Thursday, September 26, 2013

Prescriptions for Literacy: An Unsolicited Rant


“If children know six nursery rhymes by age four, they are more likely to be in the top reading group at school by age eight.”
“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”
These are two quotes attributed to Mem Fox. That is each quote in its entirety. They both get at the same thing, but have different ages and different numbers of rhymes. And, there is no citation

These are the things that keep people like me, Amy at Catch the Possibilities, and Mel at Mel’s Desk awake at night. Probably because I found a great cohort of nerds that I have the pleasure of talking shop with at all times. In case you’ve ever wondered what my Twitter feed is all about, it’s mostly discussions that lead to rants like the one you’re reading right now. You're welcome.

"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?"--Mel

Here’s my take on it: I have no doubt that Mem Fox heard someone say this at a conference (a conference that Amy pored over in a research post that puts any I've ever done to shame). Experts say a lot of things, many of them not a direct result of scientific studies (because this would take too long, and what parent is like, “totally, experiment on my kid in his/her formative years”?). These recommendations were probably scientifically based rather than scientifically proven, which is how a lot of literacy professional development comes about. And actually, they’re called “implications” because, you know, less commitment. Researchers do literature reviews of a few different studies, put them in a blender, and draw a new conclusion.

Doing this is definitely not without merit. In fact, that’s how the National Reading Panel recommendations and Every Child Ready to Read both came about, drawing from the same pool of literacy research that already existed. The problem with this is when the results become a prescription to be used exactly as written rather than a suggestion that’s malleable to fit the kids you work with.

In the spirit of scientific basis, Mel has a great list of resources about learning rhymes that back up the above claims by Mem Fox. And I agree, song is a great language and literacy builder for reasons Mel mentioned and it’s why storytimes usually have a song in them. My beef is with the numbers and the specificity of the claims.

And because of a convenience known as Source Amnesia, as Amy pointed out when following up on Mel’s post, one of the phrases she’s most known for, she has absolutely zero proof of backing up. Oh, also she gets the credit. Nice.

I really don’t mean to focus this rant on Mem Fox, because there are many other well-known people making Prescriptions for Literacy, and many are making money off of them. If you’ve ever watched a 3rd grade classroom literally mark all 70 phonograms in their spelling words (I have, and it’s not pretty), you know that Prescriptions for Literacy seem to be the norm and not the exception. As a literacy scholar who has devoted over one third of her life to literacy accessibility and differentiation through science, this is troubling. It seems, however, to be improving through a variety of blogs that give suggestions the time they deserve.

Here’s the problem, as I see it, with

Prescriptions for Literacy

1. Prescriptions are too specific.

Let’s use the example of nursery rhymes, since this is our shared experience. Nursery rhymes are great for intergenerational bonding, but any songs will help children with phonemic awareness, prosody and making predictions. I would personally argue that this includes any songs a kid likes, since “children’s experiences with popular media… are an integral aspect of contemporary childhoods, not an external threat.” I mean seriously, a favorite song among the Voluntary Pre-K (and all kids) at the school I was working at in 2005 was “Laffy Taffy” by D4L, which most assumed was literally about candy. And though I wouldn’t use non-kid-oriented music with children who weren’t mine, repeated interaction with songs like this one could serve the same purpose as nursery rhymes at home.

I have a firm belief in all homes to produce great readers, whether or not they know Who the Hell Little Bo Peep is or if they want to share with their little ones the horrors of nursery rhymes. There are some things they need, like some form of language-rich interaction with the adults in their lives. But unless there’s an actual study backing it up (like this one about minutes of leisure reading every day), you can’t just say that some amount of something will help versus any other amount, and it has to be a specific something or you’re not doing it right.

2. Prescriptions deny our power as deliberate practitioners.

If you get nothing else from my many blogs on it, I hope you get that I need to know why I’m doing what I’m doing.

Mem Fox goes beyond prescription and into dogma, with her Ten-Read Aloud Commandments: "Children need to learn 1000 stories before they begin to learn to read." This is equally specific and unhelpful. True, sharing stories with your child is great, but the interaction is the key. Memorization of stories does not guarantee meaningful learning, and to keep children from other aspects of language development before they hear 1000 stories is a disservice to them. When do kids start building their brains to be reading ready? At birth. Maybe before that.

The thing is, as practitioners we need the behind-the-scenes DVD-commentary of literacy. We need to be the expert who brings literacy to our communities. The aforementioned "commandment" sent many librarians on a wild grant writing goose chase that now ends at my blog. That post is has been viewed, at present, a hundred times more than, for instance, this "review" of a Bunnicula book. And I’m not going to assume that 3,000 libraries have started a 1,000 Books program since I wrote that post last summer. It’s viewed so much because we are practitioners who deserve to be empowered by quenching our thirst for knowledge. Because, as professionals, to hear about something sparks an interest, but to internalize a philosophy we have to authenticate it and learn about it meaningfully.

Because brains are awesome.
And so are you.


  1. Alright, that's what I'm talkin' about. Thanks for reeling us in and getting our minds flushed for better thinking!

  2. Thank God I hang around with people smarter than me.

  3. OMG Sing it, sister! You are so incredibly awesome and right on! We've got to get this to all the people.

  4. Please don't take away my MLS but...I don't really like nursery rhymes and I almost never use them. Granted, I do preschool storytimes, not babies or toddlers, but I just never could get into them. And I always wondered - why only English nursery rhymes? What does Bo-Peep have that makes her so dang superior?

    Nursery stories are different. We rocked the house with my fractured Gingerbread Boy today - folktales with STEM, yay me!

  5. My 3yo doesn't know "Itsy Bitsy Spider", but she knows all the words to "Wasn't That a Party". Does that count? Come to think of it, the 'traditional' rhymes we do sing tend to get reworded. A favorite bedtime song:
    "Twinkle, twinkle, little turd,
    such a butt you are, I've heard.
    Dimples, curls, and impish grin,
    Mommy knows she just can't win.
    Twinkle, twinkle, little turd,
    such a butt you are, I've heard."

  6. Ami, I LOVE that rhyme!

    Just wanted to take a second to tell you all how much I appreciate the shares and positive comments I've gotten on this post. It means so much to me!