- Study shows that children taught words then tested on the next day score better than those tested the same day
By Damien Gayle
PUBLISHED: 08:41 EST, 20 November 2012 | UPDATED: 09:31 EST, 20 November 2012
Nothing beats a good night’s sleep for helping youngsters learn new words, new research has revealed.
A study suggests that even the brightest children remember words best when they’re given a chance to sleep on it.
Expanding the vocabulary of children by telling them new words and what they mean has long been regarded as vital to helping them learn to communicate.
But the new findings – that sleep provides a ‘memory boost’ – could help teachers tackle increasingly diagnosed problems like autism and dyslexia.
It had been assumed that children were much more astute than adults at picking up and remembering new sounds because they are still developing their language skills.
But the study of primary school pupils aged aged seven to 12 shows they are just as likely to be as absent-minded as their parents, with results showing children who master words over breakfast may have forgotten half by tea-time.
However, the research found the amnesia is only temporary. After a 12 hour break – provided it includes sleep – they recall more of the new words.
The study suggests that, just like tired adults, it takes a while for some things to sink in – and when it comes to building a good vocabulary a good night’s sleep is just the tonic.
Academics from York and Sheffield Hallam universities spent weeks coaching 53 pupils at three boarding schools in North Yorkshire in language skills from lights out to breakfast time.
For 30 to 60 minutes a day, the youngsters were fed a diet of made-up words – similar to real ones but unique for research purposes.
Some were given the new words in the morning and tested on them the same day 12 hours later, by which time many had forgotten most of what they had learned.
But those given the words in the evening and asked to recall them the following morning did much better. Equally, those taught and tested in the same day who forgot the new vocabulary also found the words came back to them after a night’s sleep.
Anna Weighall, from the psychology research group at Sheffield Hallam, said: ‘These are truly exciting results which open up a new dimension of research in our understanding of language development.
‘It was thought children would not need sleep because they are experts at learning new words since they do it all the time.’
Words can get muddled up in the mind because they sound similar to others, the researchers said, but sleep cures this as well.
The so called ‘lexical competition’ kicks in if they are tested the same day – but not if the 12 hour delay includes sleep.
‘Previous studies of toddlers assume word learning happens straightaway but the new findings suggest it takes longer,’ Dr Weighall added.
It appeared children use the same learning mechanism as adults – and sleep helps, she continued.
HOW THE RESEARCH WAS DONE
Part of the sample involved children presented with 20 new words – read to them from a list – in the morning and asked to repeat them back the same day.
These results were compared with children who learned the words at the end of the day and were tested the following morning.
No reading or writing was involved. The children simply had to recount what they had been told verbally 12 hours earlier.
Time after time, children tested the following morning remembered more words than the day before. Those who were tested the same day also did better when retested 24 hours later.
Made up words were used to ensure the children had never heard them in casual conversation before.
But the results have been checked using real but rare words from key stage two science, such as hippocampus.
‘Our research shows when you learn a list of words and are tested after you have slept you remember much more than if tested the same day,’ she said.
‘You might think you would forget more but sleep protects the knowledge so you remember it better the following day.
‘It might make teachers wonder if words should be learned little and often rather than literacy hours first thing in the morning or in the afternoon.’
Dr Lisa Henderson, of the Department of Psychology at York, added: ‘Children’s ability to recall and recognise new words improved approximately 12 hours after training, but only if sleep occurs.
‘The key effects were maintained one week later, suggesting that these new words are retained in long-term memory.’
The study, funded by the Leverhulme Trust and published in Developmental Science, could also help tackle neuro-developmental disorders such as autism and dyslexia, both linked to poor sleeping and language problems.
Professor Gareth Gaskell, also from York University, said: ‘Clearly, children need to learn material well in the first place, but then they also need to sleep well in order to weave these new memories in with their established knowledge.’
However, the research provides no excuse for catching 40 winks before school’s out.
‘Nodding off in lessons is definitely not good – because you would miss learning information in the first place,’ said Dr Weighall.