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Again and Again (and Again): The Power of Reading the Same Book Repetitively

Do any of you recall partaking in school events like readathons, where you collect stickers (or other forms of positive reinforcement) every time you finish a book, and when you collect a certain amount of these, you earn full bragging rights and/or acquire a small gift? I don’t know about you, but I took every opportunity to feel good about myself (and of course, to get free gifts) very seriously.

The very intention of such events is obviously to encourage leisure reading amongst children. However, somewhere down the road, competitive little ones like myself would turn the event into a challenge where the focus is not so much on how you read the books (i.e. considering the moral of the story), but how many you read – as a first grader, there is something so gratifying about being able to say “I’ve read not one, but two Dr. Seuss books this week.” Some parents join in on this bragging-rights-bandwagon, encouraging their children to read as many different books as they can. Endorsing early literacy is certainly great, but should a child immerse him or herself into a variety of books in order for the activity to be truly beneficial?

A psychologist from University of Sussex, Dr. Jessica Horst, investigated this exact question by comparing how children learned new vocabulary amongst those who read the same book over and over and those who read many different books. What she found was that those in the former condition (tested a week after reading the books) learned and remembered more words than those in the latter condition. In other words, it might be more beneficial for children to read the same book repetitively. There is also a Youtube video supporting this notion – search “Jack and the Beanstalk as told by a two year old”, and you will see a two-year-old boy enthusiastically finishing off the sentences his aunt reads. I repeat: a two-year-old!

These findings make intuitive sense, in that the more you read something, the more it comes to you naturally – the same could be said about studying for exams, or even learning the lyrics to a new song.

So I guess there is some truth in the phrase, “quality over quantity” – whilst having an extensive reading list to show off might be impressive, for children at least, there seems to be a lot of value in reading one book several times. So if your child insists on having you read Green Eggs and Ham for what you are sure is the hundredth time, take a deep breath, and have comfort in the idea that he or she could be a word wiz in time!

Reference: Horst, J. S., Parsons, K. L. & Bryan, N. M. (2011). Get the story straight: Context repetition promotes word learning from storybooks. Frontiers in Developmental Psychology, 2(17), 1-11

Moeka Komachi

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