​How a good night's sleep can boost our word power

Sleep plays an important role in the development of vocabulary, especially in children, according to our psychologists​

Credit: Shutterstock/Steve Lovegrove

The process by which sleep helps young children turn fragile memories into robust learning outcomes is at the heart of two research projects that could have a profound impact on teachers, educationalists and parents around the world.

“Given that children encounter new information at a dramatic rate, it is important to understand what factors influence this consolidation process to ensure that their learning is optimal,” says Dr Lisa Henderson of our Department of Psychology.

Autism spectrum disorder

“As any parent will tell you, we know that sleep difficulties are common in young children and this is particularly the case in children affected by neurodevelopmental disorders characterised by language learning impairments, such as autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

“But so far,” she says, “little progress has been made in examining whether learning and sleep difficulties are related in these groups,”

Dr Henderson and her team at the York Sleep Lab are exploring this possible connection with the support of funding from the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and the Waterloo Foundation.


Dr Henderson gave a talk on her work at our research showcase, YorkTalks 2016

Sleep and memory

“York has a growing reputation for research into the impact of sleep, with colleagues such as Professor Gareth Gaskell doing groundbreaking work on sleep and memory,” she says.

In the ESRC project, Dr Henderson is working with Professor Gaskell on a comparative study between children of different ages and adults, as well as between typical and atypical groups of the same age.

“This is giving us the chance to test theories of consolidation in terms of whether they can explain the substantial variability across and within development.”

The project has two key strands. The first is examining the role of ‘slow oscillation’ sleep waves in the learning of novel words in children between the ages of ten and 12 - the age at which slow oscillations are thought to peak - and comparing this with what happens in adults and younger children.

The second strand of work is the first systematic study of how atypical sleep patterns  relate to language learning difficulties in children with and without ASD.

Language impairment

This comparison will enable the research team to separate learning mechanisms associated with ASD from those attributable to language impairment.

The linked project funded by the Waterloo Foundation is looking at children with dyslexia and other learning difficulties.


“Our research is showing that sleep parameters of children with dyslexia has no reflection in how many new words they remembered the next day. So this suggests that while sleep is functioning to promote strengthened memory for new words in children without dyslexia, it is not functioning in the same way in dyslexia.”

Dr Henderson says this is likely to be a consequence of how children with dyslexia learn in the first place - their learning is less effective so that means that what can become consolidated during sleep is less well encoded so it is not strengthened in the same way.

“But more research needs to be done to fully understand this process -and this is an area we will focus on in the future  ,” she says. 

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York has a growing reputation for research into the impact of sleep”

Dr Lisa Henderson

This research is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and the Waterloo Foundation.

Featured researcher
Dr Lisa Henderson

Dr Lisa Henderson

Research interests in language and reading development and the neurological mechanisms that underpin language processes and language learning

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Find out more about the SLAM (Sleep Language and Memory) lab at Yorkhttps://www.york.ac.uk/psychology/research/facilities/slam/

Vocabulary acquisition is associated with sleep in childhood, published in Developmental Science ​

Dr Henderson's research featured in YorkTalks 2016, the showcase event for some of our most exciting, innovative research. This year we filmed the presentations - watch the films here