3 Jun 2016

This Is Your Brain... This is Your Brain on Books

By L. E. Carmichael

Image via ambernwest/Flickr under CC
Earlier this week, I had the privilege of talking to librarians at the Atlantic Provinces Library Association conference about STEM books for kids, and how to find the great ones. Due to scheduling conflicts, I was only able to attend one other session, but it was a great one - all about the neurobiology of reading. In other words...

Your brain on books.

I really, really, wish I'd brought a notebook with me. So many details have already escaped me, but here's what I remember.

Learning to Read

Nicole Conrad of Saint Mary's University started the session. She talked about how kids learn to read in stages, and how the process of becoming a fluent reader causes physical changes in the structure of kid's brains. For one thing, stronger connections form between the occipital lobe, which processes visual info, and the language centres of the brain. That wasn't too surprising, but did you know there is an area of the brain that appears to exist exclusively for reading the written word? In fMRIs, that area only responds to words - no other visual information. How cool is THAT?

Conrad also said that fun activities like story time and playing with letter-shaped toys (like plastic fridge magnets) are enough to prepare kids for the image recognition used in reading. The "drill and kill" method of early reading training is not only totally unnecessary, but risks building resentment towards books. Keep reading fun, parents, and see what a difference it makes!

Reading and Bilingualism

Hélène Deacon was next, speaking on language acquisition for bilingual kids. Apparently kids (the lucky ducks) can learn a second language with no more effort than learning their first, because (unlike adults) they're really good at applying patterns from one language to patterns in a second language. Retention of languages is strongly affected by reading material, though. Kids whose first language is the dominant language of their social milieu benefit from reading in their second language, whereas kids whose first language is in the minority actually need reading enrichment in their primary language.

Deacon also shared my favourite fact of the session - books are an important part of language acquisition for kids, because the text complexity of a kid's book is equivalent to the oral complexity of expert witness testimony. Which means that kids who read are learning a much deeper and richer version of their languages than kids who only speak!

Reading When Deaf or Hearing Impaired

Bonita Squires shared some really cool science on how children with hearing impairments learn language. For example, did you know that letter sounds used in speech vary in both pitch and decibel? As a result, a hearing-impaired child may hear the same spoken word as a collection of very different sounds, depending on level of background noise and the pitch of a person's voice. This lack of consistency makes it really challenging for kids to learn new vocabulary aurally.

As deaf and hearing impaired kids learn to read, however, they discover that the same letter combinations always signify the same object or concept (assuming the words are properly spelled!). That knowledge dramatically improves their language skills, in any format. In other words, fostering a love of reading in kids with hearing impairments may be even more important than in kids with normal hearing.

And Something for the Adults...

Good news, grown ups! According to Gail Eskes of Dalhousie, reading is one of several activities that can slow general age-related cognitive decline, AND the onset of Alzheimer's disease, meaning avid readers will probably get more functional years out of their brains.

Go forth, my friends, and experience your brain on books. Need suggestions for a great title? Check out our list of Canadian science books for kids!

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