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Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead book cover

By Maya Payne Smart

Book enthusiasts have long credited family reading with healing and restorative properties, calling it a “magical elixir” or a “super multivitamin” for a range of personal and social issues. As 2020, the year of COVID, yawned to an end, one mom even declared that families reading aloud just might be “the panacea the world is looking for right now.” In her estimation, reading with kids just a few minutes a day can combat feelings of pandemic defeat and allow parents to claim a victory for the year. 

While extolling the virtues of reading together for bolstering character and resilience, plus remedying the ills of digital distraction and social fragmentation, it’s easy to skip right over its greatest power—seeding early literacy. 

Read on for a few science-backed insights into boosting brain capacity, stimulating language development, and spurring vocabulary growth by sharing reading from day one.

Build Brain Networks 

For a clear illustration of how brain architecture emerges and lays the foundation for all future learning, check out this video from the Harvard Center for the Developing Child, which shows how brains are built from the bottom up as millions of new neural connections form in the first few years of life.

Genes affect brain development,  but experiences like the back-and-forth exchanges between children and caregivers, play a powerful role as well.  Parents’ interactions with children and responsiveness to them bolster certain brain connections through repeated use, while allowing others to wither from neglect. This ongoing process of brain circuit reinforcement and pruning continues throughout life, but experts agree that the earliest years have outsized influence.

Humans are not hardwired to read, so in order to gain literacy each brain has to recruit and redirect circuits and networks built for other purposes, like vision, oral language, and working memory. This dynamic process requires years of gradual capacity-building through cognitively stimulating activity, including parent-child talking, singing, and reading, starting in infancy.

Reading aloud, in particular, is widely considered to be the difference maker for early literacy development.  The American Academy of Pediatrics urges doctors to promote family reading as a central part of their primary care, from infancy through at least kindergarten. Reading regularly with kids isn’t just good for young children, the academy’s report notes, it “stimulates optimal patterns of brain development.” That’s high praise.

The time of greatest potential to wire the brain for reading occurs in the first five years of a child’s life, when there’s maximum neural plasticity, experts say. And while most neuroimaging research on reading has been conducted on adults and school-aged children, studies of younger children are growing, thanks to new technology and research methods. Brain activation research has found preliminary positive associations between shared reading frequency and the brain function supporting foundational early literacy skills such as visual imagery, expressive language, narrative comprehension, and word understanding. 

Boost Language Skills

While an infant won’t be able to point to print or murmur words at first, rest assured that reading aloud still benefits them. Researchers say eye contact, cooing, snuggling into the parent, and reaching for books are telltale signs of engagement. As a parent, you be the judge. Tune into your baby while reading. Does she gaze at you while you read? Or grab for the book or your hand as you turn a page? Does she babble more during readings of familiar stories?

One study found that read-alouds with babies as young as eight months old have a direct impact on kids’ ability to express themselves at 12 or 16 months. The read-to babies were better able to imitate words, speak words, name objects, and use gestures and words to make requests. They were more likely to imitate parents’ patterns of intonation, use consistent sound combinations for people or objects, and make good use of the word “no.”

A more recent study found that moms (sorry, no dads were included in this research) who directed more questions to their 10-month-olds while reading stories had children with better expressive and receptive language skills at 18 months old than mothers who hadn’t engaged with shared books in this way. The toddlers who had been peppered with questions like, What’s that? Where’s the doggy? Do you wanna turn the pages? Ready? during storytime as babies showed greater ability to understand what others said to them and higher capacity to communicate their needs, thoughts and ideas using words, phrases, and gestures. So, there’s great value in reading books and asking related questions, even before kids start talking and can provide full-fledged answers themselves. How does that sound?

Accelerate Vocabulary Growth

In the course of a day with babies, parents typically spend time preparing and serving meals, giving baths, playing with toys, singing and rhyming, and reading stories. But of all the activities shared, reading has the distinction of being simultaneously the most valuable for vocabulary enrichment and the least-commonly performed activity, experts say. Read alouds, on average, account for just 1-2 percent of everyday baby life.

Read-alouds prompt a significantly higher level of  parent-child language use and engagement than other household activities. The language structure and vocabulary in books is often more sophisticated than the everyday language parents use in conversation with kids. Additionally, the language used around the book—in discussing illustrations, relating stories to the child’s experience, or asking questions—is also more advanced. 

And reading with babies seems to fuel vocabulary growth long after infancy in some cases. Researchers found that infants’ levels of attention during book reading correlated with vocabulary knowledge at school entry years later. Another study reports that parent-toddler book reading positively links with the range of words that a child can understand and respond to in the fourth grade. 

An element of direct teaching is in play here. Parents sometimes call attention to a particular word by pointing to it, provide word definitions on the fly while reading, or repeat novel words for emphasis. In a meta-analysis of word learning through read alouds, more interactive styles of reading were shown to boost vocabulary growth. 

In short, read early, often, and engagingly to get your baby off to a smart start.

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