The Power of a Bedtime Story

My 4-year-old nephew has an eclectic taste in bed-time stories. One week my sister will find herself reading the adventures of Spryo versus The Mega Monsters, the next week recounting the emotional journey of Mo Willem’s Knuffle Bunny, and the next reading captions out of Smithsonian’s Human: The Definitive Visual Guide. (Yes, at my nephew’s insistence). Unbeknownst to my sister, there may be a method to this seeming madness is pajama-clad reading choice; my nephew may be following the ideal pattern of reading to boost his vocabulary.

This ideal strategy is based on the combination of two factors.

First, as an assurance to parents, reading the same story over and over again actually helps children learn words; hearing the same words, in the exact same context and sentences, help the children figure out what those words mean even more than hearing the same word in different sentences in different stories. (I’m not sure this will make my own parents feel any better about the number of times they had to recite The Animals of Farmer Jones).

Second, sleep is critical for consolidating memories, or getting them a solid foothold in long-term storage. Even a ten-minute “power nap” can help college students learn new vocabulary, and the same process should occur for preschoolers too. It’s just a lot harder to get preschoolers to take a nap, at least when an adult wants them to, while for college students all it takes is a classroom.

Put these two facts together, and you have what might be an ideal setup for children learning from stories: reading right before bed, a story that has been read several times before.

Interrupting nighttime rituals is a non-starter for parents of young children, though, so the evidence so far comes from afternoon naps. Children were read from specially created stories that contained novel toys called a sprock and a tannin. Some children were read three different stories that mentioned these toys, while others were read just one of those stories three times. Immediately afterward, children were asked to pick sprock and tannin out of a lineup of toys. Then, children who usually napped in the afternoon took their nap, and children who had given up on naps played. After naptime, the next day, and the next week, children were quizzed on sprock and tannin again.

Just as previous research had shown, preschoolers who were read the same story three times remembered these new names better than children who had seen them the same number of times but in different stories (In the chart, the darker shaded bars are higher than the lighter shaded bars). Also just like previous research had shown, children who took a nap remembered the words better than the children who remained awake (the blue bars are higher than the green bars) – and this wasn’t because they were more rested, because they kept their advantage the next day and a week later, before naptime. The new twist, though, was that a nap could make up for having been read different stories: In the chart, you can see that the light blue bar starts out higher than the dark green bar, but once naptime is over these dark green bar has caught up. Something going on in the brain during that nap helped the children connect the dots between the words in those three different stories.

Naps and repetition help children pick up vocabulary from story books. Adapted from Williams & Horst (2014).

Naps and repetition help children pick up vocabulary from story books. Adapted from Williams & Horst (2014).

Sadly, there is no reasoning with a preschooler that they should take their nap, or Go the F*k to Sleep, so they can learn more words. But for parents who are being begged to read that same bedtime story for the hundredth time, at least there is the comfort that this may be the best way for the child to learn those words…so they can maybe start reading it to themselves, and give the parents a break.
Williams SE, & Horst JS (2014). Goodnight book: sleep consolidation improves word learning via storybooks. Frontiers in Psychology, 5, 184. PMID: 24624111

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