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Books, babies and brain development

Book Trust’s early years programmes are committed to helping children to get the best start in life by developing a love of reading as early as possible, and developing their language and literacy skills so that they are ready for school. To support our work, we asked Dr Saloni Krishnan and Professor Mark Johnson from Birkbeck, University of London to carry out a review of the evidence on brain development in the early years. The aim of this was to help us to understand how and when infants develop skills related to reading.

Book Trust’s flagship programme, Bookstart, gives free books to all children in England and Wales at key ages before they start school – Bookstart Baby (at 0-12 months), Bookstart Early Years Pack (in Wales at 18-24 months), and Bookstart Treasure (in England at 3-4 years). 

We also run targeted programmes to support families with the greatest need and families with additional needs or English as an additional language. Therefore, it is really important to us to make sure we are giving parents and carers the best advice about reading with their child. The questions we asked were:

What is the best age to start sharing books, stories and rhymes with children?

The review suggests that sharing print books with children at 3-4 months may be particularly appropriate as, by this age, babies’ vision and attention skills are developed enough to allow them to interact with books well. Additionally, babies are beginning to explore the world with their hands by this age.

However, the review also highlights that babies can benefit from hearing the changes in tone and rhythm, and the repetition of words and phrases, that stories provide from a very early age. In fact, learning begins before birth – studies have shown that newborn babies are able to recognise tunes, nursery rhymes and sounds of their native language that they had been exposed to before they were born.


What is the best way to share books, stories and rhymes with children?

The review highlighted that in the early years children benefit most from child-focused book sharing. Parents and carers should be responsive to their child’s interest (or lack of it), ask open-ended questions and encourage their child to explore different aspects of the books.

Repetition is particularly important for young children who benefit from hearing the same words often and in different contexts. Children also benefit from different aspects of books as they develop. For example, infants begin by focusing on pictures, before learning new words, and by the time they reach nursery age will be learning about the stories, characters and routines in books.

It has been shown that learning is more efficient in social situations, i.e. interacting with books and toys rather than passively watching TV.  

When sharing books with young children, removing distractors (such as turning off the TV or removing other toys) could help children to develop their self-control and attention skills by making it easier for them to focus on the book.

Research on how learning using digital devices (e.g. on tablets or e-readers) will contrast with more traditional print books has only just begun, and it will be interesting to see 

whether the skills children develop from these devices are different to those gained from reading print books.

How do different environments affect language and literacy development?

To help us to support families with different needs we need to understand the effects that different environments can have on language and literacy development in the early years.

  • The review found that bilingual environments can affect children’s language development as they use different strategies for learning. Whilst they reach early language and literacy milestones at around the same time as children who only use one language, bilingual children may experience some cognitive advantages (e.g. enhanced ability to focus), and the real-world benefits of speaking multiple languages are clear. The researchers recommended that multi-lingual families continue to use all languages with their children.
  • For deaf or hearing impaired children, visual language input is key. Particularly for deaf children born to hearing families, ‘sign and sing along’ books might help parents and carers to develop their child’s language and social skills.
  • For blind or visually impaired children, rhymes and songs may stimulate language and social skills.
  • Socio-economic differences can also affect the development of language and literacy in the early years, however early and regular shared book reading can be particularly beneficial in levelling the field for school entry.

To summarise

In conclusion, it’s never too early to start sharing stories with children. Children recognise familiar sounds and tunes from before they are born and particularly benefit from sharing books from 3-4 months, when they are able to focus on objects and explore the world with their hands. When sharing books it’s important for parents and carers to be child-focused, responding to the child’s interests, asking them questions, and encouraging them to explore different aspects of the book. Finally, different environments can have an impact on children’s language and literacy development and an awareness of the different needs that families might have is crucial in helping us to provide the best support.

Cathy Harris is a Research Officer at Book Trust. Her role involves developing and delivering evaluations of Book Trust’s programmes to help ensure they have the best possible impact on children and families. She also conducts and coordinates wider research to support and inform Book Trust’s work. 

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