Recently I was reading to my little boy. He has just started primary school and is getting a good introduction to synthetic phonics and is starting to segment words into their sounds when asked to ‘robot’ them and blending simple words too. He can’t read yet. Despite this, during his bed time story he was able to follow me word for word, exactly as I read to him. Is he a genious?
Sadly, I think it’s actually a fairly normal behaviour if you read to a child enough. It does however highlight just how effective some key cognitive science principles can be for learning. Our little bed time routine perfectly models a bunch of techniques that I try to use all the time in my day job. I feel like an idiot for spending hours and hours thinking about how I’m crafting lessons with my students and then coming home to accidently implement three of the most useful ideas being discussed in teaching at the moment.
Firstly, what is happening when I read to him? He is looking at the pictures which neatly show exactly what I am saying. He is receiving the information into his short term working memory via the verbal and the non-verbal pathways. This in turn is addressing the transient effect, the fact that my words are temporary, while at the same time making it easier for the information to be encoded in his long term memory. He is dual coding his bed time stories. The evidence for the efficacy of dual coding is everywhere and lots of teachers are using some pretty superb strategies for helping students to do this. I think Adam Boxer’s slot for researchED home was particularly good on this and I’ve linked to it here.
Secondly, we read him lots of stories and he likes to pick books with certain themes. Sometimes it’s books about animals. Sometimes it’s books about bed time and sleeping, other times it’s stories with mice in. It also helps that children’s stories are often formulaic. A situation is presented – some form of tension – a resolution. Because we read to him all the time he has a well developed schema for the structure of a story. This means that new stories can be slotted into an existing schema for children’s tales in books in his long term memory. He isn’t having to do all of the work of understanding what is happening from scratch because whatever the story is, it fits neatly into his prior understanding of how stories work and what characters are reasonably expected to do.
Thirdly he asks for lots of different books. He rarely comes back to a book within a day or two. This means he has time to forget the words of the story before trying to retrieve the information from his long term memory. For all of the different strategies for retrieval that I’ve been reading about and attempting to use in lessons, I suddenly realised that we were doing it accidently every bed time. Each time we provide an opportunity to revisit an old favourite, we are strengthening the retrieval pathways in his mind, making it easier for him to recall the story.
Sadly, he will grow up and move on to longer, richer and more complex stories. He won’t want to read anything that’s on his shelves at the moment. He won’t even need me to read them for him. They will, over time, fade from his memory and be forgotten. Hopefully he will still love interacting with books and stories and I look forward to sharing some of my favourites with him as he gets older. Sadly however, I don’t think he has an eidetic memory, simply cognitive science has helped him memorise his favourite books.