Again: engaging with children while reading books to them gives their brain a cognitive “boost.”

It has been said & shown over and over again that reading books to kids is important. But simply speaking the words aloud may not be enough to improve cognitive development in preschoolers. A new study suggests – correlation warning – engaging with children while reading books is important. Can we now shout all together: no shit, Sherlock?

From the press release:

A new international study, published in the journal PLOS ONE and led by researchers at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, shows that engaging with children while reading books to them gives their brain a cognitive “boost.”

Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) found significantly greater brain activation in 4-year-old children who were more highly engaged during story listening, suggesting a novel improvement mechanism of engagement and understanding. The study reinforces the value of “dialogic reading,” where the child is encouraged to actively participate.

“The takeaway for parents in this study is that they should engage more when reading with their child, ask questions, have them turn the page, and interact with each other,” said John Hutton, MD, a pediatrician at Cincinnati Children’s and lead author of the study. “In turn, this could fuel brain activation–or “turbocharge” the development of literacy skills, particularly comprehension, in preschool aged children.”

The study involved functional MRI scans of 22 girls, age 4, to explore the relationship between engagement and verbal interactivity during a mother-child reading observation and neural activation and connectivity during a story listening task. Children exhibiting greater interest in the narrative showed increased activation in right-sided cerebellar areas of the brain, thought to support cognitive skill acquisition and refinement via connection to language, association and executive function areas.

“Our findings underscore the importance of interventions explicitly addressing both parent and child reading engagement, including awareness and reduction of distractions such as cellphones, which were the most common preventable barrier that we observed,” said Hutton.

Hutton says long-term studies are needed beginning in infancy to better understand mother-child factors contributing to healthy brain development and literacy skills, as this current study does not establish causation.

Abstract of the study:

Expanding behavioral and neurobiological evidence affirms benefits of shared (especially parent-child) reading on cognitive development during early childhood. However, the majority of this evidence involves factors under caregiver control, the influence of those intrinsic to the child, such as interest or engagement in reading, largely indirect or unclear. The cerebellum is increasingly recognized as playing a “smoothing” role in higher-level cognitive processing and learning, via feedback loops with language, limbic and association cortices. We utilized functional MRI to explore the relationship between child engagement during a mother-child reading observation and neural activation and connectivity during a story listening task, in a sample of 4-year old girls. Children exhibiting greater interest and engagement in the narrative showed increased activation in right-sided cerebellar association areas during the task, and greater functional connectivity between this activation cluster and language and executive function areas. Our findings suggest a potential cerebellar “boost” mechanism responsive to child engagement level that may contribute to emergent literacy development during early childhood, and synergy between caregiver and child factors during story sharing.

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