New MRI studies confirm what early child educators have known all along: Reading to preschoolers exerts a positive influence on the developing brain.
Behavioral evidence has already shown that children who receive regular read-aloud time—especially before starting school—experience stronger parent-child relationships and learn valuable language and literacy skills.
But researchers wanted to know more about what happens on a physiological level. In a study to be published in the September 2015 issue of Pediatrics, the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), researchers looked at 3- to 5-year old children to examine the relationship between shared parent-child reading time and brain activity.
Participants underwent a functional MRI scan while listening through headphones to age-appropriate, prerecorded stories read in a female voice.
Results showed a strong, positive association between brain activation during listening and a home reading environment that included access to a variety of books and frequency of read-aloud activities.
Children from more stimulating home reading environments had greater activity in brain areas supporting narrative comprehension and visual imagery. Both are important for developing language and reading skills.
A foundation for school success
Researchers say it is these brief moments of connection with a book or story that help build the developing brain and prepare children for future success in school.
The findings reinforce AAP literacy recommendations, specifically the claim that reading exerts a positive effect on the developing brain. They back up the recommendation that parent-child home reading should begin at birth and continue at least through kindergarten.
The opportunity to foster early brain growth with read-aloud time is available to everyone, regardless of socioeconomic status, says Anne Welch, MD, a pediatrician at the Banner Health Center in Maricopa.
“Libraries provide an option for rotating new material or enjoying books that may not otherwise fit into a family’s budget,” says Welch. “Language does not even have to be a barrier—simply looking at pictures and creating a story in a family’s own language is just as valuable as reading the exact words on the page.”
Welch, a member of the AAP’s Arizona Chapter (AzAAP), spearheaded an effort to bring the Reach Out and Read (ROR) program to the Banner Medical Group. Established in 1989, ROR promotes early literacy and school readiness in pediatric exam rooms by integrating into well-child visits children’s books and advice to parents about the importance of reading aloud. Primary care providers provide brand-new books to children at well checks from infancy through age 5.
By offering books in the medical home setting, physicians are able to share with parents and caregivers the importance of reading and talking with children every day.
“In this increasingly screen-filled world, the importance of sitting side by side with your child and a story cannot be underestimated,” says Welch.