The Benefits of Bedtime Stories
Bedtime stories have long been known to foster parent-child bonds and prepare children for sleep. But lately researchers have attached other powers to this nighttime routine. They say that while you and your little one are sailing with Max to the land of the Wild Things or sampling green eggs with Sam, you're actually boosting your child's brain development.
Perhaps the most profound benefit discovered in recent years is the way bedtime stories can rewire children's brains to quicken their mastery of language.
"There's a clear indication of a neurological difference between kids who have been regularly read to and kids who have not," Dr. Lyon says. The good news is that these discrepancies don't have to be permanent. Researchers have found that electronic images of the brains of children considered poor readers show little activity in the verbal-processing areas. But after the researchers spent one to two hours a day for eight weeks reading to the poor readers and performing other literacy exercises with them, their brain activity had changed to look like that of the good readers.
Here's how the rewiring works: When you read Margaret Wise Brown's classic bedtime story Goodnight Moon to your baby, exaggerating the oo sound in moon and drawing out the word hush, you're stimulating connections in the part of her brain that handles language sounds (the auditory cortex). In English, there are 44 of these sounds, called phonemes, ranging from ee to ss. The more frequently a baby hears these sounds, the faster she becomes at processing them. "To break down unknown words into pieces, you have to first know the pieces," Dr. Lyon explains. "When kids hear the word cat, for example, they usually hear it folded up as one sound (cat) instead of three (c-a-t)," he says. "But when asked to say cat without the c, thus deleting the cuh sound to make at, they'll more easily understand that words are made up of individual sounds." Reading rhyming books to kids is one way to help them practice this skill.
Building an Inner Dictionary
To enhance a child's language skills even more, parents can use storytime as a stepping stone for conversation, says Lise Eliot, Ph.D. For instance, if a mother points to Curious George's baseball cap and asks her child, "Do you have a hat like that?" she's offering him practice in using language correctly.
In time, reading with a child will expand her vocabulary even more than just talking with her will. That's because books can introduce kids to ideas and objects -- such as porridge or kangaroos -- that are out of their direct environment and therefore not a part of their daily conversation. Look for stories that contain particularly rich or colorful language, like the works of Caldecott-winner William Steig, who often drops four-star words such as discombobulated and sinuous into his books.
"One More Time!"
What kids -- and parents -- may not know is that reading a book repeatedly can help a child develop his logic skills.
The first time children hear a book, they don't catch everything, says Virginia Walter, Ph.D. But as they hear it again and again, they start to notice patterns and sequences. They'll also learn to predict what will happen next based on their prior knowledge. Later, these lessons in recognizing patterns, understanding sequences, and predicting outcomes will help children in other areas, from math and science to music and writing. Experts suggest that parents continue the tradition even into the teenage years. By choosing books that are slightly above a teen's skill level, you'll continue to expose her to new words to add to her vocabulary.
To best confer reading's cognitive benefits, a child's experiences with books should be enjoyable, says Peter Gorski, M.D. "More than anything, you want him to associate reading with emotional warmth and fun," he says.
When kids are cozy and comfortable, reading aloud to them can even lower their stress levels. When a child experiences any strain -- such as being bullied or starting a new school -- his brain tries to protect him by producing the hormone cortisol, which activates the body's "fight or flight" response. In small doses, cortisol can actually help kids handle normal stress. In larger amounts, however, it can block learning.
To enhance the calming nature of storytime at your house, cuddle up with your child in a comfortable place, with his favorite blankets and stuffed animals nearby.
"Relax and just enjoy being with your child," Dr. Gorski says. "Just think of what that close time you're spending together will do for your own cortisol levels!"
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