Brain Science and Language Development

Busy parents can easily question the value of reading to their infant. In the busyness of everyday life, playing games such as “peek-a-boo” and singing songs such as “The Wheels On the Bus” seem to be a better use of time than reading a book to a non-verbalizing infant. However, emerging brain research suggests that language acquisition begins in the first year of life, well before an infant’s first words are spoken. Reading to your infant contributes to the development of the basic building blocks of language.

The Study

Advances in neuroscience techniques over the past 10 years have allowed researchers to study the infant brain. Researchers at the University of Paris used infant brain imaging to study how infants acquire language. Study results published in NeuroReport show that the infant brain is uniquely designed to differentiate between basic sounds of the language spoken in his or her environment; these basic sounds are called “phonemes.” The ability to differentiate between the “b” in bat and the “c” in cat illustrates basic phonemes. Dr. Garillo of the Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences published a study suggesting that an infant’s ability to differentiate between 2 vowels at the age of 6 months predicted pre-reading skills at age 5.

An infant’s ability to identify and differentiate phonemes requires social interaction. In a study funded by the National Institutes of Health, researchers split 9-month-old infants into two groups. The first group of infants heard a face-to-face conversation, a social interaction. The second group heard the exact same conversation but only through the television or radio. Data from brain scans of the infants indicated improvements in the ability to differentiate sounds only among infants with human speakers. This study, published in Proceedings of The National Academy of Sciences, demonstrates the importance of spoken human interaction in an infant’s ability to develop language.

What Parents Can Do

What can parents do to ensure that children develop critical language skills? Reading to your infant is one of the easiest things. Reading provides the social interaction infants need to develop the building blocks of language. Books are readily available resources that enable the social interaction crucial to language development. Many parents enjoy this time with their infant, and they find it to be a relaxing activity and a great way to bond with their baby. Sharing this time together can set the foundation for a love of reading and later reading success. Here are some tips to help you build a reading habit with your baby.

  • Set aside time to read together every day.
  • Hold and cuddle your baby as you share a story.
  • Books with nursery rhymes, songs, faces, interactive puppets or flaps are great for first books.
  • Choose books that have a predictable, rhyming text. These types of books help develop phonemic awareness and sound discrimination naturally.
  • Don’t worry about getting through the whole story. Keep the focus on making it an enjoyable experience for both of you.
  • Be a ham.  The more fun you make it the more engaged your baby will be. Make those silly voices and faces, your child will love it!

* This Evidence-Based Parenting article was supported by funds from the George Kaiser Family Foundation awarded to the Oklahoma State University Center for Family Resilience.  Joseph G. Grzywacz is the Kaiser Family Endowed Professor of Family Resilience and Director of the Center for Family Resilience. 

Categories: Education – Early Years, Little Ones