Bedtime stories have long been known to foster parent-child bonds and prepare children for sleep. But lately researchers have attached other powers to this nighttime routine. They say that while you and your little one are sailing with Max to the land of the Wild Things or sampling green eggs with Sam, you’re actually boosting your child’s brain development.
“Neural research shows that when parents and caregivers interact verbally with children—which includes reading to them—kids learn a great deal more than we ever thought possible,” says G. Reid Lyon, Ph.D., chief of the child development and behavior branch of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development in Bethesda, MD. These gains range from improved logic skills to lower stress levels. But perhaps the most profound benefit discovered in recent years is the way bedtime stories can rewire children’s brains to quicken their mastery of language.
“There’s a clear indication of a neurological difference between kids who have been regularly read to and kids who have not,” Dr. Lyon says. The good news is that these discrepancies don’t have to be permanent. In NICHD studies under way at Yale University in New Haven, CT, and the University of Texas in Austin, researchers have found that electronic images of the brains of children considered poor readers show little activity in the verbal-processing areas. But after the researchers spent one to two hours a day for eight weeks reading to the poor readers and performing other literacy exercises with them, their brain activity had changed to look like that of the good readers.
Here’s how the rewiring works: When you read Margaret Wise Brown’s classic bedtime story Goodnight Moon to your baby, exaggerating the oo sound in moon and drawing out the word hush, you’re stimulating connections in the part of her brain that handles language sounds (the auditory cortex). In English, there are 44 of these sounds, called phonemes, ranging from ee to ss. The more frequently a baby hears these sounds, the faster she becomes at processing them. Then, when she’s a toddler trying to learn language, she’ll more easily be able to hear the difference between, say, the words tall and doll. As a grade-schooler learning to read, she’ll be more adept at sounding out unfamiliar words on the page.
“To break down unknown words into pieces, you have to first know the pieces,” Dr. Lyon explains. “When kids hear the word cat, for example, they usually hear it folded up as one sound (cat) instead of three (c-a-t),” he says. “But when asked to say cat without the c, thus deleting the cuh sound to make at, they’ll more easily understand that words are made up of individual sounds.” Reading rhyming books to kids is one way to help them practice this skill.
Building an Inner Dictionary
To enhance a child’s language skills even more, parents can use storytime as a stepping stone for conversation, says Lise Eliot, Ph.D., assistant professor of neuroscience at Chicago Medical School and author of What’s Going On in There? How the Brain and Mind Develop in the First Five Years of Life. For instance, if a mother points to Curious George’s baseball cap and asks her child, “Do you have a hat like that?” she’s offering him practice in using language correctly.