Just about every parent I know wants to do whatever they can to ensure their kids live happy and successful lives.
It’s why we pack up and move to new neighborhoods, why we learn to praise our children in specific ways, and why we work to teach them both responsibility and resilience. Now, it turns out there’s another simple thing most parents could be doing (but often aren’t), that could yield massive benefits for their kids later in life.
It has to do with the way we read to children when they’re very young.
A recent study by researchers at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center says reading to children in this particular way can can literally “turbocharge” kids’ brains. So, here’s the history, the “how,” and a few practical examples.
Neuroscience and reading
The Cincinnati study is best viewed as the latest of a series of recent research results that suggest that the sooner parents engage kids in a “participatory reading style” (more on that below), the more cognitive benefits they’ll see as a result.
Some context: First, in 2014, the American Academy of Pediatrics began advising parents to read to their children from the earliest age in infancy. Of course newborn babies can’t understand your words, but the simple act of reading aloud to them demonstrates how human communication works, and also serves as an important bonding experience.
Second, researchers at The New School in New York demonstrated that for people of all ages, reading literary fiction led them to develop better intellectual empathy. They were followed last year by neuroscientist Erin Clabough, who suggested that mimicking the experience when reading to children can have similar intellectual empathy benefits.
Now, this new study from Cincinnati seems to build on that–demonstrating the potential for additional benefits from this reading style.
The researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to scan the brains of 22 four-year-old girls while their mothers read to them. Those whose mothers read to them in an engaging way–also known as “dialogic reading”–had greater activity in the parts of the brain where “cognitive skill acquisition and refinement via connection to language” occur.
What it looks like
So what is “dialogic reading” exactly? In sum, it means a reading experience that is more of a dialogue than a one-way recitation. It means engaging children, and making them become more than passive listeners while you read to them.
For the littlest kids, it might be as simple as having them be the one to turn the book’s pages. With older kids, it might mean stopping during the story to ask what they think one of the characters might be feeling, or what they think might have happened if a plot had twisted in a different direction.
“The takeaway for parents in this study is that they should engage more when reading with their child, ask questions, have them turn the page, and interact with each other,” said Dr. John Hutton, a pediatrician at Cincinnati Children’s who was the study’s lead author. “In turn, this could fuel brain activation–or ‘turbocharge’ the development of literacy skills, particularly comprehension, in preschool aged children.”
Where we go from here
Like many studies, there’s a caveat with these ones: our old friend, “correlation vs. causation.”
In other words, the fact that the girls whose mothers read to them in a more engaging and dialogic manner had brain scans suggesting greater activity doesn’t necessarily mean that the reading style was the root cause of the greater activity.
But there’s certainly enough evidence here to suggest further study–as well as another 21st Century takeaway:
“Our findings underscore the importance of interventions explicitly addressing both parent and child reading engagement,” said Hutton, “including awareness and reduction of distractions such as cell phones, which were the most common preventable barrier that we observed.”