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New Research Shows Reading Aloud Promotes Brain Activity and Language Development

June 3, 2015

New Research Shows Reading Aloud Promotes Brain Activity and Language Development

The first scientific study of its kind has yielded findings which indicate that reading aloud to children has a measurable impact on brain activity and language development.

In a study of preschoolers which used fMRI whole-brain imaging to explore the benefits of parents reading to young children, Dr. John Hutton and his colleagues at the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center found significant differences in brain activity between children who are read to regularly in the home and those that receive less cognitive stimulation. For this experiment, children underwent a brain scan while listening to age-appropriate stories on headphones.

Dr. Hutton presented his findings in a lecture titled “Parent-Child Reading Increases Activation of Brain Networks Supporting Emergent Literacy in 3-5 Year-Old Children: An fMRI Study” at the Pediatric Academic Societies (PAS) annual meeting in April.

In a press release from the American Academy of Pediatrics, Dr. Hutton said, “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.”

The press release goes on to report that “greater home reading exposure was strongly associated with 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.”

Implications for raising bilingual kids

This study, which produced the first “direct evidence of effects on the brain” from reading aloud (as the press release puts it), seems to add weight to the argument that a daily read-aloud routine is invaluable for nurturing a bilingual child’s minority language. As I contend in The Secret to Raising a Bilingual Child, this practice should form the very core of our efforts to raise bilingual children: not only does it have a tremendous impact on our children’s language and literacy development, it also provides a solid platform for our broader efforts each day.

Here are several points worth stressing:

  • As vital as it is to frequently engage our children in conversation, the written language of books and other texts provides a richer form of exposure with more sophisticated uses of language.
  • Reading aloud encourages an early interest in books and literacy in the minority language.
  • Literacy in the minority language, and motivation for reading, are essential for reaching progressively higher levels of language ability.
  • Compelling research on books in the home (as I describe in How Many Books Do You Have in Your Home?) indicates that the more books a family has in its home library, the more success children tend to experience in language development and academic performance.
  • Naturally, families with more books tend to gravitate toward reading books more often, both reading aloud and independent reading.
  • When reading aloud is the “bedrock routine” for a parent’s efforts, a “keystone habit” pursued day in and day out (at whatever time of day), it serves as a springboard for staying mindful and proactive in a whole range of productive ways.

Day after day, throughout childhood

In my view, the ongoing actions of reading aloud and building a sizable home library are integral to raising a bilingual child with strong and active ability in the minority language. This recent brain imaging study is one more confirmation which bolsters the great body of both scientific and anecdotal evidence on the power of books and reading to promote language development.

So don’t shortchange your efforts in this area: you can never read aloud too much or have too many books. In fact, the more you read aloud, and the more books (and magazines) you bring into your home, the more progress your child will likely make. (And if your minority language is less common, see What to Do When It’s Hard to Find Children’s Books in Your Minority Language.)

By putting books and reading at the heart of your efforts, day after day and throughout childhood, you will pave the way for achieving the success you seek on your bilingual journey.

How about you? Is reading aloud your “bedrock routine”? Are you regularly adding to your home library?

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