The power of reading

A number of studies link reading and writing literacy to productivity later in life. And research demonstrates that early exposure to books and reading can predict better academic skills in early grade school.

Given the substantial evidence on the importance of literacy, OHSU Doernbecher Children’s Hospital participates in an innovative national program called Reach Out and Read, which offers books to children and their parents at well-child check-ups from ages 6 months to 5 years.

Consistent with the vision of Reach Out and Read, the OHSU Doernbecher Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Training program also focuses a lot on children’s literature and the power of parents and caregivers sharing book time with their children. In this Healthy Families post, I would like to reflect on the impact of books in the lives of young people and how early reading with children may promote attachment and key emotion regulation skills.

When a parent reads with his or her young child, they sit close and even snuggle; they also must work to together keep the book open. This process guarantees sustained contact and necessitates a hands-on experience, and toys — parents’ toys, too; think cell phone, here — are cast aside.

Books also help parents achieve emotional resonance with their children by the nearly automatic change in vocal tone a parent uses when reading — whether it’s the whispered excitement of tiptoeing around the zoo in Goodnight, Gorilla or the giddy whimsy of reading about the antics of Curious George, a parent cannot help but abandon “parent voice” in favor of “reading tone.”

Reading also promotes sustained joint attention where parent and child are truly focused on the same things — a sense of “we’re in this together, looking out at the world as detailed by this book” is then achieved. Parents can sustain the suspense for a child by asking them questions about what they see or what they could do next: such as “Where is the mouse?” and “Point to the moon.” Or, “Okay, please turn the page,” a parent might say reading Goodnight, Moon.

Given the numerous studies that demonstrate the importance of self-control (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences), I can think of few activities better suited for parents and children to work on regulation and anticipation than finding a book that features an exciting or surprise ending; one which asks the child to wait, wait, wait for the excitement to unfold. For example, a toddler enjoying Emma Dodd’s Baby Boo! must work hard, patiently turning the pages until they get to exclaim with their parent “Boo!”

Books also demonstrate to children that words are how we communicate what we are thinking or feeling. One of my favorite books that makes this explicit is Ann and Paul Rand’s Sparkle and Spin, which begins: “What are words? Words are how what you think inside comes out and how to remember what you might forget about.”

Finally, books and reading help stimulate lifelong neural activity and attainment of metaphor. Consider, for example the functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) studies that can show when we “grasp” an idea — the parts of are brain that controls our hands, which actually “grasp” things, are activated (Cerebral Cortex).

Based on studies like this, it seems logical to contend that enriching children’s lives with early exposure to a wide range of vocabulary words and the metaphors contained in books will help create the conditions for lifelong, brain-based appreciation of the power evocative words, metaphors and for a “grippingly” positive relationship with reading later in life.

With all of these benefits in mind, I encourage mothers and fathers, as part of daily routines, to read to their children and to talk with your pediatrician about books that might be a good fit for you and your child.

Craigan Usher, M.D.
Assistant Professor of Pediatrics, Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry
OHSU Doernbecher Children’s Hospital