Never-ending story: how repetition helps a child's vocabulary

It may be boring for parents – but reading the same book over and over again to children is the best way to develop their vocabulary. Researchers at Sussex University have found that repetition is more likely to help them improve their reading skills.

"What we think is happening with reading is that each time a child hears the book, they are picking up new information," said psychologist Dr Jessica Horst, who conducted the research. She added: "We know that children who watch the same television programme over and over again do better in comprehension tests afterwards."

The researchers devised an experiment with three-year-olds in which they were exposed to two new words to test the theory. Each word was a made-up name for an unfamiliar object – such as a "sprock", a hand-held device for mixing food.

Over the course of a week, one group heard three different stories with the same new words. The second heard only one story with the words. Each contained a drawing of the new objects.

What happened was that those who had heard just one story were much better at remembering and recalling the new words when tested at the end of the week compared with those who had been read the three different stories.

"We know that the more books you have at home, the higher the academic achievement," said Dr Horst. "But what we haven't understood is actually how that learning happens.

"This research shows that it's not the number of books but the repetition of each book that leads to the greater learning."

Margaret Morrissey, of the parents' pressure group ParentsOutloud, said: "To a degree I could go along with that. The most important thing is taking the time to read to your children every night in the first place."

She added: "It is important, too, to allow them to choose the story to read. If you do that, nine times out of 10 they will probably choose the same one." However, she warned that it was imperative there were enough books in the home to allow the child a choice.

The research is by Dr Horst, Kelly Parsons and Natasha Bryan and is being published in Frontiers in Psychology later this month.

Meanwhile, a row broke out yesterday over plans to use non-words to test children on in the Government's proposed new reading test for six-year-olds. The test is designed as a phonics- based progress check to tease out those children who will need extra help to keep up in class.

The Department for Education is aiming to pilot the tests this summer. Phonics focuses on sounds rather than whole words. The UK Literacy Association said: "The inclusion of non-words is counter-productive since most six-year-olds expect to make sense of what they read."

However, Schools minister Nick Gibb said: "The new phonics-based reading check for six-year-olds will ensure that children who need extra help are given it before it is too late and then they can enjoy a lifetime's love of reading."