Parents have been told for generations that reading aloud to children is good for them. Thanks to modern technology, researchers can now say that reading aloud actually causes biological changes in young children. Yes, reading to and with young children changes their brains in ways that may enhance their later literacy skills.
Cincinnati Children’s Hospital’s Reading and Literacy Discovery Center conducted research that included MRI scans of children’s brains while they listened to recordings of stories. Nineteen children ranging in age from 3 to 5 were studied. Most children are not yet reading at that age, but they are developing “emergent literacy” or skills that lead to reading success later. In addition to the MRI study, researchers asked parents about the frequency of shared reading experiences in the home and assessed the children’s environments for numbers of books, other reading materials, and educational toys.
Results of the study showed greater neuron (brain cell) activity in the brain’s left hemisphere in children who were read to regularly and exposed to an environment where literacy was valued. The left hemisphere generally controls language processing, word comprehension, and visual imagery. The American Academy of Pediatrics welcomes this study as supporting their position that reading aloud is important for language skills later in life. Pediatricians also promote the value of reading in nurturing social and emotional development of young children.
Young children are learning the connection between print on a page and sounds made by the reader (phonological awareness.) As they follow along, they begin to grasp that certain letters typically make certain sounds. They also develop a feel for how stories are structured, with a beginning, middle and end. Grammar and syntax are naturally learned as the child hears good examples read to them. As with exposure to music or foreign languages, children learn through repetition what “sounds right.”
Questions this study did not address included whether it mattered who read to the child. They hope to do further study to determine if reading by a parent is substantively different for the child than reading by a caregiver or teacher, for example. It is clear that reading has a beneficial biological impact on the growing child, although studies using larger samples will give a better idea of just how great the effect could be.
Biological measurements confirm parents can have an impact on their children’s later literacy. Simply providing an environment in which books and magazines are present and children are encouraged to handle them is one step parents should take. Reading the books aloud to the child is, of course, essential as well. If a parent cannot always be available for reading, consider making recordings of favorite books and having them available for the child to listen to. Audio books are also available as an occasional supplement. A child can learn to follow along as a story is read, keeping the connection between print and sound clear. A children’s librarian at your local public library can suggest books based on a child’s interests and age or maturity level. They may also suggest magazines for young children. Receiving reading materials in the mail could also be exciting and motivating for a child.
Finally, parents can model literacy by reading books and magazines in the home. When children see a parent reading, they learn that reading is an important and “grown-up” activity and they want to experience it, too. Earlier research showed that reading a novel made biological changes in adult brains, so one may take that as an argument in favor of lifelong learning.
Enjoy special times reading good books with your children. Poems, alphabet books, nature books, and fairy tales are beneficial for the developing brain.