Challenging Early Learning Discourse: Why Mothers Can Skip Their 20 Minutes of Reading Tonight

By Amber Spears and Dr. Janet Isbell


This paper describes a critical and poststructural feminist study that examined how mothers of young children internalized dominant discourses about children’s literacy development and acquisition. The researcher challenged the concept of the school-ready child as the ideal child in an effort to help mothers enact agency, reversing the top-down approach imposed onto mothers by policymakers’ and institutions’ ideas regarding early literacy development. A school-ready child, loosely defined, is one who possesses physical, academic, social, and emotional skills that will support learning in school and life (Head Start ECLKC, 2020). This paper explores how four mothers of young children in a rural region in Tennessee interpreted literacy advice from community members and made choices in teaching their own children to read. Elle, Joy, Katy, and Lyla (all pseudonyms) spoke of the unfair expectations society places on mothers to prepare children for school. This study augments the existing literature about mothers, agency, and early literacy and adds to feminist studies that highlight the various ways mothers enact agency to teach their children to read, despite power and social constructions of mothering and early literacy development.


Society’s expectations for mothers to teach their children to read are prevalent but especially for mothers of preschool-aged children. When children come to school without knowing letters, sounds, and sight words, blame for children’s struggles in school often falls to mothers. The concept of mother blaming can be traced back to the early 1950s when women were expected to work in the home and raise children. Caplan (2000) described the complexities of the work of mothering as “undervalued but often unnoticed” (p. 39). Caplan (2000) further explained that mothers are often blamed and held responsible for their children’s behavior and problems. This study questions the motives of literacy advocates, policy makers, and educators who drive campaigns and agendas urging mothers to read daily to their children to avoid school failure (see Appendix B, C, and D for examples). Organizations whose motives are to educate ideal, school-ready children employ emotive language and exaggerated claims to bestow alarm onto mothers. The research embraced Lather’s (1991) theory of critical feminism to investigate the struggles of mothers who were adept at fostering their children’s early literacy development, but whose constructions of knowledge were silenced or displaced by dominant beliefs about the correct way to produce a literate and school-ready child.

Background & Research Questions

Contemporary literacy advice is deeply rooted in Western ideologies of a good mother (Smythe, 2006). Good mothering practices are those believed to include staying home and producing well-rounded children who easily conform to societal expectations for thinking and behaving. Literacy advice in magazines and books, on school signs, and in family literacy documents, state that being a good mother is essential to children’s literacy acquisition (Johnston & Swanson, 2006; Nichols & Nixon, 2009; Smythe, 2006; Smythe, 2013). Such advice ignores the mother’s ability to make sound decisions regarding her children’s academic development. The reason most often given for disseminating early literacy advice is that if families, specifically mothers, adhere to this advice, then the gap in literacy achievement will shrink (Smythe, 2006). Schools have evolved, and prefer to teach, the ideal child supported by the ideal mother (Smythe, 2013). The ideal child and mother are preferred, as they are believed to be more involved and attuned to the school’s academic demands for children. This study challenges these supposed ideals.

Freire (2009/1970) described the “banking concept of education,” (p. 72) in which those who believe they know, give or deposit knowledge onto those considered ignorant. In this study, educational agencies and government institutions consider themselves knowledgeable about early literacy and deposit that knowledge onto mothers, disregarding mothers’ own knowledge of their children’s literacy development. The policymakers fill parents with formulaic and mechanical advice, without consideration of the parents’ culture, values, or experiences, so that parents will prepare their children for school, thus minimizing potential academic disruption. The policymakers assume their “knowledge is a gift bestowed by those who consider themselves knowledgeable upon those whom they consider to know nothing” (Freire, 2009/1970, p. 72). For example, a good mother who internalizes the 20-minutes-per-day reading message will respond accordingly or risk her child becoming illiterate and subsequently dropping out of school or spending time in prison (U.S. Department of Education, 1999; The Children’s Reading

Foundation, 2014; Kirsch, Jungeblut, Jenkins, & Kolstad, 2002). In this example, mothers are “objects of assistance” (Freire, 2009/1970, p. 83), and the state and its agents are “depositing myths indispensable to the preservation of the status quo” (p. 139). The double myth, in this case, is that mothers are to blame for school disruption if their children fail to conform to the ideal child and that failure to conform to the instruction could be detrimental to the child. The paternalistic threat, internalized by mothers, is meant to bring about conformity.

