New MRI evidence shows that reading to young children is linked to differences in brain activity associated with early reading skills. The research will be presented at the Pediatric Academic Societies (PAS) annual meeting in San Diego.
“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,” said study author John Hutton, M.D., researcher at the Reading and Literacy Discovery Center, Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center.
“Of particular importance are brain areas supporting mental imagery, helping the child ‘see the story’ beyond the pictures, affirming the invaluable role of imagination.”
The American Academy of Pediatrics and reading advocacy groups have encouraged parents to read to their children from birth to foster early learning and create connections in the brain that promote language development. This study is the first, however, to show direct evidence of reading’s effects on the brain.
For the study, the researchers evaluated 19 healthy preschoolers ages three to five years old, 37 percent of whom were from low-income households. The primary caregiver of each child completed a questionnaire designed to measure cognitive stimulation in the home.
The questionnaire covered three areas: parent-child reading, including access to books, frequency of reading and variety of books read; parent-child interaction, including talking and playing; and whether parents taught specific skills such as counting and shapes.
The children then underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which measured brain activity while they listened to age-appropriate stories via headphones. The children were awake and non-sedated during fMRI, and there was no visual stimulus. Researchers were curious as to whether there would be differences in brain activation in areas known to be involved with language.
The findings revealed that greater home reading exposure was significantly linked to the activation of specific brain areas supporting semantic processing (the extraction of meaning from language). These areas are critical for oral language and later for reading.
Brain areas associated with mental imagery showed particularly strong activation, suggesting that visualization plays a key role in narrative comprehension and reading readiness, allowing children to “see” the story.
“This becomes increasingly important as children advance from books with pictures to books without them, where they must imagine what is going on in the text,” Hutton said.
The link between home reading exposure and brain activity remained strong after controlling for household income.
“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,” Hutton concluded.
Source: American Academy of Pediatrics