Many of our earliest memories feature us curling up next to our parents and listening to them read our favorite book. Whether it was Dr. Seuss (my personal favorite was Hop on Pop) or If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, our parents were doing us a serious favor by sharing a good story, helping us to develop our reading and language skills for later. While it has long been known that reading to a child before preschool is important in cognitive development, researchers at the Pediatric Academic Societies (PAS) have found, through MRI technology, that reading to a child causes activity in the brain related to reading skill development, verbal development, and image development, giving children a cognitive advantage early on.

In their new study, Dr. John Hutton of Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center and his colleagues were able to see the actual activity that goes on in the brain when young children are read to. Even though reading has long been encouraged by the American Academy of Pediatrics, this is the first time evidence of changes in the brain can be seen and measured.

"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," Hutton said in a press release. "Of particular importance are brain areas supporting mental imagery, helping the child 'see the story' beyond the pictures, affirming the invaluable role of imagination."

To display how reading to children affects the brain networks that develop reading skills, Hutton and his team gathered 19 healthy preschoolers, ages 3 to 5, and studied them in relation to their reading habits. Out of this group, 37 percent came from low-income families. Each child’s parent or primary caregiver was given a survey designed to measure the amounts of cognitive stimulation children were given in the home. The survey focused on three main elements: parent-child reading consisting of how often reading occurred, the availability of books, and the variety of these books; parent-child interaction consisting of talking and playing together; and finally, whether parents taught additional skills like shapes and counting.

The researchers then had the children listen to age-appropriate stories being told through headphones while they were receiving functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). They then searched for differences in brain activation in areas known to support language development and story comprehension. No sedation was used, nor did the children experience any visual stimuli.

What researchers found was that children who were read to more frequently at home had more activity in the part of their brains governing semantic processing, or the area that helps us derive meaning from language. This area is essential to verbal language development and ultimately reading. They also found that brain areas associated with imagery were strongly activated, allowing children to “see the story,” which also supports previous theories that visualization is essential to understanding stories and developing reading skills. "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.

Finally, researchers found that frequency of reading, no matter the household income, has the same effects on children.

Hutton is hopeful that his research, now more than ever, will encourage parents to continue reading to their children. He is also optimistic that this research will have implications for those with reading disabilities, helping to combat them early on. He concluded by saying: "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 and his colleagues will present their research at the Pediatric Academic Societies annual meeting in San Diego, Calif.

Source: Hutton J, Pediatric Academic Societies. 2015.