Nursery Rhymes and Reading Skills

  1. Time to email Mem Fox!

  2. KathyK says:

    What a great post! You have written an entertaining essay about the curious mind. I know “pursuit of knowledge” is a cliche but the reality of it, as you show here, involves the fun of a mystery (the unanswered question!), and adventure (going where you haven’t gone before, discoveries along the way, an occassional SOS) and the enviable power of self-motivation (finding out is a challenge that you want to meet, it’s personal!) that is the necessary thing that makes learning a joy. All of your posts are top drawer but this one is special. I loved this. Thank you.

  3. Melissa says:

    Kathy, what a great response. You’ve really articulated the rush of trying to figure something out! I’ve been drafting this post as I did the research and really, really wanted to find the right citation and end with a bang, but just couldn’t pull it off–but your comment is reminding me that “big finish” is only part of how and why we learn. Thanks so much. Thanks for reading Mel’s Desk and for this super shout-out. –Melissa

  4. Melissa says:

    LOL Michelle! Do YOU want to take that on for us? 🙂

  5. Nope. After all the research you went through with no absolute answer, I’m sure she would have the same response! 🙂

    Great post, Melissa. I’m actually doing a nursery rhyme theme (again!) for my baby class this fall. I’m glad that people other than myself still recognize the importance and fun of Mother Goose!

  6. Melissa says:

    Oh well it was worth a shot!!! Thanks Michelle, I do Nursery Rhymes a few times a year with my babies. Yay you for promoting Mother Goose!

  7. Mari Nowitz says:

    I’ve been super-curious about that quote, too! I am very impressed with your research, Mel, and I’d be happy to try and contact Mem. I’ll report back if I learn anything!

  8. Melissa says:

    Mari, you are ON! Let us know what you find out! Woot!

  9. Jenny W. says:

    I’m a bit delayed with my response, but I also contacted Mem (actually, her personal assistant) to find out the origin of that statistic. I will also let you know when I hear back. So glad you posted about this, Mel!

  10. Melissa says:

    We are going to be SO INFORMED. Thanks Jenny!

  11. Jenny W. says:

    Mem’s assistant explained that the book was written for a non-academic public 14 or 15 years ago and she no longer has any of the files from it. As you said, Mel, we know (and have scholarly evidence) that nursery rhymes are important for early literacy development, so we’ll just have to stick to explaining that and avoid using Mem’s specific stats. Thanks for your thoughts and research!

  12. Mari Nowitz says:

    Well, I heard back from Mem’s personal assistant. Mem doesn’t have any of her files left from the writing of the book, so she doesn’t have the info to pass along to us. You were right, Michelle! I will still keep my eyes peeled, and if I EVER find the study, paper, or book this quote came from, I promise I will share. 🙂

  13. hew byrd says:

    i also would like to hear the answer to this question. It seems like there are more “experts” than there are proper names.

  14. Great sleuthing!

    Let’s just make ourselves the experts and say that kids should learn 17.5 nursery rhymes to be amazingly awesome. (.5 due to not remembering everything in The House That Jack Built…malt, rat, cat…oh nevermind.)

  15. Amy says:

    So I think Mem doesn’t have her papers because she donated most of them to the National Library of Australia. According to their finding aid, they have a folder that includes papers related to the book. I’ve made an “enquiry” with the library asking for more information about what that includes. 🙂 Can’t hurt to try, right?

  16. Melissa says:

    You are so awesome. I can’t wait to hear back!

  17. Laura says:

    Just sticking my hand up because I reside in Melbourne, Australia – so if you end up needing any legwork done from here let me know! (I am intrigued now too.)

  18. Melissa says:

    Holy cow! What an offer! This is so much fun. We’ll make sure you and Amy connect when she hears back from the National Library! And if she doesn’t, maybe we can try via the legwork method. 🙂 Thank you!!!!!

  19. Amy says:

    @Laura in Melbourne. You are made of so much awesome! I’ll let you all know if/when I hear back!

  20. Lesley says:


    I google this from time to time to. I wonder if you have looked at Mem’s own website though. The number of rhyme Mem quotes varies, so it’s not a set figure. Here is what she writes on her website:

    “Goodnight, Sleep Tight was first published in 1988. It had seven nursery rhymes woven into its structure because I’d heard at a literacy conference in South Africa in the early 90s that children who know six nursery rhymes by heart by the time they’re four are usually in the top reading group at the age of eight. I wanted to make that goal a reality for as many children as possible. (I thought seven rhymes was safer than six!)”

  21. Lesley says:

    Woops, excuse the typos – noisy toddler in the background who is waiting for more nursery rhymes to be read…

  22. Melissa says:

    Wow, now I’m super embarrassed that I didn’t even think to check her site! I guess I figured that if she were going to list sources anywhere, it would be in her book. But this is great–definitely puts a time and place on where she picked up that fact! You’re the BEST. Keep reading those nursery rhymes!

