How to read to your child to maximise language development

by | Aug 4, 2021

When we read to children, we teach them to value books and stories while expanding their understanding of the world, sparking their imagination and stimulating their curiosity.

Reading picture books helps to wire children’s brains in a special way

When we watch animated programs or movies on a technical device, nothing is left to the imagination. The animation and soundtrack bring the story to life and every detail is portrayed on screen.

In contrast to this, the text in children’s storybooks is carefully crafted to describe events that are meant to take shape in their imagination. Since the illustrations are static, they provide just enough information to make it possible for a child’s developing brain to learn to visualise places, characters and movement in the mind’s eye.

At the same time, other brain regions are also activated to help focus the child’s attention and keep track of information as the story unfolds from page to page. Over and above this, the emotional brain works to create a sense of awe and wonder and building an awareness of the feelings and intentions of the characters.

This prepares children for listening with understanding, and reading with comprehension

Dr John S. Hutton – from the Reading and Literacy Discovery Center at the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center – led a study a few years ago during which functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) was used to measure brain activity in 3–5 year old children while they were listening to age-appropriate stories via headphones. They were not provided with pictures or any other visual input.

He found that children whose parents reported that they had read to them daily when they were younger, had brains that were better equipped for listening with understanding. It was easier for them to process oral language because their brains were previously trained by storybooks to visualise the meaning of words in the mind’s eye.

This valuable skill also prepares children for reading with comprehension. As Dr Hutton explained: “This becomes increasingly important as children advance from books with pictures to books without them, where they must imagine what is going on in the text.”

There are three pointers to help maximize the impact of reading to children:

  • Read picture books as part of your child’s bedtime routine

When young children are unsettled, they struggle to learn. One tried and tested way to help ground them emotionally is to follow a fixed bedtime routine that includes reading together.

  • Read every day

It’s immeasurably valuable to have frequent conversations with young children. However, it’s important to note that research showed that children hear more new words and high-quality sentences when we read normal picture books to them than when they watch educational television or have everyday conversations with adults.

This is noteworthy, since the very first principle of language learning is that language needs to be heard for it to be learnt.  Therefore, the only way for children to learn to understand, appreciate and eventually use “book language” is to hear this type of language every day.

Practically speaking, parents with children who read to them for 20 minutes a day, end up hearing about 720 000 “book words” a year. In contrast to this, children hear only 208 000 words a year when parents read twice a week and 52 000 words if they read once in two weeks. Sadly, the difference is staggering.

  • Have conversations as you read

People’s “receptive vocabulary” is naturally larger than their “expressive vocabulary” and it is therefore normal for anyone to understand more words than what the person uses in conversations. However, in the end, new words aren’t truly useful until we begin to use them.

For this reason, educational experts encourage parents and teachers to intentionally coax children into using new words and longer sentences by creating “dialogic reading experiences”.

Practically speaking, this involves pausing from time to time to ask questions about the illustrations, characters, and events.

You may, for example, ask: “What do you see?” or “What do you think?”. When the child answers, acknowledge what they say by repeating the gist of it plus a few extra words to make the sentence longer. For example, if a child says: “I see ducks”, you can say, “Yes! There are ducks swimming in the pond.”

The basic premise is to use questions to guide children through conversation to become more confident language users.

  • Pay attention to dietary support

Researchers say there is evidence that diet and supplements can help children to overcome speech delays by supporting the optimal development of communication networks in the brain. As an example, polyunsaturated fatty acid supplementation can improve specific language impairment in preschool children. (You can read about this study here {https://ejnpn.springeropen.com/articles/10.1186/s41983-020-0158-8}.

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