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Reading to young children: The cognitive benefits

With US paediatricians now prescribing reading with children as part of their essential care, Malini Mohana speaks to local experts to see how they think the power of stories can shape children’s social, cognitive and emotional wellbeing.

Storytelling is the primal way in which human beings organise and compartmentalise their experiences. We’re not just narrators of things that happen around us; we’re also the narrators of our own lives. Many have argued that using narrative is the most powerful way to not only express ourselves, but also to learn about ourselves and our relationship with the world. All of this starts at birth. In fact, there is a wide scope of research that has confirmed existing early childhood theories and understandings that stories and play form a crucial part of childhood cognitive development.

 Reading and Childhood Development

In fact, The American Academy of Pediatrics, which represents 62 000 paediatricians across the US, is now formally urging parents to read aloud to their children from birth. Dr Pamela High, the lead author of the policy, says that doing so stimulates early brain development and helps build key language, literacy and social skills in children. With children’s brain development occurring the fastest between birth and age three, this period is especially important for setting the stage not just for future learning and intellectual success, but for children’s emotional wellbeing too. A key aspect of reading to children from a very young age is nurturing the parent-child relationship. Reading together provides the opportunity to bond and creates a positive association for children when it comes to books.

By the age of 3 or 4, children can understand and create narratives of different kinds – they can talk about their own experiences, others’ experiences and even the experiences of fictional characters (from movies and books). Furthermore, they know the difference between the three. Much of this comes from play; children pretend, making up scenarios and stories with each other and with caregivers in the form of games. But a large portion comes from how they experience their parents telling stories. When you sit down and read a book with a child, you’ll find that they often ask questions. Adults become the point of reference for information, and this information is what is used to help children understand their world.

In this way, caregivers have the potential to lay the foundations for their child’s cognitive development. These abilities are what affect the likelihood of greater educational success later on – irrespective of one’s socio-economic background. It is important to remember that cognitive skills are not “fixed” in children. In Australia, research from the University of Melbourne claims that these skills are not affected by family background or home environment, but are the direct result of how frequently children are read to prior to starting school. The results indicate a direct causal effect from reading to children at a young age and their future schooling outcomes.

Developing Literacy Patterns

Dr Kirsty Donald, Senior Specialist at the Division of Developmental Paediatrics at University of Cape Town, agrees that storytelling at home can be of great benefit to children’s development in the South African context. “The role of storytelling cuts across cultures. It is up to the parents to provide an environment where engaging with written material is encouraged. Exposing kids to language in cultural context grounds them in their cultural narrative. Later on in the school environment, it manifests in increased vocabulary, and most importantly, motivation,” she explains. “Learning to read and comprehend is hard work! If you expose children to it with a level of excitement, and support, it builds their confidence and their motivation to learn later on.”

Dr Donald also believes there are significant differences between learning to read at school and reading at home with one’s parents: “In developmental paediatrics, if you start early with developing patterns, you embed these patterns or habits in the long term. This is not about teaching children to read in the systematic way. Often, when it comes to problems with literacy, children are struggling with the mechanistic aspects of reading – vocabulary, sentence structure and so on. But very young children experience books differently. It’s important to read to them frequently; getting across the idea of what it means to tell a story, rather than seeing reading as a chore. This way children learn to understand, question and comprehend, which is the foundation for learning. They become receptive readers.”

For clinical psychologist Dr Beverley Killian, who previously worked at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) and served as the Head of the Child and Family Centre at UKZN, it is critical that parents introduce children to books and stories from a very early age to help them learn about life, how to let their imaginations flourish, as well as teaching morals and social learning. “Often, parents need to be shown why TV or video viewing is such a passive activity when compared to reading,” she shares. “Paired and anticipatory reading is what is needed, which is often rooted in the Vygotskian principles of mediated learning, and the zone of proximal development.” This psychological theory indicates that children have limits to what they can learn alone. These limits are extended, however, under the guidance and support of a knowledgeable other, such as a parent or caregiver. When it comes to reading, this means that parents would provide maximum assistance and help to very young children, and gradually, as the assistance is reduced, learning and cognitive development occur.

Concludes Dr Carole Bloch, director of the Project for the Study of Alternative Education in South Africa (PRAESA), which is driving the Nal’ibali national reading-for-enjoyment campaign: “Our premise is that babies and young children are born needing and wanting to make sense of their concrete and imaginary worlds, and they are well equipped to do so. They are inclined to combine stories and play to explore and learn about life. Stories, told and read, are the fuel that propels young minds and bodies into action, enriching the material children use as they develop their thinking and their language - speech, reading and writing.”


This article was originally published in Longevity.

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