It’s not often that 4-year-olds have something in common with Shakespearean actors – but researchers from the University of Massachusetts Boston, with collaborators at Eötvös Loránd University and Central European University in Hungary, have discovered that preschool children are gifted at memorizing rhyming text. In fact, when pitted against adults, kids remembered up to twice the words in a rhyming story. This new research was published this month in the journal Developmental Science.
Researchers asked thirteen parents in Budapest, Hungary to read a rhyming story from a picture book every night to their four-year-old children for ten nights. Two different groups of young adults listened to a recording of the same story. All groups were then asked to recite the story from memory (while looking at the pictures in the book). While people from all three groups could remember the gist of the story equally well, the four-year-olds could recall an average of 117 of 167 words in the poem correctly. Their parents, on the other hand, averaged only 87 words. The two groups of young adults were the poorest performers, managing just an average of 70, and 56 correct words, respectively.
Associate Professor of Psychology and Co-Director of the UMass Boston Baby Lab Zsuzsa Kaldy says that this research sheds light on the “preliterate society” formed by very young children. You were probably a part of that society once upon a time, too.
“I don’t know if you remember where you learned ‘eenie meenie minie moe,’” Kaldy says, “But it was probably from other children, rather than adults. In traditional societies, children spend more time without adults, and transmit their own stories, jokes, and counting rhymes.”
Children lean on rhymes to transmit information, since they don’t yet have the tools to read or write. Rhyming is a powerful memory aid. Kaldy compares this skill to that of people in preliterate societies. In times and places where literacy was uncommon, bards memorized epic poetry or ballads to transmit history and culture from one person to another.
“This is a very core part of who we are and how the human mind works,” Kaldy says.
So why do adults lose their ability to memorize rhyming passages? Kaldy believes that there are a few factors. Modern education does not emphasize memorization of text. Some adults, like professional actors, need to keep up their memorization skills. Additionally, for the most part, adults in modern society spend their time reading and writing on computer or mobile phone screens. Our writing skills get an extra boost – possibly at the expense of our memorization skills.
Kaldy hopes to conduct a follow-up study with children ages six to ten. The new study would examine how long it takes for this memorization skill to atrophy after a child learns to read and write.
Watch a video of a child reciting a Hungarian rhyme she has memorized.