In this study, the researcher sought to learn more about the following two questions:

  1. How did the mothers in this study communicate their sentiments about literacy advice?
  2. How did the mothers in this study enact agency as they taught their children to read?

Theoretical framework

This study drew from, and was framed by, critical and poststructural theories about hegemony and mothering, distinctively in a feminist context, and by critical discourse analysis used to uncover hegemonic relationships between mothers and educational institutions and community partners. Critical discourse analysis was used to explore how mothers identified power structures in their lives, how they impacted their mothering decisions, and how mothers enacted agency to accept or reject literacy advice. During the transcript analysis process, I used critical discourse analysis to look for patterns and inconsistencies across the transcripts. Doing so allowed me to see how the mothers in this study’s experiences fit within a broad social context. Feminism asserts that “men and women are under different social pressures, encouraged to do different kinds of work, behave differently, and develop different characteristics, which is important” (Richards, 1982, p. 125). In this paper, mothers are described as the objects of social pressures to either prepare their children for school or otherwise put their children at risk for school failure. Mothers are expected to conform to Western ideologies of good mothering—those who work from home, produce well-behaved, avid readers who conform to societal expectations for success. Poststructural theory has been used to examine how discourses guide what we think, say, and do. It works to deconstruct “discourses that have been established to control ways of thinking” (Grbich, 2013, p. 8) and “calls into question the stability of fixedness of categories that are normally assumed” (Filax, Sumara, Davis & Shogan, 2011, p. 87). The poststructuralist Foucault (1979) explained how discourses, including those used by prisons and by religious and education institutions, regulate and discipline the subject. In education, researchers have used poststructuralism to examine discourses that sort and categorize those considered to be outside the norm and discourses that regulate schooling. For example, Hemmings used poststructuralism to reveal how youth hostilities, rather than being “senseless acts of violence” were “discourse-driven adaptations . . . constructed by urban youths situated in hostile socioeconomic conditions” (p. 292). And Ball (2003) examined how teacher performativity is used to measure, evaluate, and judge teachers, which “for some . . . is an opportunity to make a success of themselves [but] for others it portends inner conflicts, inauthenticity and resistance” (p. 215).

This research addresses ways that mothers were influenced by dominant discourses regarding early literacy, and thus made decisions regarding their young children’s literacy development. Additionally, the research allowed us to take a closer look at the advice mothers chose to adhere to or to ignore and why. Critical feminism elicits participants’ constructions and meaning making of their world in order to enable participants the opportunity to “come to understand and change their own oppressive realities” (Lather, 1991, p. 73). These coalescing frameworks––critical, poststructural, critical discourse analysis, and feminism––provided the opportunity to explore how mothers understood their role in their children’s early literacy development, how they internalized external edicts and guidelines from various agencies for early literacy development, and how they resisted or enacted agency as they fostered their children’s early literacy development.

Methods of Inquiry

The researcher used a case study approach to collect information about mothers’ knowledge, experiences, and understanding of early literacy advice presented to them in public locations, yard signs, school billboards, and social media (See Appendix B, C, D). The study explored how women internalized this literacy advice and how each enacted agency to conform to or resist dominant discourses on early literacy advice. A combination of open-ended, semi-structured interviews (DeVault & Gross, 2012), photo elicitation (van Leeuwen & Jewitt, 2002), document elicitation, field notes (Patton, 2002), memoing (Grbich, 2013), document collection (Glesne, 2006) and inductive analysis (Bogdan & Biklen, 2003) were used.


