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Daytime napping may boost literacy skills in preschoolers

When children learn to read they have to work out the connections between the sounds they hear in words and the letters they read. Known as letter-sound mapping, this skill ultimately helps young people to build word recognition and decoding skills that improve fluency in both reading and writing. Previous research has shown that proficiency in letter-sound mapping in young children is strongly associated with later reading success, but there is little research about the relationship between sleep, memory development, and literacy skills.

It is common practice to allow preschool children to nap during the daytime, and researchers from Macquarie University in Australia, the University of Oxford, the University of York and the University of Sheffield wondered what impact these short periods of sleep would have on the acquisition of letter-sound skills. They monitored the learning progress of thirty-two three-to-five-year-old children from two daycare centers in Sydney, Australia, who napped regularly. 

Each child participated in seven sessions, over two to four weeks, which included the following:

  • a pre-test that was used to establish baseline levels of letter-sound knowledge;
  • letter-sound mapping training – this was held a week apart under both “nap” and “no-nap” conditions;  
  • post-tests that were used to assess learning, once after a nap and once after a period of wakefulness. 

The knowledge gained during training was also reassessed one day later, to determine whether any effect of napping on learning was retained. Each session assessed letter-sound mappings and using explicit learning (e.g., “Which sound does the letter C make?”) and knowledge generalization tasks (e.g., “Here’s Tav and Cav, which one is /kav/?”).

The results of the study, published today in the journal Child Development, find that a daytime nap improves a child’s ability to learn letter sounds and to transfer this newly learned knowledge to the recognition of printed letters in a word; this implies that naps could be beneficial for preschool children’s learning of letter-sound mappings.

“Having a nap after learning might facilitate the capacity to utilize newly learned information in a new task,” said Hua-Chen Wang, Lecturer in the School of Education at Macquarie University. “We found a positive nap effect on children’s learning of letter-sound mappings, and in particular, on using that knowledge to read unfamiliar words.”

The researchers hypothesized that, if a nap benefits a child’s letter-sound skills, then children who napped would perform better on both the explicit learning tasks (when children were asked to produce or recognize the letter sounds they learned earlier) and knowledge transfer tasks (when children were asked to identify unfamiliar words containing the letter sounds they learned earlier). The findings showed that napping did positively affect performance on the knowledge transfer test. Furthermore, this nap benefit was maintained the following day. 

It is true that the research was not carried out in a laboratory and that this prevented the measurement of physiological features of sleep, such as the amount of time spent in REM (rapid eye movement) sleep and whether this was related to improved learning. This would perhaps be an appropriate direction for future research. The authors also note that, since the nap effect was only found in generalizing letter-sound knowledge to recognizing printed words, but not on the explicit learning measures, future research on this topic with a larger sample size is recommended.  

“The research provides initial evidence that naps facilitate the acquisition and application of letter-sound mappings, abilities that are crucial to early reading development,” said Anne Castles, Professor of Psychological Studies at Macquarie University.  “These findings may have implications for creating the optimal conditions for the acquisition of this fundamental literacy skill in preschool children.”

By Alison Bosman, Staff Writer

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