Kids have better vocab by 3 when parents read to them

Regardless of their risk for facing learning, attention, or behavioral development problems, reading to kids is associated with better vocabulary skills.

Dec. 3, 2019 | Original article
Jennifer Forbes-Rutgers | futurity
4 mins

A dad in a gray t-shirt and blue jeans reads to his two young children on a black couch with a bookshelf in the background

Shared reading between parents and very young children, including infants, is associated with stronger vocabulary skills for nearly all children by age three, researchers report.

This is true also for children who genetically may be vulnerable to barriers in learning, attention, and behavior development, the research shows.

“In a supportive environment, children who may be genetically at-risk do just as well as their peers,” says lead author Manuel Jimenez, a developmental pediatrician and assistant professor of pediatrics and family medicine and community health at the Rutgers University Robert Wood Johnson Medical School.

“The bottom line is that children respond positively to shared reading at an early age…”

Researchers tested the children in the study as part of the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, which examined the development of children born to unmarried families who were at greater risk of living in poverty.

The study looked at how children respond differently to shared reading based on genetic characteristics, Jimenez says. The team assessed the difference in vocabulary skill development based on genetic differences in two neurotransmitter systems that have implications in learning development, memory, and impulse control.

The study shows that shared reading with children at one year old was associated with higher vocabulary scores on a standardized assessment at age three, in line with previous studies. Children with genetic variations that put them at-risk fared just as well as their peers on the assessment when shared reading was conducted at age one. However, at-risk children who were not exposed to shared reading did poorly on the same vocabulary assessment.

“We found that reading with very young children can be quite powerful and really makes a difference in a child’s development, particularly with children who may be vulnerable to developmental delays,” says Jimenez.

According to Jimenez, scientists are just starting to understand how genes influence complex behaviors and how to improve lives through patient care. The research underscores the importance of a positive environment with close parental contact and its direct correlation to favorable child development, even when a child may be at-risk for learning and behavioral challenges.

Coauthor Daniel Notterman, a pediatrician, professor of molecular biology, co-investigator of the Fragile Families study at Princeton University, and clinical professor of pediatrics at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, concurs.

“Biological measures give us another way to identify children for which interventions, in this case reading, may have the greatest benefit,” he says. “Although there is already evidence of the positive effects of shared reading, this study provides additional verification and a more quantitative picture of the link between a child’s environment, biological makeup, and development.”

Both researchers emphasize that parents need to spend time reading with their children every day, as findings from the study provide support for literacy promotion at an early age.

“The bottom line is that children respond positively to shared reading at an early age and doing so is one way to improve language skills for all children,” says Jimenez.

The research appears in the Journal of Pediatrics.

Source: Rutgers University

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