Four women: Elle, Joy, Katy, and Lyla (all self-selected pseudonyms) were recruited to participate in this study after receiving university IRB approval. Each participant self-identified as mothering differently than traditional American expectations. Each of the four mothers held bachelor’s degrees and three of them had graduate degrees. All were married, white, and had two children. At least one of their children was two-to-four years old. Each mother described teaching her child to read in ways she believed to be different than other mothers. The mothers were all residents of a rural area in the Upper Cumberland region of middle Tennessee. Through interviews, their stories not only explained how they mothered their own children, but also how they internalized literacy advice to mothers and how they resisted power structures that advised.

Elle described herself as a critical thinker who actively resisted traditional motherhood by regularly spending time on personal hobbies and interests. She was relieved to have a non-judgmental space to share that she was okay not reading to her children twenty minutes each night. She felt that schools should be the ones primarily responsible for teaching children to read, not mothers. Her primary responsibility, she said, is building supportive and nurturing relationships with her daughters.

Joy shared that she has always tried to resist dominant discourses on mothering, but found it to be impossible. She maintains regular gender expected roles such as clearing house and preparing meals, yet strives to make intuitive decisions. She was first introduced to the importance of reading twenty minutes per day after seeing a sign at her child’s school. She reported also seeing a sign to read twenty minutes per day to children at the courthouse. Joy believes being a good reader is important, but rebuffs others’ telling her how much and when to teach her children to read. She feels that learning to read is a highly individualized journey and should be left up to the family to decide.

Katy described how she feels inner conflict between her personal beliefs and society’s expectations on raising her children. She wants reading to be an experience that is child-led and enjoyable, not forced. An educator herself, she often feels guilt because her oldest child struggles to read well, despite her knowledge of reading strategies and techniques. She feels that others put her children on a pedestal, creating expectations that are not possible.

Of all the participants, Lyla was the most aware of the expectations others have for her: to be physically attractive, to stay home with her children, and to keep her home tidy. For her, she finds joy in working full-time and being enrolled in graduate school. When she makes time for herself, she feels she can be more for her family. She reported her desire to bring women together in a loving, supportive way because she thinks women are way too hard on themselves. Lyla often feels judgement from other mothers for allowing her children to use technology to engage in literacy activities. She wants her children to enjoy reading as an experience, not a task or chore that must be marked off a list. She feels each mother’s methods for teaching their children are valuable.

Data Collection

Multiple methods of data collection included document collection, photo elicitation, and interviews. With each method, the researcher aimed to capture the literacy advice with which mothers of young children were inundated.

Semi-structured, open-ended interviews. Two interviews were scheduled and conducted with each participant. allowing me to learn more about their experiences as mothers and what they believed to be their role in teaching their children to read. An interview protocol (Appendix A) guided the interview, although mothers led the conversations. These interviews shed light on how mothers knew how to teach their children to read, what they understood about early literacy development, and their conformity to or deflection of social constructions of mothering. Part of the interview provided time for participants to look at and discuss information about several photographs of literacy-related messages taken in the community. The photos included Facebook posts, yard signs, and school signs. A final method of data collection included reviewing a reading behavior checklist, the Reading Aloud Profile Together, which is used to evaluate reading behaviors between mothers and children. Mothers reported their reaction to the expectations in the checklist.

Data Analysis

Inductive analysis, coding, and discourse analysis were the primary methods of data analysis. Formal data analysis included careful examination of the documents, photos, field notes, and interview transcripts obtained during the study. Verbatim coding and close reads of the documents enabled the formulation of bottom-up theories and hypotheses about the mothers’ experiences. Beyond inductive methods, critical discourse analysis was used to analyze patterns across and within transcripts with each of the mothers to understand how the mothers were persuaded by prominent discourses to shift the ways they taught their children to read.


