New Israeli research suggests that having young children repeat important words during reading may greatly improve their ability to remember them, findings that coincide with the start of a new school year.

In a small, yet-unpublished study, 5-year-old children remembered up to twice as many of the words they had said aloud, compared to the words they had not. While previous research has found similar, though less impressive, results in adult readers, the study is the first to test language retention in young children by using pictures.

The researchers behind the cross-sectional study, set to be published in the Journal of Child Language, suggest that reading to children is best done interactively, with plenty of pauses and repetition. The method appears to be a good way for parents and teachers to make education stick, both in preparation for school and once children are old enough to enter the classroom.

“It’s not enough for you to sit with your child and read him a story,” said Dr. Michal Ichet, a speech and language pathologist at Ariel University, who did the study along with Dr. Yaniv Mama, a cognitive psychologist at the university. “Reading aloud is great, but asking your child to repeat specific words makes it more likely that he will remember them. Luckily, it’s something that’s natural and easy to do.”

Young scholars

Research in the past few years has established that adults are more likely to remember words they say aloud. The “production effect,” as it is called, boosts recall by about 20 percent.

To see if the effect works in children who are too young to read well, the researchers gave 30 5-year-old Israeli kids two different tests. In the first test, the children were shown a series of pictures of familiar objects — including a house, a table, and a dog. They were told to remember as many of the words illustrated by the pictures as they could. Half the pictures they named aloud, and half the pictures they did not.

When asked to recall as many words as they could a few minutes later, the children remembered 30 percent of the words they had read aloud and just 15 percent of the words they had not. The production effect, then, was 100 percent – five times as powerful as in adults.

The second test was designed to see if the production effect worked with unfamiliar words. The same children were shown pictures of objects they could not name – like a trough, a cloak, and cufflinks. Half of the time, the children were told the word for each picture and asked to repeat it. The other half of the time, they were told the word for each picture twice.

Because it is harder to remember new words, the children were later reread the words they had been taught and asked to pick the corresponding pictures from among four options, rather than just being asked to recall the words. The children remembered 54 percent of the words they had repeated and 40 percent of the words they had not.

“This was the ‘whoa’ experiment,” said Ichet, claiming it “proves that this methodology can actually be used to help children acquire new words and expand their lexicon.”

The power of voice

Parents and teachers have long been urged to read to young children, based on research showing that it promotes the development of language and literacy. The results of the Israeli study indicate that it makes a big difference how the reading is done.

Pausing and having young children repeat important words appears to help them retain what they are hearing, the researchers say.

The secret to the production effect, they say, is most likely that words read aloud are remembered as distinct. This may be because rather than just being thought, the words are said and heard as well – tripling the cognitive effect.

Adults can use the effect on themselves as well – whether they are studying for a university exam or preparing for a presentation at work. Research shows it works with sentences and paragraphs, and with foreign languages as well.

Whispering or mouthing words does not boost recall much in adults, research shows. Hearing someone else say words or writing them down has been shown to help more, but still not nearly as much as speaking them.

But the adult research shows there’s a point of diminishing returns — it doesn’t help to just read everything aloud. When more words are read aloud than not, the method has been shown to lose its power to plant words in the memory. Researchers assume that would also apply to children, but they have not tested the idea.