Reading to toddlers increases young brain activity

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mother and son reading book in bed

Recent studies explain why reading to children helps them perform better academically and increases their vocabularies. (Thinkstock Photo)

“Doctor, my child is now 2 years old. When should I start reading aloud to him?”

The young mother directed her question to Dr. Benjamin Spock, a pediatrician and noted child-rearing authority, during a Q&A session.

Dr. Spock answered, “Hurry home, madam, you’re already two years late.”

This account happened more than 50 years ago, but his response rings even more true today. As parents of infants and preschoolers in Utah Valley watch older children in their neighborhood go off to school, they may wonder if their own children will be ready.

Recent studies confirm what most parents already know: Reading to young children results in good academic outcomes.

“Even as someone who is already in the choir, I am fascinated by the ways that new research is teasing out the complexity and the underlying mechanisms of something which can seem easy, natural and, well, simple,” said Perri Klass, M.D., in a New York Times article.

[pullquote]“As every parent who has read a bedtime story knows, this is all happening in the context of face-time, of skin-to-skin contact, of the hard-to-quantify but essential mix of security and comfort and ritual. It’s what makes toddlers demand the same story over and over again, and it’s the reason parents tear up (especially those of us with adult children) when we occasionally happen across a long-ago bedtime book.”

—Dr. Perri Klass[/pullquote]

Dr. Klass and Dr. Pamela C. High did extensive research and reviews on the links between growing up with books and reading aloud, and later language development and school success. He said that although doctors have known for a long time that reading to children is beneficial, there was little understanding of what mechanisms were involved.

But a study in August, explained in the journal Pediatrics, used magnetic resonance to study brain activity in 3 to 5 year olds as they listened to stories. The researchers found increased brain activity correlated with how often the children had been read to at home.

Children whose parents reported more reading at home showed significantly greater activation of the brain areas in the left hemisphere called the parietal-temporal-occipital association cortex.

“This is a watershed region, all about multisensory integration, integrating sound and then visual stimulation,” said the lead author, Dr. John S. Hutton, a clinical research fellow at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center to The Times.

Dr. Hutton explained that children activate that region of the brain when they read to themselves, but it is also activated when they are just listening to the stories.

“When kids are hearing stories, they’re imagining in their mind’s eye when they hear the story,” he said. “For example, ‘The frog jumped over the log.’ I’ve seen a frog before, I’ve seen a log before, what does that look like?”

Such stimulation, however, may be short-circuited when parents show young children cartoons or video. “They’re not having to imagine the stories. It’s just being fed to them,” Dr. Hutton said.

The American Academy of Pediatrics issued a policy statement over a year ago, advising parents about how important it is to read to even very young children.

Another study in Psychological Science found that reading to young children significantly helps them with vocabulary and language skills. Researchers found that books had more “unique word types” than child-directed speech.

Finally, there is the element of closeness between parent and child when reading is taking place.

“As every parent who has read a bedtime story knows, this is all happening in the context of face-time, of skin-to-skin contact, of the hard-to-quantify but essential mix of security and comfort and ritual. It’s what makes toddlers demand the same story over and over again, and it’s the reason parents tear up (especially those of us with adult children) when we occasionally happen across a long-ago bedtime book,” Dr. Klass said to the Times.

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Ron Bennett is a recently retired university journalism professor at Brigham Young University-Idaho, where he taught journalistic writing, editing and mass media classes. He received the Distinguished Faculty award at BYU-I in 2012, and he was honored by the College Media Advisers Association in 2002 with the Distinguished Newspaper Adviser's Award. Prior to entering education, he was a professional journalist at several newspapers, including the Gazette-Journal in Reno, Nevada.

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