All the participant mothers in the study stated that they valued reading and literacy, but none of the four mothers claimed their children’s literacy development to be their first priority. The mothers seemed to place greater importance to their children’s social-emotional wellbeing and development, including being loved, happy, and safe. Two participants, Elle and Joy, said they did little to formally prepare their children for kindergarten entry, such as using worksheets or flash cards, as they felt pushing children before they were ready to learn was developmentally inappropriate. Rather, the mothers described teaching their children to read to include singing songs, playing games, and participating in natural conversations together. The mothers said that literacy advice provided to them was often unwarranted, disingenuous, and unrealistic. Lyla described how she established reading activities for her son based on his interests; there were no prescribed reading rules, and she could not say with certainty that read-alouds lasted 20 minutes each day. She supposed that her son learned important literacy skills through play, authentic outdoor experiences, songs, and technology. Katy also discounted the 20-minute message:

I just feel like if you want your baby to read, read to them, but I don’t necessarily agree with the whole, It has to be 20 minutes a day. I think we can just say, ‘Have fun with it!’ If you read a sign to your baby, you’re exposing them. If you talk about things with them, have a relationship, have a conversation. You know, I did read to my babies a lot, but probably not 20 minutes a day, because there was poop and vomit on me that I needed to take care of instead of reading that stinkin’ book.

Despite their opinions, participants demonstrated that disregard of literacy mandates and a general distrust of people that were regarded as education experts often led to feelings of guilt or anxiety. Lyla asserted:

Parents should be valued, respected, and treated as an expert on their child. Quite often, it’s the parent that is blamed for something, like when their kid is misbehaving at school; it’s your fault. I will never accept this opinion as an answer. I think the government should be more supportive of parents and fostering utmost respect.

Lyla wished that educators could see the positive things that mothers do with their children, and she expressed a desire to end both the attempts to coerce mothers into reading to their children more often and the blaming of mothers for their children’s school failure.

Discussion and Conclusion

Summary. Four women in this study–Elle, Joy, Katy, and Lyla shared how they have contested the space between expectations for good mothering and what they believe to be the right ways to teach their children to read. They challenged how they have been inundated with advice from their community about the right ways to teach their children and what might happen to their children if this advice is disregarded. They shared how they internalized the advice, resisted guilt, and trusted themselves to raise well-rounded children. To better understand the experience of these women, I composed the following research questions:

  1. How did the mothers in this study communicate their sentiments about literacy advice?
  2. How did the mothers in this study enact agency as they taught their children to read?

Literacy Advice. All mothers in this study expressed the significance and importance of learning to read, yet none claimed it was the most important twenty minutes of their child’s day. To them, reading twenty minutes each day felt like an arbitrary number that did not include all the many ways children learn to read and enjoy the reading experience. The mothers expressed how fostering social-emotional growth and development took precedence over academic tasks. Elle, Joy, Katy, and Lyla believed their children would acquire literacy skills naturally or at school. Because each of these mothers worked outside the home, they felt it to be nearly impossible to follow the literacy advice found on community signs, documents, and billboards.

Agency. The mothers in the study described how they internalized and experienced conflicting feelings of guilt for not committing to a 20-minute daily read aloud session with their children, whilst feeling powerful for employing alternative methods for teaching their young children to read. They recognized how advice found within their community had power in their lives. However, each mother felt confident in their abilities to resist the pressures that prevented intuitive mothering. Their confidence allowed them to resist literacy advice for fear that such edicts would make their children adverse to reading, an experience intended to induce pleasure. Yet, participants acknowledged that the discourses of literacy were internalized to the point that they experienced feelings of guilt when they neglected to read daily for the allotted time to their children. By acknowledging this process, the women began to enact agency, making meaning of their own realities and taking action by speaking out about other possibilities.

