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This Is What Happens When You Read to a Child

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Reading activiates an important part of a child's brain

For years, child advocacy groups have recommended that parents read to babies, even though research hasn’t been clear on what the practice does to a child’s brain. Now, a new brain scan study explains that reading to a child early and often activates the part of the brain that allows them to understand the meaning of language.

The study, presented last weekend at a meeting of the Pediatric Academic Societies, looked at 19 preschoolers and their interactions with their parents. Nearly 40% of the children came from low-income backgrounds. Parents filled out a questionnaire that assessed their habits for raising their children and included questions asking whether the parents had taught their children skills like counting, how often the parents talked with their kids and how early and often parents read to their children.

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Researchers then attached brain scanners to the children as they listened to stories. Reading at home with children from an early age was strongly correlated with brain activation in areas connected with visual imagery and understanding the meaning of language.

“For parents, it adds credence to the idea of reading with kids,” says study author John S. Hutton, a pediatrician at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. “Getting a peek into the brain, there seem to be some differences there that are pretty exciting.”

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The study adds to past research showing that reading has many positive effects on young children, like teaching the rules of syntax, expanding children’s vocabulary and helping children bond with their parents, Hutton says. But the new study is among the first to add real understanding of what actually happens to young brains.

Hutton says he hopes that further research will help us provide parents with guidelines on best practices for reading to children.

“This is sort of an early signal,” Hutton says. “In terms of how much and how often, that’s the kind of thing we’re hoping that future studies will look into.”

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