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Reading is Language Learning

Dr. Maheen Siddiqui returns to share her insights and current work in developing new technology to measure brain activity in babies so we can understand how babies’ brains grow.

Hello, I’m Maheen! You might remember me from a past BabyBrains blog post (What a High-Tech Mum-to-Be Can Do for Autism) on me and my work published a few years a go. How time flies! Now I am Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Birkbeck Babylab and I’m currently involved in developing new technology to measure brain activity in babies so we can understand how babies’ brains grow.

I completed my Ph.D. a little over 2 years ago and just one short month after passing my Ph.D. viva, I welcomed my very own baby girl into the world! I’ve always been fascinated by babies, but even more so after becoming a mum - how they learn and grow and how we, as parents, hold the potential to literally build their brains and shape their identity. After becoming a mum, I became very aware that social media is full with parenting strategies and advice that have no scientific evidence to back them up and that often, the science behind building happy, healthy little minds is locked behind complex scientific papers and long books that nobody has the time to read. This inspired me to empower parents with my knowledge of babies and their brains and share how they can use this knowledge to nurture their little ones. So, I set up an Instagram Blog called Happy Little Minds where I do just that!

We’ve been discussing all things reading over on Happy Little Minds and how important it is to read to your little one to build a bond with them and for their brain development. Before I dive into the science, I just want to emphasize that reading is a key language skill (other key skills include listening, speaking and writing) and so developing the ability to read is part of wider language development.

You might have been encouraged by a medical professional in some capacity – a paediatrician, a health visitor – to read to your baby. It does seem to be a strange suggestion to read to a baby who has barely just entered this world. While babies can’t understand much, their brains are growing rapidly. It has been estimated that in the first few years of life, there are as many as 1 million brain connections forming every single second! Specific brain connections form for a specific task and the more you perform that task, the more those connections are reinforced and the stronger they become. There are many different areas of the brain that are involved in reading and research actually shows regular reading with young children strengthens these specific brain connections - which in turn helps build life-long critical skills such as attention, memory, problem-solving, language, imaginative skills, communication and critical thinking. These key skills then help acquire further reading and language skills.

From birth (some research even suggests during pregnancy), babies start learning important skills that set the foundation for learning how to read. So, the process of learning how to read begins way before a child is even ready to read. There are many skills that need to be acquired to help a child read successfully. These include recognising letters and their sounds, enjoying looking at books, being able to follow written words and turning the pages of a book, being able to describe stories, recognising sounds in a word (e.g. rhyming, syllables) and… (I’ve saved one of the most important one for last) vocabulary! It is so important that your child starts acquiring a good vocabulary from a young age because they’re only going to be able to read when they know what a word means!

Let’s talk about vocabulary a little bit more. Vocabulary is something that is acquired both through reading and talking to your baby. In 2012, Professor Rowe and colleagues showed that as early as 18 months, a “language gap” starts to become apparent between toddlers who are regularly read to and verbally engaged with in comparison to those toddlers who aren’t. This gap widens over time and by the time the child is 3 years old, there is a staggering difference between the two groups of 30 million words per year with those toddlers being read to regularly having double the vocabulary, which was shown by work done by Hart and colleagues in 1995 and followed up by Talbot and colleagues in 2015. The important thing to note here is that vocabulary size actually predicts IQ, and has been shown to be linked to faster brain processing speed. Brain processing speed is how quickly your brain responds to information and it is a key skill in learning, academic performance and intellectual development - because it helps develop executive functions such as problem-solving, planning, memory and attention.

What exactly does the science say that should you be doing with your child? Read and speak to them!

Read age-appropriate books early and often. While reading, engage with your child by pointing to and naming pictures and objects and as they grow older asking questions such as “What’s that?” or “What’s happening here?”. Always follow your child’s lead and be prepared to read their favourite books to them again and again! Check out our previous post to learn more about the benefits of this type of joint media engagement.

When speaking to your child, tune into their interests. Pay attention to what your child is interested in and how they are communicating with you. Use this opportunity to start a conversation, this is relevant even for babies as babies are always trying to communicate with us! Use opportunities throughout the day to make conversation with your child and when you do, use a rich vocabulary and talk about complex ideas. Research shows that this drives understanding and thinking skills.

But most importantly – have fun! The act of sitting down with your child and reading, with no distractions and providing them your full attention, helps strength the parent-child bond and creates memories like no other!

For more interesting science-based topics on early development check out My Instagram Blog: Happy Little Minds.

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