TOPICS > Health

I is for infant: Reading aloud to young children benefits brain development

June 24, 2014 at 6:46 PM EST
A new study by the American Academy of Pediatrics shows that reading daily to young children, starting in infancy, can help with language acquisition and literacy skills. But, the report says, many children are missing out. Jeffrey Brown takes a closer look at the consequences and opportunities to improve with lead author of the study, Dr. Pamela High of the American Academy of Pediatrics.
LISTEN SEE PODCASTS

TRANSCRIPT

JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally, a new call to parents and others today about the need for routine reading to the youngest of children, and its potential effect on literacy, language and well-being.

Jeff is back with that.

WOMAN: Where’s the duck?

JEFFREY BROWN: The nation’s largest pediatricians group is now formally urging parents to read aloud to their children daily from infancy. The American Academy of Pediatrics says doing so stimulates early brain development and helps build key language, literacy and social skills.

According to the academy, more than one in three American children start kindergarten without the skills they need to learn to read. About two-thirds of children can’t read proficiently by the end of the third grade.

MAN: Do you want to pick a book?

JEFFREY BROWN: The academy is urging pediatricians to provide books to low-income families. It’s also teaming with other groups, including Reach Out and Read, a nonprofit organization NewsHour education correspondent John Merrow profiled in November 2012.

DR. CINDY OSMAN, Pediatrician, Bellevue Pediatric Clinic: There’s solid research that shows that just that intervention of handing a family a book, giving them a couple of age-appropriate pieces of advice about how to read with their kid, and just encouraging reading, they — those kids will do better in school.

JEFFREY BROWN: Reach Out and Read serves nearly 5,000 medical centers, and more than a third of all American children living in poverty.

And the lead author of the new literacy promotion report joins us now. Dr. Pamela High is professor of pediatrics at Brown University and former president of the Society of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics.

Well, welcome to you.

First, start by explaining more about what you’re trying to address here and how serious an issue this is.

DR. PAMELA HIGH, American Academy of Pediatrics: What we’re addressing is that many parents in the United States don’t seem to have the knowledge that there’s a wonderful opportunity available to them starting very early, an opportunity for them to begin building their child’s language development and to forge their own relationship with their child through reading to them on a regular basis.

You know, I would also say talking to them, singing with them, playing with them, all of those kinds of things.

JEFFREY BROWN: In some ways, confirming what we all knew or suspected? What is it about reading or being read to that — what does it do for kids?

DR. PAMELA HIGH: You know, what reading does for very young children is, it gives them a time when they pretty much have the undivided attention of their parents or their caregivers.

It’s a real one-on-one opportunity for children to communicate with their parents and parents to communicate with their children. You know, we know that the more words that are in a child’s language world, the more words they will learn, and the stronger their language skills are when they reach kindergarten, the more prepared they are to be able to read, and the better they read, the more likely they will graduate from high school.

So, children with very poor reading proficiency by the time they enter the fourth grade are the ones at greatest risk to not graduate from high school and then not be able to be successful — successful in their own life course, economically, for example.

JEFFREY BROWN: Those are the kinds of consequences that you outline in the report, in fact, right, is of economic and even health issues.

DR. PAMELA HIGH: Yes.

We frame this — we feel that the power of the experience of reading to children is really seated in the relationship between the parent and the child, that this is the way of building that relationship. And we do know from scores of information that it’s really the parent-child relationship, nurturing relationships between caregivers and children that set a positive life course.

And this is one medium for it, by talking with them, by exposing them to language and literacy early on, so that they’re motivated, so, even if it’s hard, that the child will want to work in order to learn how to read themselves, because it’s not so easy for all children.

JEFFREY BROWN: And what exactly are you calling on doctors, people in your profession, to do? How do they — how should they incorporate this into their practice?

DR. PAMELA HIGH: Well, actually, many pediatricians have been incorporating this into their practice now for almost 20 years.

It’s the reason that we have a large body of knowledge that tells us the power of this intervention. And the way that we try to do it, in particular for families of lower-income status, who are the ones at greatest risk to not have this information and potentially not to have the tools either to be able to share a book with their child, is that we try to have a high-quality children’s book available, so we can use it as part of the visit with the child.

So you can use it for a vehicle for seeing how that child is developing. For example, a 6-month-old is likely to hold on to a book, maybe to put it in their mouth and taste it, maybe to look at the pictures for a while, not pay too much attention.

As they get older, they start patting the pictures. By a year or 15 months, they can probably point to some of the pictures in their favorite book. As they get older than that, they may even be able to point out some letters in the alphabet or tell you the story that’s in the book.

So the book is a vehicle for assessing how well the child is doing developmentally. It also can be a vehicle for assessing the relationship between the parent and the child. How comfortable is that child sitting in the parent’s lap and sharing that book together? And if it doesn’t seem so comfortable, it’s an opportunity to perhaps model how to do it and show how much fun it can be.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, you know what? We will continue this conversation online. And I want to ask you questions about strategies for parents. But we will stop for now.

Dr. Pamela High, thank you so much.

DR. PAMELA HIGH: Thank you.