It has been well known for a while now that reading to children before preschool plays an important role in cognitive development, researchers at the Pediatric Academic Societies (PAS) have used MRI technology to determine that reading to a child causes activity in the brain related to reading skill development, verbal development, and image development, giving children a cognitive advantage very early in childhood.
“We are excited to show, for the first time, that reading exposure during the critical stage of development prior to kindergarten seems to have a meaningful, measurable impact on how a child’s brain processes stories and may help predict reading success,” Hutton said in a press release. “Of particular importance are brain areas supporting mental imagery, helping the child ‘see the story’ beyond the pictures, affirming the invaluable role of imagination.”
In the latest study conducted by Dr. John Hutton and his colleagues at the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, the actual activity that goes on in the brain when young children are read to has been visualised. Athough reading has been encouraged for a long time by the American Academy of Pediatrics, this is the first time evidence of changes in the brain being seen and measured.
“To display how reading to children affects the brain networks that develop reading skills, Hutton and his team gathered 19 healthy preschoolers, ages 3 to 5, and studied them in relation to their reading habits. Out of this group, 37 percent came from low-income families. Each child’s parent or primary caregiver was given a survey designed to measure the amounts of cognitive stimulation children were given in the home. The survey focused on three main elements: parent-child reading consisting of how often reading occurred, the availability of books, and the variety of these books; parent-child interaction consisting of talking and playing together; and finally, whether parents taught additional skills like shapes and counting. The researchers then had the children listen to age-appropriate stories being told through headphones while they were receiving functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). They then searched for differences in brain activation in areas known to support language development and story comprehension. No sedation was used, nor did the children experience any visual stimuli.”
What the researchers found was that children that the more frequently read to children had greater activity in the part of their brains responsible for semantic processing which helps us to derive meaning from language. This area is crucial to verbal language development and ultimately reading. These researchers have also found that brain areas associated with imagery were also strongly activated, allowing children to “see the story,” which supports previous theories that visualization is an essential component of understanding stories and reading development. These skills become increasingly important as a child progresses from books with pictures to non picture books, where they are required to imagine what is happening in the text. The final finding determined through the study was that frequency of reading, independent of household income, has the same positive effects on children.
“Hutton is hopeful that his research, now more than ever, will encourage parents to continue reading to their children. He is also optimistic that this research will have implications for those with reading disabilities, helping to combat them early on. He concluded by saying: “We hope that this work will guide further research on shared reading and the developing brain to help improve interventions and identify children at risk for difficulties as early as possible, increasing the chances that they will be successful in the wonderful world of books.”