Does reading aloud improve memorization?

From his prison cell, Flaubert put his writings to the test by reading them aloud. In doing so, he hoped to verify and improve the precision of his prose. In addition to this literary use, reading aloud is often used in the classroom to ensure that students can sound out words correctly and read fluently. A recent study which appeared in the journal Memory has just demonstrated another benefit of reading aloud. What if reading aloud was more effective than silent reading in helping us to memorize words?

Many cognitive psychology experiments have already shown that if we do something ourselves when learning a skill, it strengthens memory encoding of the new information. Taking notes is a classic example of this “production effect.” The study by Noah D. Forrin and Colin MacLeod is based on this effect and aims to compare four methods of written word memorization. During the first session of the protocol, 75 students read and recorded a list of 160 words presented one after another on a computer screen. The subjects weren't told why they were being asked to record the words.

Two weeks later, the students were divided into four groups and presented with 20 words from this first session. The participants were asked to either read the words silently, read them aloud, hear someone else read them, or listen to their own recordings of the words. After exposure to the words through one of these modalities, the participants were asked to identify which words were present. Which method was the most effective?

The group of silent readers identified the fewest words followed by those who heard the words read by someone other than themselves. When subjects heard their own voice, they performed better, but the best performance was seen in the group of students that read the list of words aloud. Why is reading out loud more effective than just listening to ourselves? According to Colin MacLeod, a professor and chair of the Department of Psychology at the University of Waterloo in Canada and post-doctoral fellow Noah Forrin, “oral production is beneficial because it entails two distinctive components: a motor (speech) act and a unique, self-referential auditory input.” These two components strengthen engagement with the words in addition to the production effect. Moreover, all of us sometimes repeat information out loud when we’re trying to remember it. This research suggests that repetition is more effective if the information we’re trying to memorize is spoken out loud.

Finally, it should be noted that this study measures word recognition from a list (in multiple choice format, which is less demanding than having to reproduce the list spontaneously); it would be interesting to see if a test using texts produces the same results.
Source: Noah D. Forrin & Colin M. MacLeod. “This time it’s personal: the memory benefit of hearing oneself”, in Memory, Oct. 2017


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