A study published recently showed that parental literacy experiences impact children’s vocabulary and influence the brain activity underlying word reading.
All literacy interactions parents have with their children make up their home literacy environment (HLE), which includes language-related interplays, literacy development and the availability of reading material at home. These interactions are believed to influence the development of reading skills throughout the schooling period. In fact, previous studies have shown that a strong presence of reading material at home was associated with greater vocabulary and improved reading skills in children. Studies that investigated how this works at the brain activity level — neuroimaging studies — have also indicated that the quality of home literacy interactions may affect both structure and function of brain areas that are essential for reading, confirming the benefits of home literacy practices between parents and children.
In this new study, Cléa Girard and her colleagues aimed to test whether brain activity in areas supporting word recognition was related to the home literacy environment of elementary school children. In their experiment, parents of 8-year-old children were asked to complete a questionnaire evaluating the frequency of home literacy practices with their offspring. The questions were divided into informal and formal literacy experiences: the former referred to practices in which the printed word was present but was not the focus of the interaction (e.g., talking about school activities or singing songs), and the latter referred activities that focused on the printed word itself (e.g., listening to children reading out loud or asking questions when they were reading quietly). The results from this questionnaire were then compared to the children’s literacy skills and their breadth of vocabulary while defining up to 27 words that decreased in frequency of usage. The scientists also measured the children’s brain activity during a task of word recognition using a functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI).
In this neuroimaging experiment, the researchers adapted a task previously developed by Tyler Perrachione for a study about dyslexia. In this task, subjects looked at blocks of written words that were identical (adaptation blocks) and different (no-adaptation blocks). The comparison between these two blocks enabled the understanding of the brain region that is fundamental to word processing: the neural adaptation effect. Notably, this effect proved to be functionally relevant since it is related to reading skills in adults. This study concluded that the neural adaptation effect is weaker in dyslexic readers than in typical readers.
Girard’s study highlighted that even though home literacy practices did not influence reading fluency or visual processing skills in children, more frequent reading practices resulted in a wider breadth of vocabulary and higher sensitivity to the repetition of printed words (i. e., to word association tests as measured in the fMRI experiment). This gain was observed in the classic reading brain network, including the left inferior frontal gyrus. The role of this region of the brain during reading tasks is believed to involve both phonological and semantic processing. Importantly, the results of this study also showed that the relation between home literacy practices and the brain mechanisms supporting reading in children is influenced by vocabulary, a cognitive precursor to reading.
This study confirms the importance of having literacy experiences beyond the classroom. Home literacy practices not only influence brain regions supporting reading and learning, but also impact children’s reading through cognitive precursors skills such as vocabulary.
This article was edited by Ana Gerschenfeld, science writer da Fundação Champalimaud.