Learning new word meanings from story reading: The benefit of immediate testing

Rachael C. Hulme*, Jennifer M. Rodd

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


This study investigated how word meanings can be learned from natural story reading. Three experiments with adult participants compared naturalistic incidental learning with intentional learning of new meanings for familiar words, and examined the role of immediate tests in maintaining memory of new word meanings. In Experiment 1, participants learned new meanings for familiar words through incidental (story reading) and intentional (definition training task) conditions. Memory was tested with cued recall of meanings and multiple-choice meaning-to-word matching immediately and 24 h later. Results for both measures showed higher accuracy for intentional learning, which was also more time efficient than incidental learning. However, there was reasonably good learning from both methods, and items learned incidentally through stories appeared less susceptible to forgetting over 24 h. It was possible that retrieval practice at the immediate test may have aided learning and improved memory of new word meanings 24 h later, especially for the incidental story reading condition. Two preregistered experiments then examined the role of immediate testing in long-term retention of new meanings for familiar words. There was a strong testing effect for word meanings learned through intentional and incidental conditions (Experiment 2), which was non-significantly larger for items learned incidentally through stories. Both cued recall and multiple-choice tests were each individually sufficient to enhance retention compared to having no immediate test (Experiment 3), with a larger learning boost from multiple-choice. This research emphasises (i) the resilience of word meanings learned incidentally through stories and (ii) the key role that testing can play in boosting vocabulary learning from story reading.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbere11693
Publication statusPublished - 10 Aug 2021

Bibliographical note

© 2021 Hulme and Rodd. This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, reproduction and adaptation in any medium and for any purpose provided that it is properly attributed. For attribution, the original author(s), title, publication source (PeerJ) and either DOI or URL of the article must be cited.

Funding: This work was supported by a doctoral studentship (award ref 1473923) from the Economic and Social Research Council (grant number ES/K013351/1).


  • Incidental learning
  • intentional learning
  • testing effect
  • homonyms
  • story reading


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