Get Some Sleep! The Power of Sleep for Word Learning

2 October 2017

I like to think I am not the only teacher who spends their evenings preparing an engaging and thrilling lesson only to be faced by a class of students who are yawning and struggling to stay awake through its entirety. However, as I refuse to take things personally, I decided to find the cause of this apparent ‘classroom boredom’ and this led me to investigate the possible impact that a lack of sleep has upon young people.

Recent research suggests that we are in a sleep crisis and that we are a nation of sleep deprived individuals, with the teenage population being among the least likely to get enough sleep. Psychologist Jane Ansell found that over 50% of adolescents were not sleeping the 9 hours that is recommended by the National Sleep Foundation.

Many of us in society view sleep as a luxury that busy people just cannot afford. However, research shows that having sufficient sleep is actually a biological necessity and not getting enough is likely to be having a significant emotional impact on our students – and perhaps us too.

Sleep plays a significant role in mood regulation and mental health charity ‘Mind’ has found a relationship between sleep and mental illness, in particular with depression and anxiety. A lack of sleep has also been linked with paranoia and hallucinations and more recently poor quality sleep has been linked to an increased risk of obesity by de-regulating appetite and increasing energy consumption.

We are beginning to recognise the fundamental importance of sleep and the impact it has on our biology and how valuable it is to our well-being. However, it is only in the most recent research that its role in consolidating vocabulary has been investigated and the direct impact that sleep has on brain activity and the learning that takes place in the classroom.

James et al. (2017) found that there is a biological explanation for this as during sleep new words are strengthened and integrated with existing vocabulary knowledge. This is a result of a transfer from the hippocampus (a temporary short-term store) to neocortical memory (associated with long-term memory). This then becomes integrated with existing vocabulary in neocortical memory over time (but particularly during sleep). There is strong evidence that memory reorganisation continues for months and years after first encountering new information.

The idea that children’s representations of novel words are associated with sleep has theoretical implications for vocabulary acquisition in children. This research provides clear evidence of the role sleep plays in learning and it shows that environmental factors have an impact on consolidation of vocabulary. The fact that children have a greater demand on learning and neural reorganisation means that this is likely to have more of a significant impact on them compared to adults.

Unfortunately, our ability to change our students sleep habits is largely out of our control. When they go to bed, whether they have access to technology prior to sleeping, how quiet and dark their room is are all factors that will affect their quality of sleep (there are even biological changes that put most teens on a later sleep-wake clock). In the US some schools have taken drastic measures and have shifted the school day so that students start later in an attempt to help them get more sleep.

Even if we don’t have the capacity to make such changes we can all minimise some of the negative effects by educating both parents and students. We must make them change their attitudes towards sleep and recognise the value that it has in terms of their educational attainment as well as emotional well-being. In short, we need to have a word. In the meantime, we will just have to try not to take all that yawning personally…

Take a look at the interesting Education Endowment Foundation ‘Teen Sleep‘ project – HERE.


Upcoming events from Huntington Research School include:

Evidence in Education on October 20th 2017. This programme for school leaders features Sean Harford from OFSTED and Roger Pope from the National College of Teaching and Leadership, as well as representatives from the EEF and the IEE, Alex Quigley, Jo Pearson, James Siddle, John Tomsett, Megan Dixon and more. Topics include accessing the ‘funding pipeline’, performance management, measuring success and getting started with evidence.

Building Confident Research Leads starting on 29th November 2017. This innovative programme is for school leaders who are looking to solve issues in their school, MAT or TSA. From establishing evidence-based teaching and learning; knowing your OFSTED ‘story’, responding to changing curriculum and assessment, as well as undertaking inquiry in your setting.


Image via: Pixabay – Engin Aykut.


Posted on 2 October 2017
Posted in: Blog
Tags: , , , , , , ,

Comments are closed.