From the literature #1: “Why are rhymes easy to learn?” by Bower & Bolton

With this post we begin another series on this blog: “From the literature.” It will discuss journal articles with special relevance to science songs.

I’ll kick things off with the classic paper “Why are rhymes easy to learn?” (Gordon H. Bower and Laura S. Bolton, Journal of Experimental Psychology 82: 453-61, 1969). The abstract is as follows.

The question was why a list of rhyming paired associates is learned faster than a list of unrelated pairs. It is proposed that the rhyming relation restricts the range of response alternatives to the stimulus, practically converting recall into a recognition test. Several tests of this hypothesis proved confirmatory. First, an assonance (change of last phoneme) rule for pairs, which restricts alternatives about as much as a rhyming rule, facilitated performance about as much as a rhyming rule. Second, when response alternatives were equated by multiple-choice tests for memory, the advantage for rhyming pairs vanished. A third experiment showed that the presence of some rhyming pairs in a list induced [subjects] to generalize this rule inappropriately to other pairs, thereby suffering interference on those pairs composed by re-pairing rhyming units.

The hypothesis mentioned above is essentially that when you are trying to recall a word, it is a big advantage to be able to restrict the possibilities to “words that rhyme with X.” The hypothesis was explored in several ways using undergraduate students as test subjects. In one experiment, the authors asked whether recalling pairs of words in which the last phoneme was changed (e.g., hat and ham) is easier than recalling pairs of unrelated words. It is; in fact, the advantage in recall is similar to the advantage gained when rhyming words are used. This is consistent with the hypothesis because a rule of “only the last phoneme changes” restricts the pool of possible answers to about the same extent as a rule of “the words must rhyme.”

In further experiments, the authors assessed subjects’ recall of word pairs using multiple-choice questions. Subjects did quite well on questions where only the correct answer rhymed with the prompt word, but not so well when all of the choices rhymed with the prompt, or when none of them did. These results also are consistent with the hypothesis stated above. In short, there is nothing magical about rhyming per se; rather, rhyming aids recall when (and only when) it helps people rule out most possible alternatives.

What are the implications of these findings for educational songs? Well, if a song is meant to be memorized, then rhymes should be included in the lyrics. Furthermore, “perfect rhymes” (e.g., hat and cat) should be used whenever possible; the inclusion of imperfect rhymes (e.g., hat and cad) doesn’t limit the choices to the same extent.

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