  23. Amy says:

    I just heard back from a very thorough librarian at the National Library in Canberra. Unfortunately, he did not find anything of use in the folder with papers related to her book. If we want to scour the entire collection, one of the Aussies will have to take that challenge on themselves! He also went the extra mile doing a web search for literacy conferences in South Africa in the 90s, but had no success with that route. But I’m sure you all join me in thanking Andrew Sergeant of the National Library for his part in the ongoing search! 🙂

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  25. Melissa says:

    Thank you Amy! This has been so much fun and I am super impressed with Andrew taking the extra step and trying to find that conference. At this point I’m willing to believe there’s nothing in the papers–that the stat was one she heard in a presentation but didn’t ever have a source for. I don’t know how many times that’s happened to me at a conference! What do you guys think?

    In any event, this has been one of my favorite posts and conversations on Mel’s Desk EVER and I am sending each and every one of you virtual cookies from my next batch for being a part of it.

    XOXO Mel

  26. It was an interesting search and her papers were VERY well organised compared to many of those that we get. This made the task easier, and although I didn’t find what we needed, it gave an interesting insight into how Mem goes about her creative work.

    People would be very welcome to visit and look further. The finding aid for her papers is accessible via a link in the catalogue record:

  27. Melissa says:

    Hi Andrew, thanks for visiting the blog! How fun of you to offer us that little insight into her papers. I am SO sure that any files of mine would not be as well organized! Thanks also for the reminder that someone could go by in person and keep looking. Amy has been continuing your search for South African literacy conferences, and she did turn up some proceedings–but from the late 90s, not the early 90s as we’ve heard. We will keep our eyes out!

  28. Victoria says:

    Her personal assistant says, “Mem heard this research information at an international literacy convention in South Africa in the early 1990’s.”

  29. Jane says:

    This is delightful, educational, inspiring and entertaining. We all love our Mother Goose and we’ll keep doing those rhymes. Thanks Mel, your curiosity and focus are inspirational! ~ jane

  30. Melissa says:

    Thanks Jane! How lucky we are to be in such an inspiring profession together!

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  32. Melissa says:

    So you have to read how Amy kept this ball rolling…check out her blog Catch the Possibilities for her report on her research!

  33. Tamsin Grimmer says:

    What an interesting post! I too have been quoting Mem for a while and have tried to find the source of her ‘8 rhymes by the time they’re 4…’ with no luck! As you’ve suggested it’s clear that rhymes are so important for young children and such fun too!

    So thank you Mel,
    you’ve been swell,
    We’ll keep up the rhymes
    For happier times!!!!!

    (Sorry it’s such a rubbish rhyme – but I had to end with a ditty!!!)

  34. Ian says:

    I’ve come to this discussion a year after it started and you may have got your answer by now. But if not, you might want to try:

  35. Melissa says:

    Hi Ian, we kind of collectively agreed that Mem chose the specific number of rhymes she did because she’d heard about the “5-rhyme” research of Bryant and Bradley and thought 8 was a robust number to recommend! I love CELL and visit their site often and love recommending their resources. I did come across that review and it was super helpful. Thanks for making sure we knew about it!

  36. Julie says:

    Hi Melissa
    I came across your blog as I was searching for some background literature on the importance of nursery rhymes in early childhood services. I am an early childhood teacher (aged 43) and have always used nursery rhymes in my programming but have observed that younger educators (aged 20-35) do not (well not in my service). So I am thinking about conducting a research project on nursery rhymes: Nursery Rhymes in early childhood services: Are they a practice of the past, are they relevant in the present and will they be around in the future? I have seen mem fox’s quote before and it has always stuck in my head but I never further investigated it so I thank you for the research you have done which will make my research a little easier 🙂

  37. Melissa says:

    Hi Julie, I do think nursery rhymes are less well known today, for probably a few different reasons. We try to be deliberate about using them in storytimes to keep raising awareness with all caregivers! Can’t wait to hear what your research shows!


  38. Ian Banks says:

    A survey back in 2007 publicised by the UK Guardian newspaper showed that nearly 40% of parents in the UK under the age of 30 couldn’t remember a single nursery rhyme in full. Around the same percentage of all parents said they never sang to their children. And this was before the distraction of smart phones and tablets took off to the extent that they have now… The percentages may differ in other countries but my sense would be that this wouldn’t be uncommon in North America or Australia. So I think the problem is a more general one in the population as a whole and unless younger educators are specifically trained in the value of Nursery Rhymes they are less likely to naturally think of using them.

  39. Melissa says:

    Ian, thanks for this link! I think a lot of us have had the same experience with our library families! It’s another great reason to try to circ the poetry books and song books, since they are another avenue to sharing the rhyming sounds which are so important!

  40. Lana Ray says:

    Well, it is 2020. I am 55, was taught lots of nursery rhymes, used nursery rhymes with my own children, now 25 and 14 years old, and now have granddaughters age 2 & 4, with whom I try to have enough time to share rhymes. So I came here via Google looking for the source of the “learn ___ by age 6,” too. So I really enjoyed all of the posts. I was hoping to find a blurb I could pass along–yep, via text–to the girls’ mom. I almost forwarded the link to this page, but thought better of it. I’ll just send along a box of books!

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