Banner by: Matt Stoss

The Positive Effects of Reading

by Zinni Nebroski

Many people have fond memories of being read to by their parents or guardians in their childhood years. While it is immediately apparent that reading together helps develop a strong parent-child bond, a growing body of research suggests that the effects of children’s exposure to reading provides long-reaching benefits as diverse as neurological development and better social and emotional health. But how do we navigate the choppy waters of e-books in relation to reading comprehension?

Exposing children to language can take multiple forms besides traditional reading. Providing children with materials to encourage creativity and hands-on learning, such as paper, crayons, and finger paints encourages children to begin practicing rudimentary writing, even if they only scribble at first. Another important step to foster a child’s language development is simply to talk to them, engaging them in conversation throughout the day. According to research Professor Anne Fernald at Stanford University, children with parents who spoke to them the least tested behind their peers in language evaluations. At the age of two years old, some of these children demonstrated language delays of six months behind their peers, proving the significant effect consistent exposure to speech and conversation play on a child’s an overall grasp of language. When out and about, showing kids objects such as maps, signs, and menus can further expose them to the vast variety of forms that language takes and how it is ingrained in our world. All of these activities are excellent ways to prime a mind for reading.

During infancy and early childhood, the brain develops at the fastest rate it ever will. At a child’s third birthday, already 1000 trillion unique connections between neurons have formed. Stimulating the growing neurons through brain-building activities such as reading serves to promote healthy brain development, which contributes to success in a variety of other areas, such as the child’s social and emotional arenas. Self-regulation, or the ability to control one’s behavior and actions with maturity, can be developed through exposure to language, from a very young child first hearing and engaging with words to eventually expressing their own ideas with accuracy and concision. Success in school, a hot topic in America’s culture today, is often indicated by the interconnected relationships of academic (largely literary), social, and emotional skills.

Reading with children is also critical because it provides a wonderful outlet for children and their caregivers to bond over a shared activity. Taking time regularly, even for a few minutes, to read with children develops priceless bonding experiences. Reading with children, especially infants, helps provide two key needs of the growing child: the need to feel safe and supported while being allowed to explore the world around them. According to a publication from Princeton University, fostering a bond with children leads to positive outcomes such as resilience during times of adversity and increased cognitive development. Another study performed by Colombia University, the London School of Economics, and the University of Bristol found that boys who grew up in poverty were two-and-a-half times less likely to exhibit behavioral problems at school if they possessed a strong bond with their parents. Bonding between the parent and child demonstrated a clear correlation towards cognitive and academic successes in school and life.

The positive effects of exposing children to language are not limited to strictly academic skills. There is strong evidence from research performed by the Child Health and Development Institute of Connecticut to support the idea that increased literacy skills are directly tied to social and emotional health. As children are nurtured by their caregivers, they learn to connect certain words to their meanings and begin to build their vocabularies. By learning to use “feeling” words that can convey a certain emotion, children can learn to express how they feel as well as identify others’ emotions. This identification skill is an important building block to develop social skills with their peers and emotional regulation in themselves. This research also served to reinforce the fact that children from low-income homes or otherwise chaotic environments exhibit a higher level of behavioral problems than their peers, a troubling correlation that is also connected to an increase in learning challenges.

It cannot be denied that today’s kids are reading less than before in our tech-saturated world. According to research from Common Sense Media, a third of thirteen year olds and forty-five percent of seventeen year olds claim that they “read for pleasure one to two times a year, if that.” Additionally, since the advent of e-readers and enhanced kids’ e-books with bells and whistles, timely concerns have taken root among parents and educators about the toll of increased screen time and the e-reading experience on kids. While it is true that new technology and e-readers have made it easier than ever before to buy, carry, and store books, do these devices genuinely aid kids’ reading comprehension and the amount of time they spend reading? Unfortunately, judging from research conducted at the Joan Ganz Cooney Center in New York, the conclusion was found to be negative. During the study, in which parents and children were given either a print book, an e-book, or an enhanced-ebook, “Enhanced ebooks were found to distract children from the story, and their bells and whistles prevented children from remembering as many narrative details.” However, this disheartening news was countered by the more encouraging sentiment that enhanced e-books encourage and engaged young readers. This information is valuable if parents and teachers are looking to help a struggling or unmotivated reader gain access to the joyful world of confident literacy. The general consensus from this study was that both e-books and enhanced e-books can be valuable tools for learning, despite the setbacks seen in comparison with their print counterparts.

It is critical to recognize the interconnected nature of academic success as dependent on both academic readiness and social skills. While reading continues to be a great way to stimulate children’s brain development and prepare them academically for school, reading also provides invaluable parent-child bonding time, as well as laying a foundation for social and emotional health. This winning combination contributes to success in many different areas of life. Additionally, while nothing beats a print book, the use of e-books (both simple and enhanced) can be a fun and interactive way to unwind with a book, as well as assist struggling readers. As Margaret Fuller once said, “Today a reader, tomorrow a leader."