Visualization: How Kids 'See' the Story Beyond the Pictures

Visualization Mental Imagery See the Story Beyond the Pictures

Parent-child reading is widely advocated to promote cognitive development, including in recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics to begin this practice at birth. Although parent-child reading has been shown in behavioral studies to improve oral language and print concepts, quantifiable effects on the brain have not been previously studied.  

Learning to read involves mastering numerous skills with speed and accuracy, supported by language, visual, and association brain networks, which grow and peak in the first few years of life. During this critical period, children are highly vulnerable to disparities in cognitive stimulation, especially spoken language, as well as, toys and books promoting constructive parent-child engagement. Many children arrive at school at a significant disadvantage in reading readiness. This underscores the need for effective interventions applied as early as possible, when brain networks are most responsive to change.

Listening Boosts Mental Imagery

"We are excited to show, for the first time, that reading exposure during the critical stage of development prior to kindergarten seems to have a meaningful, measurable impact on how a child's brain processes stories and may help predict reading success," said study author John Hutton, MD, National Research Service Award Fellow, Division of General and Community Pediatrics, Reading and Literacy Discovery Center, Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center. "Of particular importance are brain areas supporting mental imagery, helping the child 'see the story' beyond the pictures, affirming the invaluable role of imagination."

Dr. Hutton and his team used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to examine the relationship between home reading environment and brain activity during an age-appropriate story listening task in a sample of preschool-age children. They found that while listening to stories, children with greater home reading exposure showed more activity in the left-sided brain regions involved with mental imagery and understanding word meaning (semantic processing) including vocabulary and listening comprehension. 

Visualization is Key to Reading Readiness

In addition, brain areas supporting mental imagery showed particularly strong activation, suggesting that visualization plays a key role in narrative comprehension and reading readiness, allowing children to "see" the story.  "This becomes increasingly important as children advance from books with pictures to books without them, where they must imagine what is going on in the text," Dr. Hutton said.

The associations between home reading exposure and brain activity remained robust after controlling for household income. "We hope that this work will guide further research on shared reading and the developing brain to help improve interventions and identify children at risk for difficulties as early as possible, increasing the chances that they will be successful in the wonderful world of books," Dr. Hutton concluded.

StepUp Note

This research shows the relationship between children’s exposure to reading and their brain activity in the areas that support visualization and reading comprehension. Listening to stories read out loud activates the brain areas that help children imagine and understand what is happening in the story. Visualization is essential to reading comprehension. A child must be able to turn auditory information (phonemes, words and sentences) into a vision of what's happening in a story. The process of visualization is a neural network that needs to be practiced and strengthened and many exercises in the StepUp programs work on visualization. It’s exciting and encouraging for us to see brain research showing that we can help young learners change their brains in measurable ways! 



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Reposted from American Academy of Pediatrics

Note by Nancy W Rowe, M.S., CCC/A