Taking away screens and reading to our children during the formative years of birth to age 5 has been shown to boost brain development.

According to a study by the Reading & Literacy Discovery Centre of Cincinnati’s Children’s Hospital, reading to children stimulates the growth of organised white matter in the language and literacy areas of their brain. These are of course important areas that will also support their learning at school.

Meanwhile, children aged between 0-5 who spend an average of two hours a day looking at screens have been shown to have massive underdevelopment and disorganisation of white matter in those same areas.

Dr John Hutton, a paediatrician and clinical researcher at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, said: “These results are important because the brain is developing the most rapidly in the first five years.

“Kids who have more stimulating experiences that organise the brain are at a huge advantage when they get to school. And it gets harder and harder for kids to catch up if they arrive behind.”

The studies used a special type of MRI called diffusion tensor imaging to examine white matter of 47 health children aged between three and five who had not yet started kindergarten. As well as brain scans, the children were also given cognitive tests.

When it came to screen time, children who used screens more than one hour a day had poorer emerging literacy skills, less ability to use expressive language and tested lower on the ability to rapidly name objects. In contrast, children who regularly read books with their caregiver scored higher on cognitive tests.

Interestingly, Dr. Hutton noted that the type of reading caregivers do with their child is not so important.

“What really seemed to drive the bus, at least based on this analysis, is just showing up and doing it,” he said. “To me that takes a lot of pressure off parents to find the perfect book. Just keep reading in a loving and consistent way.”

 

The ‘million word gap’

Parents who take the time to read aloud to their children are doing them a huge favour. According to a study published in the Journal of Developmental and Behavioural Paediatrics, children who read one short story per day enter school having heard 290,000 more words than kids whose parents didn’t read to them. If the number of books is increased to five per day, the vocabulary disparity swells to 1.4 million words.

Jessica Logan, the study’s lead author calls it the ‘million word gap’. She believes it could help explain why vocabulary and reading ability vary so greatly from one 5-year-old to the next.

How to read to your child

Week beginning 3rd February is National Storytelling Week – a time when schools, libraries and bookshops are trying to get more people reading and sharing stories together.

Now is the perfect time to make reading a priority, and there are lots of ways to get involved.

If you’re looking to set up a shared reading habit with your child, the National Institute for Literacy has compiled some science-based suggestions which include:

  1. Start from birth by talking to your child and responding to their attempts to “baby talk”.
  2. Sing the ABC song.
  3. Have your child use their imagination and make up stories — and ask lots of questions about those invented tales.
  4. Pick books with interesting characters – and don’t be afraid to role play with different accents and voices for the characters.
  5. Have your child point to pictures and words and repeat them.
  6. Most importantly – enjoy yourself!
Mother and daughter reading