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This Is What Happens When You Read to a Child

Story at-a-glance -

  • Reading to children aloud from an early age activated brain areas linked to visual imagery, and understanding the meaning of language
  • The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends parents read aloud to their children from birth
  • Reading aloud to older children can help them grow into more frequent readers

This Is What Happens When You Read to a Child

May 14, 2015 | 47,281 views

By Dr. Mercola

About 60 percent of wealthier families read to their children daily from birth to 5 years of age, compared to just 33 percent of families living below the poverty level. Perhaps as a result, by the age of 3 children of wealthier professionals have heard millions more words than those of less-educated, lower-income parents, giving them an advantage when entering school.1

Research shows that such language gaps may be present by the age of 18 months and tend to only grow with age.2 In addition to speaking to your child often (pointing out the names of different vegetables at the grocery store or describing the daily weather, for instance), one of the most important ways to nurture your child’s vocabulary and mental health is by reading aloud.

In 2014, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) began recommending that parents read aloud to their children from birth. Crucial aspects of brain development occur during the first three years of life, and reading aloud to your child during this time (and after) may help build their vocabulary and communication skills and more.3

Reading to a Child Early Helps Them Understand the Meaning of Language

A recent study presented at a meeting of the Pediatric Academic Societies revealed what happens when you read to a child.

Using brain scanners, the researchers found that reading to children from an early age activated brain areas including the occipital lobes, linked to visual imagery and the parietal lobes, linked to understanding the meaning of language.4,5 Dr. John S. Hutton of Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center in Ohio told Reuters:6

“In one of the most intriguing aspects, some of the greatest activation was in the visual part, the occipital lobe… A lot of it’s probably the task, imagining in their brain what’s going on in the story.

These kids have more experience with seeing what they’re hearing… ‘Parents should definitely read often and read widely,’ with back-and-forth conversation with kids, going beyond what’s on the page.”

While the benefits of reading to children from an early age are well-established, this is the first study to use brain scans to show just why that might be.

Considering that reading to your kids is simple, enjoyable, and free if you get books from your local public library, this is one strategy that virtually everyone can use to give their kids an intellectual head start and a solid cognitive foundation upon which to grow and expand. As reported by the organization Reach Out & Read:7

Once children start school, difficulty with reading contributes to school failure, which can increase the risk of absenteeism, leaving school, juvenile delinquency, substance abuse, and teenage pregnancy -- all of which can perpetuate the cycles of poverty and dependency.”

Additional benefits of reading aloud to children include:8

  • Reading aloud is the single most important activity leading to language development
  • Builds motivation, curiosity, and memory
  • Helps children cope during times of stress or tragedy
  • Exposes children to story and print knowledge as well as rare words and ideas not often found in day-to-day conversation or screen time
  • Helps children practice listening

Fewer Children Reading for Fun

Earlier this year, children’s book publisher Scholastic released a survey showing only 31 percent of 6- to 17-year-olds surveyed had read for fun daily. This is down from 37 percent in 2010.9 If you’d like your child to be a frequent reader as an older child, adolescent, and adult, the report found you should continuing reading aloud, even after your child learns to read himself.

Being read to aloud early and often predicted frequent reading among children ages 6-11. Spending less time online using a computer was also important. Among older children ages 12-17, frequent readers tended to:

  • Read a book for choice independently in school
  • Engage in e-reading experiences
  • Have a large home library
  • Know their reading level
  • Have parents involved in their reading habits

Being a frequent reader yourself is also a predictor that your child will enjoy reading. One way to share this with your child is to choose a book and read aloud together. More than 80 percent of children surveyed said they loved or “liked a lot” being read aloud to at home, primarily because it was a special time with parents. As reported by the New York Times:10

“‘A lot of parents assume that once kids begin to read independently, that now that is the best thing for them to do,’ said Maggie McGuire, the vice president for a website for parents operated by Scholastic.

But reading aloud through elementary school seemed to be connected to a love of reading generally. According to the report, 41 percent of frequent readers ages 6 to 10 were read aloud to at home, while only 13 percent of infrequent readers were being read to.”

