NEW YORK — When parents read to their children the difference shows in children’s behavior and academic performance. And according to a new study, the difference also shows in their brain activity.
Researchers looked at children ages 3 to 5 who underwent brain scans called functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) while listening to a pre-recorded story. The parents answered questions about how much they read to, and communicated with, their children.
The researchers saw that, when the young children were being told a story, a number of regions in the left part of the brain became active. These are the areas involved in understanding the meaning of words and concepts and also in memory. These same brain regions have been found to be active when older children listen to stories or read.
This study shows that the development of this area starts at a very young age, said Tzipi Horowitz-Kraus, program director of the Reading and Literacy Discovery Center at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. Horowitz-Kraus is one of the authors of the study, which was published on Monday in the journal Pediatrics.
Even more interesting, according to Horowitz-Kraus, is how the brain activity in this region was higher among the children whose parents reported creating a more literacy-friendly home. “The more you read to your child the more you help the neurons in this region to grow and connect in a way that will benefit the child in the future in reading,” she said.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that parents start reading out loud to their children from the time they are born.
The researchers looked at a number of measures to gauge whether homes were literacy-friendly, including how often children were read to and whether they had access to books and the variety of books. The research team is now looking at which of these aspects contributed the most to stimulating children’s brain activity, Horowitz-Kraus said.
Before this study, a large body of research has shown that children who are exposed to books at a young age go on to do better on a wide variety of measures, said Dr. Barry Zuckerman, professor of pediatrics at Boston University School of Medicine. They have better vocabulary, higher literacy, pay attention and concentrate better, and are better prepared to go into kindergarten, he said.
Some of the studies demonstrating these benefits looked at children who were part of the Reach Out and Read program, which Zuckerman founded. Through this program, doctors and nurses distribute books to poor children between 6 months and 5 years and give literacy advice to their parents.
Despite the studies that have shown the benefits of these types of programs, “it may get more attention on the policy side to show changes in the brain (such as in Horowitz-Kraus’s study) than measures of behavior — it shouldn’t, but it may,” Zuckerman said. Reach Out and Read lost its federal funding about five or six years ago, although it still has state and private funding, he added.
In addition to garnering support for new programs and policies, the current research may also have the potential to lead to a diagnostic test. A doctor might order an fMRI for a young child if he shows early signs of problems with literacy, Horowitz-Kraus said. These brain scans could help distinguish between differences in the left-sided brain network identified in the current study, which would suggest that the child needs more exposure to books, or in other regions that could be associated with other reading difficulties, such as dyslexia.
Although it remains to be seen how children who have lower levels of brain activity will fare in the future, “I would speculate that it is an effect that lasts,” Horowitz-Kraus said. “The brain develops rapidly from zero to six years of age, and the more exposure, the more you enrich and nurture these brain networks that are related to social and academic ability, the more the kid will gain the future.”
There are benefits of parents reading to their children beyond the child’s performance, too. “It’s one of the most pleasurable activities that you do with your child — there’s physical closeness but it’s probably the most unhurried time that children have with their parent and it is focused on them,” Zuckerman said.