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Reading Levels

How Repeating a Story Develops Vocabulary

Reading the same books over and over to your preschooler or Kindergartener may make you feel like you’re stuck in a time loop, but the truth is you’re making change happen, gradually affecting your young listener’s neural pathways. As kids this age continue to learn the strange language that is English, they rely on multiple readings of a story in order to get a stronger grasp of the words at its core.

But what is it about the young brain that makes this repetition so useful? Is it like what a mantra is to meditation? Or what validation is to a needy friend? Repeatedly exposing new words to kids is important, but so is the context in which they’re showcased. Back (again) with more information on the book-brain connection, Literati is here to root on your future Wordle wunderkind!

Storybooks and language learning

You could try to teach a child new words through simple flashcards, but learning a series of words without context is an exercise in rote memorization, not understanding. That’s why storybooks are a more effective (and fun!) means of building stronger vocabularies. 

Several different research studies over the past few decades have shown that repetitive shared storybook reading has improved young children’s ability to retain new words. One notable study conducted by the University of Sussex used two different approaches to teach unfamiliar words to kids.

The kids who encountered those words over repeated readings of the same books could better recall their meanings than those who encountered them over several stories read only once. What’s up with that?

The effect of context on learning new words

During the first readthrough of a storybook, children focus mainly on the storyline and imagery. But once these elements become familiar through repetition, attention shifts toward still-unfamiliar aspects such as new words.

These words become more memorable when they are part of a rhyming pattern or are paired with visuals. Sound and imagery provide a context for language to be tied back to, and revisiting this context helps words take root in memory. 

So in the Sussex study, the kids who didn’t read stories multiple times struggled to recall the target words because the context in which they appeared kept changing. But that’s not to say you should keep fewer books in the house!

Best books to read on repeat

Here’s a sampling of books that often utilize memorable repetition, are sometimes self-aware about the act of repetition, and are always worth reading many, many times:

Book Cover for Interrupting Chicken

Interrupting Chicken

by David Ezra Stein

This humorous story is a relatable look at a familiar bedtime ritual that will likely mirror your own experience repeatedly telling the same tales. But it also shows how kids’ constant wonder keeps things fresh.

Book Cover for Gator Gator Gator

Gator, Gator, Gator

by Daniel Bernstrom & Frann Preston-Gannon

This adventure narrative uses rhyme and repetition to encourage a spirit of discovery in young listeners as they comprehend new words.

Book Cover for Duck Duck Moose

Duck, Duck, Moose!

By Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen & Noah Z. Jones

“Duck” and “moose” are the only words you’ll encounter in this book, but the repetition and supporting pictures and sounds will ensure that your kids get those words down pat.

Book Cover for Bear Can't Sleep

Bear Can’t Sleep

by Karma Wilson & Jane Chapman

Various forest animals come to Bear’s lair aiming to help him sleep. This repeated story pattern along with a rhyme scheme and some bigger words will strengthen your child’s vocabulary.

Book cover for The Snatchabook

The Snatchabook

by Helen Docherty & Thomas Docherty

The theft of a community’s well-worn books creates an opportunity to share a bedtime story with the lonely culprit. This rhyme-rich story celebrates reading and warms hearts.

It’s an encore, not déjà vu

Practice is essential to developing any skill. When it comes to learning new words through reading, it’s not worth gathering every known usage of “hippopotamus” in storybooks just to make the term stick. Use repetition to create familiarity with imagery and cadence, which then serves as the backdrop that puts unfamiliar words in sharp relief. (And that’s how “hippopotamus” finds its way to the hippocampus).

Get vocabulary-boosting books worth rereading with Literati Book Clubs

If you’re going to be repeating stories, make sure they’re ones your kid really likes. Signing up for a Literati Book Club lets you share your child’s reading interests with curators who spring into action, selecting the choicest cuts of high-quality reads with a long shelf life and plenty of new words to discover. Then the books will keep on coming to your home, as long as you like!

Authored by Team Literati
November 11, 2022


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