Parents who read to their young children are causing activity in the developing brain associated with verbal, imaging and reading skills that could give the children an early cognitive advantage.
A new study found clear evidence of activity occurring in regions of the brain linked to this cognitive development by taking MRI scans of children while they were listening to books being read to them.
"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," said study leader Dr. John Hutton of Cincinnati Children's Hospital.
"Of particular importance are brain areas supporting mental imagery, helping the child 'see the story' beyond the pictures, affirming the invaluable role of imagination," he added.
Parents have long been urged to read to children from birth onward, in order to help create brain connections involved in early learning and language development. But until now, there has not been observable evidence of the beneficial impact on the brain, the researchers said.
The study took MRI scans of 19 preschoolers aged three to five years, measuring their brain activity as they listened to books over headphones.
Activity in specific brain areas linked to semantic processing – used to comprehend language – was strongest in children whose parents reported reading to their children at home on a frequent basis.
In addition, areas of the brain involved in forming mental images were strongly activated in children exposed to a lot of reading at home, the researchers determined.
This kind of mental imagery, or visualization, is strongly linked to narrative comprehension, Hutton said. That allows children to "see" the story they're hearing or begin reading for themselves when they reach an appropriate age.
"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," he said.
The researchers found that, when adjusted for economic factors – 37 percent of the children in the study came from low-income families – the frequency of reading had the same beneficial effect for all the children.
"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 added.