The other day on Jbrary’s Instagram account I put a poll out asking people to vote on my next blog topic. 61% of you voted for repetition in storytime! I’ve been thinking about repetition a lot lately. Here are some questions I’ve been pondering:
- What role does repetition play in brain development and language acquisition?
- How much repetition do you or should you include in storytime?
- What are different ways to use repetition with young children, particularly in storytime?
When I first started as a children’s librarian I didn’t have a clear answer to any of these questions. I remember learning the basic “repetition is good” mantra in my MLIS children’s courses, but I wasn’t confident in how to effectively translate that message into a storytime program or a storytime series. Now that I’ve been doing storytime for five years and have spent time reading relevant research I’d like to come back to these questions.
I’m breaking this discussion into two parts. This post will cover the what and the why – What is happening in the brain when we repeat words, sentences, and stories to children? Why does repetition aid in brain development and language acquisition? I will write a second post exploring the question of how – How much repetition should we include in storytime? How should we structure our storytimes? What are different ways to repeat content?
Early Brain Development and Repetition
When babies are born their brains are ready to learn. Every time they are stimulated by something in the their environment – language, people, physical sensations – their brain cells reach out and make neural connections. Neural connections in the brain are called synapses, and when they are stimulated repeatedly they become ‘hardwired.’ Hardwired means they are less likely to be pruned as the child grows older. When we repeat information it makes these synapses thicker. The brain recognizes these thicker synapses and keeps them because they are strong.
This image from the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University shows the amount of synapses over the course of 14 years and the natural pruning process. Repetition of language and stories in the early years helps make that middle picture full of strong synapses that are less likely to be pruned.
Saroj Ghoting and Pamela Martin-Diaz summarize this process in their book Early Literacy Storytimes @ Your Library: Partnering with Caregivers for Success. They say, “Children ages three to ten have three times as many synapses as an adult. As a child grows, there are fewer synapses, but they are more organized. Some of the synapses are pruned. What makes some synapses stay and some be pruned away? Repetition! The synapses that are used repeatedly are the ones that are kept, and the ones that are little used get pruned.”
Repetition and Learning
For adults, hearing the same story again and again can be quite boring. We’re not experiencing anything new or unexpected. But for young children, repetition isn’t boring at all. In fact, when they repeat songs or books they are experiencing it in a new way each time. The first time a child hears a song or reads a book, for example, they are often just taking in the experience. With books, most of their attention will be on the pictures. When they experience it again they build on their knowledge – they will start to notice different things and begin to learn from it. Concepts and words become part of their memory and they are able to recall it later. A blog post on repetition summarizes it perfectly: “…as they repeat the process again and again, they go from experiencing to anticipating, from understanding basic concepts to exploring the activity to its fullest extent.”
There have been recent research studies that aim to understand how repetition impacts learning. A 2015 study found that parents who repeated words to their 7-month-olds have toddlers with larger vocabularies. I particularly like this study because it stresses the quality of conversations not just the quantity of words we say. Another study done in 2013 showed that children learned more words when they read the same story repeatedly in a shared storybook setting. That’s not the only reason we read books over and over again with young children, but it does exemplify the learning benefits of repetition.
The Benefits of Repetition
- Outside of words and stories, repetition also helps babies and toddlers learn the consequence of an action. Ever seen a toddler drop their cup or pacifier over and over again? They are learning about cause and effect.
- Repetition helps young children remember information and build memory. Having a working memory is a key step in developing executive function skills.
- Repeating an action or learning to say a word eventually leads to mastery. When a child masters a skill they feel proud and happy!
- Kids generally thrive on routine and certainty. Having daily routines or experiencing repetition through play is comforting and gives a child a sense of security. This helps them build trust and feel safe. Children need to be feel safe and love for their brains to turn on for learning.
- When we repeat stories, kids begin to internalize them and can join in the storytelling. This increases their feeling of self-worth. That feeling of affirmation that “I can do this, I know what I’m doing” is invaluable for every little learner. A great self-esteem booster!
This post covered why repetition is important to learning and how it affects brain development and language acquisition. The next post will explore how we can support repetition in a storytime setting. I’d love to hear your ideas on how much and what you repeat in storytime! Feel free to leave me a comment below.