This One Important Reading Technique May Boost Your Child's Brain

This fun, easy read-aloud strategy helps kids get more out of every book you read together.
By Ashley Austrew
Dec 13, 2018

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This One Important Reading Technique May Boost Your Child's Brain

Dec 13, 2018

Most parents are aware that reading to children is vitally important to their development. Not only does it help further language and cognitive skills, but research has also shown that reading books together with our kids can help curb behavioral issues, like hyperactivity and aggression. Almost any style or amount of reading has the potential to be beneficial for kids, but a new study suggests that parents can “turbocharge” their kids’ brains by employing a simple tactic during storytime.

How "Dialogic Reading" Boosts Kids' Brains

The key technique is called “dialogic reading,” and it’s basically just interacting with and engaging your kids as you’re reading to them. The goal: Turn the story into a two-way dialogue, as opposed to a passive listening activity. It involves asking open-ended questions about the pictures, the characters, and the story itself, and giving kids a way to participate. For example, young children can take on the task of turning pages, while older children might answer questions about how characters are feeling or what they think is going to happen next. You can use the technique with just about any book (browse 14 favorite classics here.)

Researchers at the University of Cinncinati used functional magnetic resonance imaging to measure the brain activity of 22 four-year-old girls while their mothers read to them. When the moms employed dialogic strategies, their preschoolers registered greater activity in the parts of the brain related to "cognitive skill acquisition and refinement via connection to language.” The findings suggest that more engaged children may get a brain boost that could potentially increase the literacy benefits they get from a typical story time. 

It sounds simple enough, but think about the last time you read your child a book. Most of my previous reading experiences with my 4-year-old son involve me trying to to do wild character voices to keep his attention while he practices gymnastics on the bed. 

But, as a parent, it’s not difficult for me to imagine that striving to get my kids’ full attention during reading time could help them engage with stories in different ways, or even potentially maximize what they’re gaining from the practice of reading. So, I decided to test the theory myself. 

I tried Dialogic Reading. Did it help my high-energy son?

My laboratory? My 4-year-old’s bedroom. The subject? One extremely active little boy who was dying to read the There Was an Old Pirate Who Swallowed a Map book he just got at his school’s book fair. Now, the “old lady” books are a little bit on the longer side, and longer books aren’t always the easiest choice with a busy little one like mine. So, before we even started, I decided to employ one recommended dialogic strategy and dub him the Official Page Turner.

Right away, I noticed a difference. Instead of somersaulting off the end of his bed, my son was watching the book, trying to use the inflection in my voice to determine when I was done with each page. Feeling emboldened, I threw out a question a few pages into the story.

“Oh my gosh, she swallowed a sword! What do you think she’s going to eat next?”

“A shark!” my son yelled back.

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And she didn’t; she ate a spyglass instead. But he was into it. He was ready to see where this old pirate was going to go. And it was more fun for me, too, to feel like he was invested in what I was doing.

I always try to make reading fun with my kids. I have roared myself hoarse during the fire-breathing scene in Dragons Love Tacos and tried on different voices for every character in every iteration of Pete the Cat, but somehow it had never occurred to me to just ask a simple question.

I have no idea if my dialogic reading of There Was an Old Pirate Who Swallowed a Map ended up “turbocharging” my child’s brain — if it did, well, then I hope he thanks me one day when he accepts his Nobel Prize for literature — but I do know that making my son an active participant in his bedtime story made reading even more enjoyable for both of us. And, as a parent who, like most, is trying to raise my kids to be lifelong readers, that’s a small victory I’ll gladly celebrate.

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