Implications for Action

            One purpose of this study was to raise awareness about how seemingly innocent messages may adversely affect others. The reminders to read twenty minutes per day to children reduced the trust with schools in their district, administrators, politicians, and literacy organizations. As such, including mothers in decision making is necessary. Lyla wanted there to be more communication, transparency, and grace for mothers. She stated she would want policy makers to know the following:

Please know that tone that you share these messages in, the tone that you speak to us in affects us more than you realize and so as moms, we’re asking for you to look for the positive things in what we’re doing; that we’re killing ourselves to help our children be successful. Please partner with us to do that. Don’t condemn us, don’t tell us all of the things that we’re doing wrong and all the ways we’re going to harm our children, but let’s work together and understand that my child is different from her child but we all are doing the best that we can. I want the tone to change. I want the shame and the guilt to go away because there’s already enough of that. And the idea that someone that doesn’t even know my child, that knows nothing about my child assumes to know what’s best for my child is just difficult for me to swallow.

The research adds an important alternative perspective to the literature on, and knowledge of, early literacy by providing an opportunity for mothers’ voices to be included in the discussions about how children become literate. Mothers can and should become co-creators of knowledge, policy, and practice related to their children’s literacy. In expressing their “critical consciousness” (Freire, 2009/1970, p. 73), mothers are enacting agency, recognizing that the knowledge imposed on them “can be contested and changed” (St. Pierre, 2000, p. 493) so that the best interests of their children, rather than those of schools, are considered. Future research can question the motives of the institutions and funding agents for such drives as those described in this paper. Finally, replication of this study to include more diverse participants from multiple socioeconomic groups, ethnicities, and education levels needs to be conducted in order to capture a more holistic picture of how mothers enact agency when teaching their young children to read. Literacy advice has become a gendered practice of power by institutions, and thus we must begin to challenge what it means to be a successful mother. Scare tactics and threats that cause mothers to internalize feelings of guilt, burden, and inadequacy are ineffective.


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Appendix A: Interview Protocol

Opening Questions

  1. Tell me about family.
  2. Tell me about yourself.
  3. There are some common beliefs about mothers and how they should be perfect.
  4. Can you think of specific examples of those beliefs?


  1. How would you describe yourself as a mother?
  2. What do you understand the dominant beliefs about mothering to be?
  3. What is it like for you to mother this way?


  1. What are your beliefs about children and how they should be taught to read?
  2. How do you help your child with reading?
  3. Why is it important that you teach your child in the way that you do?
  4. What do mothers do who oppose those beliefs?
  5. Can you think of an example of a situation where you felt like you came “head-to-head” with one of the perfect mother expectations about teaching your child how to read?
  6. What expectations do you have of yourself as a mother in regards to preparing your child to read?
  7. Are there times you don’t feel like you live up to these expectations? If so, what impact does this have on you as a mother?
  8. What do you think other people expect of you as a mother in terms of preparing your child to learn to read?
  9. What do you hope for your children’s literacy achievement?


  1. What do you understand society’s definition of a mother’s role in preparing her child to read to be?
  2. How does your definition align or how is it different?
  3. What are the common ways that you think mothers are expected to feel and behave towards their children when teaching them to read?
  4. What are your own feelings about society’s expectations?
  5. In what ways are you doing something that is different from these expectations? Can you provide an example?
  6. How has your family reacted to the way that you have helped your child develop his/her early literacy skills?
  7. Explain how the educational system has influenced how you develop your child’s early literacy skills.
  8. Where do you find support for your approach to teaching your child how to read?
  9. When you have questions about parenting/mothering, where do you go for answers?
  10. How do you think others view your performance as a mother who is preparing her child to read?
  11. What supports do you have in your life that allow you to teach your child differently than other mothers?

Document/Photo Elicitation

  1. What does this photo mean to you?
  2. What does this photo show?
  3. Who do you think is the intended audience of these photos?
  4. What makes these images impactful?
  5. What are your reactions to the images?

Have I missed anything that may help me understand your experience of mothering or teaching your child how to read?

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