New study proves brain benefits of reading to babies

Reading to your toddler holds many benefits for the future

What’s the best way to improve a child’s school results across the board?

What if there could be one intervention that skyrockets a child’s progress in every area of their lives? What a dream it would be for funders.

What a game-changer it would be for learners.

As it turns out, there is a game-changer: books.

Policy experts, educational specialists and statisticians all agree: a child who reads is a child who learns. In fact, reading proficiency is the number one indicator of future academic success – greater even than the child’s economic background or school choice.

As it turns out, what parents read to their kids is almost as important as how often they read to them. A new study by Dr Lisa Scott in the Brian, Cognition and Development Lab at the University of Florida has made exciting new progress in learning just how books affect babies’ brains.

Scott’s study tracked infants over a period of six months, using a cap with 128 electronic sensors to map electric neural responses in their brains while they were shown pictures of monkeys on a screen.

With this information, researchers were able to see how long the babies concentrated for and whether they recognised the pictures over time.

The babies were divided into three groups – those whose parents would read them special stories with named monkey characters, those whose parents read them books with the same pictures but where the monkeys were not named individually, and those whose parents did not read them anything to do with monkeys at all.

Results were startling. After three months of reading the stories, the brain activity levels showed that the children who had been read the special stories clearly recognised the characters again.

Even for children as young as six months, researchers found a remarkable increase in attention span, recognition and engagement in children who had seen the pictures before.

Even more exciting, there was a clear difference in brain function between those children who learned general tags like “monkey” and those whose books gave the monkey a name.

This result has big implications – it means that we can prove very small children recognise characters, are able to use labels to describe the world around them and respond to familiar things.

It also means that the more they recognise, the greater their attention is. For the first time, then, we know that reading supports development – even for babies who haven’t learned to speak yet.

So what should parents look out for in choosing books? Scott says that it’s a good start to pick stories where each individual character has a name. If there aren’t any names in the book, parents can make some up, she suggests. It’s also useful when the book has good quality pictures of faces and objects.

What does this mean for South African children?

The short answer is: a challenge. Books are expensive and disposable income is tight – what’s published depends on what makes publishers the most profit. How many children’s stories have you seen in isiZulu, let alone Sepedi?

Fortunately, things are changing. Organisations like Nal’ibali and Book Dash are committed to providing free, high quality reading material to children in all of our country’s languages. Their websites are absolute treasure troves of downloadable stories – all of which can be downloaded for free by parents eager to give their children a head start on development . . . but also a world of fun.

Earlier this month, in fact, 11 entirely new, entirely free stories have been added to the Book Dash website – all with great new African content.

How good? Look closely and you’ll spot some superstar names – keep an eye out for Lauren Beukes’ And Also! and Sam Wilson’s Tig’s World.

Both Beukes and Wilson are internationally renowned authors for adults – Sam Wilson’s debut novel Zodiac has taken the world by storm and Lauren Beukes’ bestsellers, including The Shining Girls, Zoo City, Broken Monsters and Moxyland, have been translated into 23 languages and are being developed for film and TV.

Despite these big name contributors, you can download all of the children’s stories for free, among the vast amount of multi-lingual content Book Dash make available on the web and on their app.

We suspect, with resources and development incentives like these, story time suddenly became a lot longer for parents across the nation! One thing’s for sure, though, it’s the kind of investment where everybody wins.

Reading and telling stories with your children is a powerful gift to them. It builds knowledge, language, imagination and school success! For more information about the Nal’ibali campaign, or to access children’s stories in a range of South African languages, visit: www.nalibali.org

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