In 2014, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a policy saying that literacy promotion, beginning at birth, should be part of all pediatric primary care. That makes sense. Mountains of scientific evidence exist to show that regular reading aloud with children leads to improved language development and long-term school success.
Yet despite this evidence, only some American families include reading as part of their daily routine. Sixty percent of children from families with incomes above $90,000 are read to daily from birth to age five. In contrast, that number is less than thirty-three percent for families living at or below the poverty line of $24,000.
In August of this year, the journal Pediatrics published a study that used MRI’s to study brain activity in young children as they listened to stories. There were two significant findings. First, listening to stories caused an area of the left brain cortex, specifically the hub that supports semantic language processing, to activate. But of even greater significance to me was that researchers found that in children who had been read to at home, the activity in this hub was significantly greater than in those who hadn’t been read to. It’s like being physically fit—when that part of the brain had been exercised, it worked better.
Now about this “hub,” scientifically known as left-sided parietal-temporal-occipital association cortex. It is the part of the brain that allows children to imagine in their mind’s eye what they are seeing when they hear the story. Their brains are practicing creating images and associating them with words. It’s what we non-scientific folk refer to as IMAGINATION, the ability to see, feel, and create stories out of images and words.
Think of it. Our stories actually exercise that part of the brain that allows children to imagine, which is, of course, the foundation for all literacy that is to follow. It’s a thrilling and humbling responsibility. It should inspire us to use full and rich language, to enrich our story-telling craft in every way possible, to read to every small child we can, and of course, to do our best to try to make books available to communities where there are none.
Lin Oliver is Executive Director of the SCBWI, author of over thirty books for children, including Little Poems for Tiny Ears (illustrated by Tomie de Paola), poetry intended for infants and toddlers.