The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that parents begin reading to their children as soon as they are born. While this may seem a little early to some, there is an increasing body of evidence that shows that kids who have early and regular exposure to books and stories – sometimes called “bookishness” – have a better grasp of oral language fluency, mental imagery, and reading comprehension. In addition, during reading time, babies listen to parents’ voices, become comfortable with their scent, and get used to the sound of the words they hear. An early start makes reading time more likely to become a positive ritual for both parents and kids.
A study published in the August 10, 2015 issue of the journal Pediatrics studied children between the ages of 3 and 5 using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), a measure of blood flow in the brain regions activated by a particular task. Those who were read to by their parents displayed greater neuron activity on the left side of the brain, the side that controls word comprehension, language processing, and visual imagery. Previous research indicated that children with parents who adhered to regular story time had more mature oral language skills, but this was the first study that revealed (using real-time fMRI scans) that listening to stories read by parents could biologically change a child’s brain.
Tzipi Horowitz-Kraus, Ph.D., the study’s co-author and the program director of the Reading and Literacy Discovery Center at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center commented, “Reading to kids really changes their brains, even at a very young age. This helps prepare them to learn academically and also helps them socially when it comes to interacting with their peers.”
The research team placed the children in an fMRI chamber and read narrative stories to them, such as “The frog jumped over the log,” which would stimulate the parts of the brain that were activated in visualization and word processing. Once this was complete, they asked each set of parents how often they read aloud to their kids and how literate their home environment was — for example, if they had books and other reading material around the house, as well as educational toys and games.
The results showed an association between the time the youngsters were read to at home in combination with the more literate their home environment was, and higher activity levels in the brain when they were read to. This association was especially true in the regions where words are matched to meanings and combined with visual imagery. While not a definitive correlation, “We can say that being read to engages parts of the brain that contribute to reading comprehension down the road,” noted Horowitz-Kraus. The researchers suggest that parents should make time to read to their children at least a few minutes each day.
In today’s society, another question arises – do digital books have the same or a similar effect on children’s reading development? Scientists are still struggling to understand how technology influences kids, but lead author John Hutton says digital books probably show similar results, assuming the parent and child are still engaged with each other. “I think there is value to all of them as long as the parent stays involved in the process with the child, and the child is encouraged to use his imagination as much as possible,” he commented. The key to reading success, then, depends not just on bookishness, but also on the interaction between the child and his parent during the reading process.