Learning to read changes children’s lives, empowering them to acquire a vast amount of new knowledge and to grow both personally and professionally. Yet, literacy varies considerably between children and since some of these differences can be traced back to differences in early reading skills, researchers have long questioned the role families may play in building their children’s ability to read and write. For example, parents may vary in the frequency of literacy-related practices they engage their children in at home, such as storybook reading or writing. But a large body of literature shows these activities are related to children's literacy skills, such as vocabulary or reading. To date, however, little has been known about the way home literacy practices might affect the reading brain in children.
To fill this gap, our research team used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to measure the brain activity associated with word-level reading in 8-year-olds, while also gathering information about the children’s home literacy environments. The experiment involved two different sessions. In the first session, we invited parent-child dyads to visit our lab for an extensive behavioral assessment of children's skills (including vocabulary, IQ or reading) and asked parents to fill out a comprehensive questionnaire assessing how often they engaged in different literacy activities with their child at home. During that session, we also familiarized children with the fMRI environment using a mock scanner. Children then came back to the lab a few days later for a second session, entirely dedicated to the “real” fMRI scanning. In this scanner, children simply viewed series of words that could be either identical or different. This task allowed us to measure how the brain of each child automatically responded to the presentation of words.
Our results were threefold. First, we identified a set of brain regions that automatically responded to the presentation of words across all children. These regions, located in the left hemisphere of the brain, are known to be part of a “reading network”. Second, because we had collected information about the home literacy environment, we correlated the frequency of shared literacy practices at home with activity in the reading network on a child-by-child basis. Our results showed children who benefited from more frequent literacy activities at home were also those whose activity in a region of the reading network was more pronounced in response to words. Third, we found the relationship between home literacy practices and activity in that brain region was mediated by vocabulary skills. In other words, our results suggested that home literacy practices might influence the brain mechanisms of reading through the development of vocabulary skills.
An important caveat of our study is we only looked at associations between home practices and brain activity. Thus, our results cannot be taken as evidence that home literacy practices cause changes to brain activity. Nonetheless, our results are certainly consistent with that idea and intervention studies point to a causal relationship between parental practices and literacy skills. Therefore, our findings call for future studies investigating the extent to which changing home literacy practices might affect the reading brain.
Together with previous literature about home literacy environments, we believe that our study highlights the importance of the home environment when considering the growth of literacy skills in children. It goes without saying school plays a central role in teaching children to read. Yet, children also spend a significant amount of time outside of the classroom with their parents. Policies aimed at raising literacy skills might benefit from considering the home learning environment, in addition to, the classroom environment.
Read more about the results of our research in Nurturing the reading brain: home literacy practices are associated with children’s neural response to printed words through vocabulary skills published by npj Science of Learning.
Reference: Girard, C., Bastelica, T., Léone, J. et al. Nurturing the reading brain: home literacy practices are associated with children’s neural response to printed words through vocabulary skills. npj Sci. Learn. 6, 34 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41539-021-00112-9