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Reading stories to children plays a fundamental role in their acquisition of vocabulary. In “Timing story time to maximize children’s ability to retain new vocabulary”, an article published in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology in 2021, a group of researchers at the University of York sought to verify to what extent children between the ages of five and seven learn new words when listening to their parents tell them stories. The study also sought to ascertain whether reading is particularly beneficial in the period prior to sleeping. They reach some interesting conclusions.


Learning and retaining vocabulary

Children’s storybooks contain diverse sources of linguistic information, potentially beneficial to literacy and the development of language in that age group. Vocabulary learning is a lengthy process that, according to the literature, benefits from repeated practice, recovery and reactivation while sleeping. The research on vocabulary learning has verified that children, after sleeping, tend to demonstrate improvements in their capacities to recognise recently learned words and even words without meanings (pseudowords).

According to diverse studies, the exposure of children to the reading of stories, whether through listening or reading accompanied by an adult, fosters the development of vocabulary, especially in school age children. According to Henderson and fellow authors of the aforementioned article, published in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology in 2021, these results are consistent with the view that learning vocabulary in potentially stimulating contexts is extremely beneficial to children. In a study published back in 2013, a team led by the same researcher concluded that, following a week of explicit vocabulary teaching, the children would recall more words when the learning took place based on semantic information (through definitions or images) than based on phonologic or orthographic information.


Are the words learned retained in the memory over the long term?

Researchers have sought to respond to this question that has hitherto remained open. However, in the 2021 article we referred to above, the findings include two important points referenced in the literature: the prior knowledge of the children and the time lapsing between sleeping and the learning of new terms.

The prior knowledge of children about the meaning of words probably represents one of the key variables in the connection between vocabulary learning and long term memory retention. In 2013, Wilkinson and Houston-Price analysed the influence of prior knowledge of vocabulary on the understanding of the words learned from listening to stories. In practice, these authors report how prior knowledge wields a significant influence over the understanding of new words both twenty-four hours and a fortnight after listening to the stories. In 2017, James and other researchers also confirmed that prior lexical knowledge predicts the capacity to retain new words, which reinforces the idea that this plays an important role in the long term memory retention process and support the processes involved in the initial acquisition of vocabulary.

The time lapsing between the learning and falling asleep is also a core variable within the scope of vocabulary retention processes. According to the most recent research, there may be greater benefits for children learning new words close to the time of sleeping. In a study from 2020, Walker and others reported that children who learn vocabulary in the afternoon (between 2pm and 4pm) memorise more words than those learning vocabulary in the morning (between 8am and 10am). Knowledge on this facet still needs clarifying with further research necessary to this end.


The study by Henderson and collaborators: objectives and participants

The work of Henderson and the respective researchers, which provides the basis for this article, held the fundamental objective of grasping whether children learn and retain new words when having their parents read them a story and if this practice is particularly advantageous close to the time of sleeping. The research included 237 children aged between five and seven. Their first language was English and no participant registered visual, auditive, linguistic, psychiatric or sleep disorders. In accordance with the results following various experiments, the authors tested the following hypotheses:

  1. Children recognise and recall more words after sleeping than immediately after the reading of the story by parents.
  2. Children demonstrate higher levels of new word retention when learning them immediately before sleeping than they do when learning them four hours prior to sleeping.
  3. Children with less extensive lexicons benefit more from learning new words close to the time of sleep than those who already have extensive vocabularies.

The children were divided into two groups: the “delayed condition” and the “immediate condition”. The parents of children in the first group were requested to read a story to their children three to five hours before putting them to bed. Immediately after this reading, the researchers evaluated the children through a remote test with the objective of ascertaining the capacities to recall, recognise and understand the words they were exposed to during the storytelling. The parents of children in the second group were asked to read a story to their children just before putting them to bed. After the storytelling, these children took the same test as the first group. On the following day, approximately one hour after waking-up, all children took a remote test with the objective of evaluating the capacities to recall and recognise the words learned during the previous day and analyse their knowledge of the meaning of terms that did not appear in the story.


What were the results?

The findings confirmed the first hypothesis. The children reported more significant rises in their capacities to recognise and recall words on the following day (thus, after sleeping) than immediately after having heard their parents read them a story. According to the authors, these results are consistent with the compliance systems of learning model put forward by McClelland and fellow authors in 1995, and applied to word acquisition by Davis and Gaskell in 2009: the representation of a word in the memory strengthens over the course of time and particularly when sleeping. Furthermore, the results demonstrated that prior knowledge of the vocabulary favoured the performance of children in recognition and recall tasks. As referred to by the authors, these data support the idea that lexical knowledge associates both with the initial learning of vocabulary and with its long term retention.

Contrary to expectations, the results here identified the children who heard their parents read a story three to five hours before sleeping memorised more words than those having stories read to them immediately before going to sleep. Furthermore, the findings note that children with lower lexical levels do not display greater gains on listening to stories immediately prior to sleeping. Therefore, hypotheses 2 and 3 were rejected. According to the authors, these results are nevertheless consistent with the conclusions reported by other studies. Reading stories to children always contributes to their learning and the consolidation of vocabulary and doing so after school or at the end of the day may return better literacy results in young children.


Davis, M. H., & Gaskell, M. G. (2009). A complementary systems account of word learning: Neural and behavioural evidence. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London B: Biological Sciences, 364, 3773–3800.

Henderson, L. M., van Rijn, E., James, E., Walker, S., Knowland, V. C., & Gaskell, M. G. (2021). Timing storytime to maximize children’s ability to retain new vocabulary. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 210, 1-23.

Henderson, L., Weighall, A., & Gaskell, G. (2013). Learning new vocabulary during childhood: Effects of semantic training on lexical consolidation and integration. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 116(3), 572–59.

James, E., Gaskell, M. G., Weighall, A. R., & Henderson, L. M. (2017). Consolidation of vocabulary during sleep: The rich get richer? Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 77, 1–13.

McClelland, J. L., McNaughton, B. L., & O’Reilly, R. C. (1995). Why there are complementary learning systems in the hippocampus and neocortex: Insights from the successes and failures of connectionist models of learning and memory. Psychological Review, 102(3), 419–457.

Walker, S., Gaskell, M. G., Knowland, V. C. P., Fletcher, F. E., Cairney, S. A., & Henderson, L. M. (2020). Growing up with interfering neighbours: the influence of time of learning and vocabulary knowledge on written word learning in children. Royal Society Open Science, 7: 191597.

Wilkinson, K., & Houston-Price, C. (2013). Once upon a time, there was a pulchritudinous princess: The role of word definitions and multiple story contexts in children’s learning of difficult vocabulary. Applied Psycholinguistics, 34(3), 591–613.



Soraia Araújo

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