Pediatricians often recommend parents routinely read aloud to their young children.
Now, for the first time, researchers have hard evidence that doing so activates the parts of preschoolers' brains that help with mental imagery and understanding narrative -- both of which are key for the development of language and literacy.
"There have been a good number of studies that have [found] empirical evidence that reading to kids does have an impact on things such as literacy and oral language readiness," Dr. Thomas DeWitt, director of the division of general and community pediatrics at Cincinnati Children's Hospital, told The Huffington Post. "But prior to this study, we really have not been able to [answer], 'Does it have an impact biologically on brain function?'"
In the study, which will be published in the August 10 issue of Pediatrics, researchers looked at the brains of 19 3- to 5-year-olds using magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI. Researchers scanned the children's brains while they listened recordings of a woman reading stories, as well as while they listened to background noise, in order to see how their brains responded when faced with different types of stimulation. The team also gathered information about how stimulating the children's home reading environments were, which they assessed by asking about things like how frequently they were read to and whether they were exposed to a variety of books.
The MRIs revealed that children from more stimulating home reading environments had greater activity in the parts of the brain that help with narrative comprehension and visual imagery. Their brains showed greater activity in those key areas while they listened to stories.
"This is a small and very early study, but the exciting thing it was able to demonstrate is that early reading does have an impact on the parts of the brain that are fundamental for developing literacy early on," DeWitt said. "It's biological evidence that transcends empirical studies."
The American Academy of Pediatrics, which publishes Pediatrics, has long been outspoken about the importance of reading at home throughout infancy and early childhood, arguing that it can improve language skills, foster literacy development and help with other less tangible qualities.
"Parents who spend time reading to their children create nurturing relationships, which is important for a child’s cognitive, language and social-emotional development," the AAP has said.
DeWitt said it is yet unclear whether it matters if a child's parent or some other caregiver, say a teacher, regularly reads aloud to them. These are questions he hopes will be tackled in future investigations. It is also important to attempt similar MRI studies with larger samples.
But for now, he said the findings provide exciting biological evidence of what so many parents already know: that reading to their babies and children is important and helps to prime their developing brains.
"Start using books early on with your kids," DeWitt urged. "Reading early -- and often -- is important."
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