So That One Time, When I Emailed Australia...

I didn't email the entire country of Australia exactly. But I did email the National Library. And then South Africa. But I'm getting ahead of myself...

Several weeks ago, Melissa Depper, of the infamous Mel's Desk, posted about her frustration with Mem Fox's classic Reading Magic. You see, that book does not have footnotes, works cited, acknowledgments, etc. but does include quotes like "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."

Being the good librarian and very curious learner that she is, of course "who are those experts?" and "how did they decide that?" were 2 of the many questions she wished to know.

So she went on a research hunt using Google Scholar and databases and found lots of great things about nursery rhymes, but nothing that seemed to speak to Mem's statement.

She ended her post with "Are you aware of a study like this? Can you put me out of my misery?"

I thought: Challenge accepted! Mel asked me to write the story of the steps I took.

I did probably exactly what Mel did when she started her search: copied and pasted the quote into Google. Wow do people like to quote this statement! Finding the same research studies she did, I thought well, that's it.


Then one of her readers commented about contacting Mem's personal assistant for help. The PA responded saying that Mem didn't have her papers anymore. That got me thinking. Where did the papers go? Why would a super successful author throw away notes and things from a book they presumably researched, especially since it has already been revised/re-released once?

And then I had a thought: what if her papers didn't just go away? What if someone collected them? Lo and behold, her papers were donated to the National Library of Australia, who has a super awesome finding aid you can access online.

So I did what seemed natural: I emailed them through their Ask a Librarian service. After a looooong week of waiting (which they fully prepared me for in their message received confirmation-- thanks!) a librarian there contacted me saying he'd looked through the file I'd mentioned but didn't see anything he thought would be useful.

So again, I thought well, that's it.


In his email he mentioned that he had done a Google search for literacy conferences in the early 90s in South Africa (where Mem claims to have gotten this nugget of information) but didn't return anything promising.

Being that South Africa was in turmoil in the 1980s-early 90s I wondered "how many literacy conferences could there have been, especially ones that would attract international visitors-- even ones raised in Africa?"

So I spent a few hours one night when I should have been sleeping, emailing Mel and reading Mem's "blog" (aka the Hot News link on her website) from the beginning, which btw is August 18th, 1997. Yes. 1997. You see, when Mem talks about her book "Goodnight, Sleep Tight" she mentions that "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!)"

Did you see the inconsistency there? Either the date for the literacy conference is wrong, or the existence of the rhymes was a happy happenstance she later justified with new information. She also claims 6 in this instance, saying she upped it to 7, and then when it appears in the book it is up again to 8 rhymes.

So I kept reading. And then I stumbled upon a post where she says "I had nine days at home between Sleepy Bears and Melbourne/South Africa during which I had to write the speech for the South African conference, ‘Reading for All.’" I thought: Eureka! This must be the break we've been looking for!


But here's what I did find: "The Pan African Reading for All Conference takes place every two years and represents the largest and most prestigious international literacy conference in Africa." Sounds good so far, right? And wouldn't you know the first ever one was held in 1999 in South Africa? And that the entire proceedings from the conference are available in a free, downloadable, massive PDF?

Mel and I really hoped that this would somehow be the missing link. After perusing the proceedings, that direct quote, study, etc. we were hoping to find was not there, but we did get to read a great speech by Mem. :)

I took a stab in the dark and emailed the contact person for the Reading Association of South Africa (RASA) explaining our quandary and inquiring as to whether there was any chance anyone knew of other literacy conferences taking place in the early 90s to corroborate with Mem's statement. That was 3 weeks ago, and I am thinking a response is probably not coming.

At this point, I feel like we have reached the bottom of the well at long last. I think Mel is right when she says that Mem has the general gist. She may have read many of the same studies Mel found from that time period and surmised her own conclusion. Or maybe her and the 270 minds at the Reading for All conference came up with the number by age idea through conversation between sessions. Maybe we'll never know. Maybe a research group is already working on a study to test the "# of nursery rhymes by x age theory" to see if it stands the test of time. Who knows?



  1. You are so cool. Thank you for walking us through all of this! I have loved every step. <3


    I love our storytime community.


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