Educators have long encouraged parents to read aloud to their children from the moment they’re born, stressing that every new word and sound strengthens the cognition needed to excel academically. A new study out of Cincinnati’s Children Hospital further supports that conjecture, this time showing changes in the brain activity of youngsters exposed to text.
In the study, children between the ages of 3 and 5 underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) brain scans while listening to pre-recorded stories. Parents answered questions about how much they read to their young ones. Researchers also measured the literacy within the home, including the frequency of child-parent reading sessions, variety of books, and access to literature.
The brain scans showed that listening to the pre-recorded stories activated parts of the left side of the child’s brain — a region associated with the understanding of words and concepts and the strengthening of memory. Lead researcher Tzipi Horowitz-Kraus, Ph.D. told CNN that children who had literacy-friendly homes had higher levels of brain activity, a connection that suggests rapid brain development starts in a child’s early years.
“The more you read to your child the more you help the neurons in this region to grow and connect in a way that will benefit the child in the future in reading,” Horowitz-Kraus, program director of the Reading and Literacy Discovery Center at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, said.
Horowitz-Kraus’ findings come amid conversation about America’s academic achievement gap. Despite the United States’ growth as a global leader, a significant number of Americans — particularly those of color and in low-income communities — haven’t been able to compete in the economy because due to an inability to read proficiently. Their illiteracy has, in part, stagnated progress and exasperated academic failure, poverty, juvenile delinquency, and marginalization.
A study conducted by the U.S. Department of Education and National Institute of Literacy in 2013, for example, found that the national literacy rate hadn’t changed since the completion of the last survey a decade earlier. At that time, 14 percent of the population couldn’t read, more than 20 percent of adults read below a 5th grade reading level, and 19 percent of high school graduates had low literacy. Americans who have difficulty reading often struggle to find jobs, maintain health, and support their families, especially in an increasingly technological world. Out of a desperation to do so, some may turn to a life of crime: 85 percent of juveniles who enter the court system are functionally illiterate and 70 percent of the U.S. prison population cannot read above the fourth grade level.
That’s why a growing number of community leaders and lawmakers have turned to early childhood literacy, touting it as a key in increasing a child’s academic success and closing gaps in education and wealth. Recent efforts to increase literacy include a storytelling project for young African American children, trips to national parks, and the donation of books that parents can add to their home library.
National nonprofit organization First Book has done the latter, distributing more than 130 million books and educational materials to programs, schools, and students in low-income communities in the United States and Canada. Julia Hornaday, First Book’s senior manager of marketing and communications, says prioritizing basic needs often preclude parents in low-income communities from reading to their children, let alone purchasing a book.
“Some children who struggle to read lack early interaction, which can be difficult without books in the home or accessible libraries in the community,” Hornaday told ThinkProgress. “There’s a dramatic lack of reading resources in the communities we serve. In some of the lowest-income neighborhoods, there’s just one book for 300 children. But we know books are a critical piece of ensuring a child’s academic success. Children who have books in the home have higher levels of academic success and educational attainment.”
Previous studies support Hornday’s point, showing that children who read at an early age attain greater general knowledge, expand their vocabulary, and become more fluent readers. Exposure to words, pictures, and concepts during a period of rapid brain development stimulates the creation of synapses for future information storage. Early readers also have strong oral language skills, better concentration, and better research skills than their counterparts later in life. Early childhood literacy also fosters independence and builds confidence in children while sparking their creativity and imagination. This is especially the case for young people who learn to read outside of the classroom, where they’re not in competition with classmates or under the pressure of a formal academic setting.
Those who don’t have the opportunity to foster a literacy-friendly environment at home may have a chance to do so if lawmakers establish universal pre-kindergarten — an effort to make preschool available to all families, regardless of income level, location, or child’s abilities. The state-funded preschool programs would allow children from disadvantaged backgrounds to get the foundation needed to have a successful academic career.
The universal pre-K movement has gained traction around the country in recent years. Seattle Mayor Ed Murray unveiled plans for a four-year pilot program last month that would place more than 200 children in full-day preschool classes. Teachers in New York City’s universal pre-kindergarten program will receive $2,500 signing bonus and a $3,500 retention bonus as it goes into its second year.
Efforts to expand universal pre-kindergarten federally, however, have fizzled. Last year, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Rep. Richard Hanna (R-NY) introduced a proposal to fund universal early education, arguing that doing so would be an investment in America’s future. The bill, titled the Strong Start for America’s Children Act, hasn’t gone beyond introduction. Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA) also failed in his attempt to include an amendment to No Child Left Behind that would increase the number of children in universal pre-kindergarten programs via funds given directly to states and the closure of corporate tax inversion loopholes.
“When more children have access to pre-K, they actually can reach their full potential,” Gillibrand told NBC. “It means more working moms can stay in the workforce, providing for their children, staying on the path for their career success. And that’s good for our whole economy.”