Many parents will attest to their young children’s remarkable knack for remembering rhymes, often claiming that their children’s abilities exceed their own. Can this really be true? In nearly all other contexts, adult memory is known to be superior to that of children, for obvious reasons, including the immaturity of children’s brain development and their lack of sophisticated mnemonic strategies.
A small study in Developmental Science has put pre-literate four-year-olds’ memory abilities to the test, finding that they outperformed their parents, and a comparison group of young adults, in their ability to recall a previously unfamiliar short rhyme: “The Radish-nosed King”.
“We argue that children are better than adults at recalling verse because they exercise the skill more in order to participate in the transmission of their culture through songs and stories, poems and taunts,” the researchers said.
Psychologists have, before now, largely neglected to study children’s verbatim memory for rhymes. They’ve been more interested in whether rhyming verse can act as a memory booster for content – that is, the meaning and story conveyed by the words – rather than the words themselves. These studies have found that rhyme tends to be a hindrance compared with straightforward prose. This might be because kids love rhymes and so focus more on the rhyming words and sounds, at the expense of the overall meaning.
Ildikó Király and her colleauges at Central European University recruited 13 parents and their 14 four-year-old children and asked the parents to read the 167-word Radish-nosed King poem and picture book to the children each night before bed for ten nights. The poem, previously unfamiliar to all participants, has the AABB rhyming scheme and was age-appropriate for the children.
The parents were told that they would be tested on their memory for the poem, the children weren’t. A comparison group of 13 university students also listened to a reading of the poem each night before bed, while looking through a version of the picture book with the text removed. They too were told that their memory of the poem would tested after the final tenth night.
On the day after the last reading of the poem, the researchers asked the parents, children and the young adults to recall as much of the poem as they could, verbatim. On average, the children remembered nearly twice as many correct words as the adults, and made far fewer errors. The researchers also tested all the participants on the story events in the poem, and here there was no difference between the groups.
Also, there was a further detail: the researchers had inserted one extra line at the beginning or end of the poem, consisting of a list of nonsense and irrelevant (non-rhyming) words, supposedly shouted by the king when he’s angry. This was to test the participants’ memory for non-verse content, and here again the children and adults’ performance was matched, which argues against the idea that the children’s superior memory for the verse itself was due to the adults not paying attention (if so, they should have underperformed on the random word list too).
Instead, Király and her team think that young children have a superior memory for rhyming verse because rhymes aid the oral transmission of stories and songs that form such an important part of their preliterate sub-culture.
Digging a little deeper into their results, the researchers found that the children’s memory advantage over adults was especially in evidence for the rhyming words that appeared toward the end of each of the poem’s lines. It seems children, more than adults, are particularly attuned to the way that the constraints of a rhyme can act as a memory prompt, perhaps through their extensive practise with recalling rhymes.
Reflecting on this last finding, Király and her colleagues said the promise of verse as an educational tool might yet be restored: “if to-be-learned material is coded verbatim in a verse, with the help of rhyme as a constraining literary device, as in the alphabet song or when, say, introducing new vocabulary for animal names, children should readily retain it, perhaps better than their teachers.”
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