Young Brains Feed on Listening

We all know that reading aloud to young children helps develop language skills, but the mechanism that causes that has remained somewhat of a mystery.

A blog post on The New York Times cites two new studies, however, that have begun to map just exactly what is going on inside that little head when you’re reading him/her a bedtime story (or listening to Tales Untold).

Scientists conducting a study with 3-to-5-year-olds saw activity in an area of the brain–the parietal-temporal-occipital association cortex, to be specific–that occurred when the children listened to stories while inside a brain scanner.

Now, this area of the brain processes visual stimulation. So even though these young children weren’t even looking at picture books, just listening to the stories was causing their brains to visualize the story in their minds. Makes sense, right? (Don’t think about pink elephants.)

The fascinating part is that the scientists saw higher brain activity among the kids who were more often read to at home. So if their brain has more exposure to hearing stories–as opposed to watching videos or even following along with a picture book–the child is prepared to be a better reader when that day comes. It may even make them more creative, in general.

Here’s the lead author of the study, Dr. John S. Hutton, drawing that conclusion:

“When we show them a video of a story, do we short circuit that process a little? Are we taking that job away from them? They’re not having to imagine the story; it’s just being fed to them.”

The second study cited in The New York Times post essentially found that books typically contain more diverse words than we usually use in everyday conversation with our kids. I’d venture to guess that’s why kids like books – they’re hearing/learning about things that don’t happen throughout the day.

So, if you combine the takeaway from those two studies, when you read aloud to your kids (or listen to Tales Untold…) they are learning new words and learning how to visualize what the words represent, all at the same time. That’s a lot of work for a four-year-old brain. No wonder I’ve been made to read Volcanoes! one billion times over the last week.

photo: Philippe Put, Creative Commons 2.0. Image has been cropped.

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