Read Aloud Infographic

Processed Foods May Lower Your Child’s Potential

Aside from reading aloud, what else can you do to help your child reach his full potential? Provide a healthy diet that focuses on fresh whole foods… not processed foods and fast food. One British study revealed that kids who ate a predominantly processed food diet at age 3 had lower IQ scores at age 8.5.11

For each measured increase in processed foods, participants had a 1.67-point decrease in IQ. Research published in the journal Clinical Pediatrics also warned that frequent fast food consumption may stunt your child’s academic performance.12

Nearly 12,000 students were included in the study. More than half reported eating fast food between one and three times per week; 10 percent ate it four to six times a week, and another 10 percent reported eating fast food daily. As reported by PBS News:13

“Children who reported eating fast food four times a week or more in the fifth grade showed lower test score gains in the eighth grade in all three subject areas by up to 20 percent. Children who reported eating fast food just one to three times a week still lagged behind their non-fast food eating peers in one subject–math.”

Nutritional deficiencies early on in life can also lead to deficits in brain function that puts your child at risk of behavioral problems -- from hyperactivity to aggression -- that can last into the teenage years and beyond. According to the lead author:14

“There’s a lot of evidence that fast food consumption is linked to childhood obesity, but the problems don’t end there. Relying too much on fast food could hurt how well children do in the classroom… We’re not saying that parents should never feed their children fast food, but these results suggest fast food consumption should be limited as much as possible.”

My optimal nutrition plan offers a step-by-step guide to feeding your family right, and I encourage you to read through it. You can find even more help in the book I wrote on the subject, Generation XL: Raising Healthy, Intelligent Kids in a High-Tech, Junk-Food World.

Active Kids Do Better in School

The research is pouring in that regular exercise can improve test scores, IQ levels, and task efficiency for kids and adults alike. According to a study done at the University of North Texas, having a healthy heart and lungs may be one of the most important factors for middle school students to excel in math and reading.15

Cardiorespiratory fitness was the only factor that was found to consistently impact grades on reading and math tests, which the researchers said should be a wake-up call to schools that have limited physical education classes. Of course, you needn't rely on gym class to get your child active, and in fact should strive to make physical fitness a regular part of your family's life outside of school hours as well. A review of 14 studies involving children ages 6-18 also found that the more active your child, the better they’ll do at school. According to the authors:16

"There are several hypothesized mechanisms for why exercise is beneficial for cognition, including:

  • Increased blood and oxygen flow to the brain
  • Increased levels of norepinephrine and endorphins resulting in a reduction of stress and an improvement of mood
  • Increased growth factors that help to create new nerve cells and support synaptic plasticity"

To put this into perspective, Naperville Central High School in Illinois implemented a special program where students could take part in a dynamic gym class at the beginning of the day and had access to exercise bikes and balls throughout the day in their classrooms. The results were astounding. Those who participated nearly doubled their reading scores and math scores increased 20-fold.17 Clearly, the importance of encouraging your child to stay active after school and on weekends in order to reap the wonderful brain-boosting benefits that exercise has to offer cannot be overstated. Even better, be a positive role model and stay active together as a family.

Keep Screen Time to a Minimum

Cutting down on screen time was one predictor of having a frequent reader, according to the Scholastic study. There are additional reasons to cut down on screen time as well. If your child spends a lot of time in front of an electronic screen, his or her mental health may also be at risk. In one UK study, excessive screen time produced negative effects on children's self-worth, self-esteem, and level of self-reported happiness.18

The children who spent four hours or more computer gaming reported lower levels of well-being than their peers who spent less time on this activity. Children spending more time in front of computer screens also experience more emotional distress, anxiety, depression, and behavioral difficulties. Cell phone use should also be minimized, or better yet altogether avoided, among children.

Researchers from the College of Education, Health, and Human Services at Kent State University in Ohio reported that frequent cell phone use appears to be associated with reduced academic performance, anxiety, and unhappiness in college students.19

Not to mention, radiation from cell phones and Wi-Fi has been shown to cause diminished reaction time, decreased brain motor function, social and emotional problems, and inability to focus on complex and long-term tasks in children. Computer screens and most light bulbs also emit blue light, to which your eyes are particularly sensitive simply because it's the type of light most common outdoors during daytime hours. As a result, they can easily disrupt your melatonin production and keep you awake.20 Research shows, for instance:21

  • Children who use electronic media at night go to bed later, get fewer hours of sleep per week, and report more daytime sleepiness
  • Adolescents with a television in their bedroom go to bed later, have more difficulty falling asleep, and have a shorter total sleep time
  • Sending texts or e-mails after initially going to bed increases daytime sleepiness among teens (even if it's done only once a week)

A win-win solution? Turn off the TV, computer, and tablet… and pick up a good book. When your children are little, choose two or three books a night to spark your child’s imagination. As they grow older, let them decide what to read or choose a book you both enjoy and take turns reading a chapter aloud each night before bed.

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