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Grandparents help grandkids succeed by providing summer books, reading to the youngest

Key to providing free books is let the kids choose them; MRI proves success of reading to the preschoolers

Grandmother reading with granddaughterApril 25, 2015 – Want to be a better grandparent? Who doesn’t? Here are a couple of ideas being presented today that can put you at the top of the class. Giving your school age grandchildren books as school ends for the summer can help them avoid the “summer slide.” And, if you go the extra mile and read to the youngest ones, new research says you will enhance their reading skills.

Both studies are being presented today at the Pediatric Academic Societies (PAS) annual meeting in San Diego.

Give them books and they will read

It's common knowledge among teachers that when students return to school after the long summer break, they likely will have lost some academic ground. They call it the "summer slide."

"Reading proficiency is a critical skill and an important determinant of health. However, many students, particularly low-income students, struggle," said lead researcher Erin Kelly, M.D., a fourth-year medicine-pediatrics resident at the University of Rochester in New York.

An intervention at high-poverty elementary schools in Florida dramatically improved reading achievement by providing students with a collection of self-selected books at the end of each school year. Dr. Kelly aimed to improve literacy among low-income Rochester City School students by replicating the Florida intervention.

Researchers initiated a pilot project in 2013, holding a book fair for a class of 18 second-graders at the end of the school year. Students could choose 13 free books at the fair. Another second-grade class of 20 students served as a control group, receiving a few books mailed to them over the summer by a community group based on their grade and reading level. All students had reading assessments in the spring and following fall.

Results showed statistically significant improvements in reading scores among students in the intervention group but no change in scores among the control group.

In 2014, the project was expanded to four classes of kindergarten through second-graders. Each student could load up a backpack with 15 free books at the end of the school year. Students in other classes served as controls. Due to ethical considerations given the success of the pilot program, control students also were able to choose a few of the books they received.

Results showed no significant difference in the two groups' reading scores, with more than 75 percent of students maintaining or improving their reading, compared to an average summer learning loss of up to three months seen among low-income students in prior studies.

"This simple intervention allowing students to choose their own books at end of the school year had a significant positive impact," Dr. Kelly said. She noted that even the control group made reading gains, suggesting that receiving some books, even if students don't pick all of them out, may stem the summer slide. "A multifaceted approach is needed to address poor child literacy rates," she concluded, "but this intervention can be part of the solution."

View the study abstract.

Read to children for brain development, better reading skills

Most parents and grandparents have probably assumed that reading to small children will help their language development and inspire them to become successful readers.

Now there is evidence that reading to young children is associated with differences in brain activity supporting early reading skills.

"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."

Professional organizations such as the American Academy of Pediatrics and advocacy groups have encouraged parents to read to their children from birth to foster early learning and create connections in the brain that promote language development. Direct evidence of effects on the brain, however, were not previously available.

To show whether reading to preschoolers affects brain networks that support reading skills, Dr. Hutton and his colleagues studied 19 healthy preschoolers ages 3-5 years old, 37 percent of whom were from low-income households.

Each child's primary caregiver completed a questionnaire designed to measure cognitive stimulation in the home. The questionnaire looked at three areas: parent-child reading, including access to books, frequency of reading and variety of books read; parent-child interaction, including talking and playing; and whether parents taught specific skills such as counting and shapes.

The children then underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which measured brain activity while they were listening to age-appropriate stories via headphones. The children were awake and non-sedated during fMRI, and there was no visual stimulus. Researchers were interested in whether there would be differences in brain activation supporting comprehension of the stories in areas known to be involved with language.

Results showed that greater home reading exposure was strongly associated with activation of specific brain areas supporting semantic processing (the extraction of meaning from language). These areas are critical for oral language and later for reading.

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.

To view the study abstract.

The Pediatric Academic Societies (PAS) are four individual pediatric organizations that co-sponsor the PAS Annual Meeting - the American Pediatric Society, the Society for Pediatric Research, the Academic Pediatric Association, and the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Members of these organizations are pediatricians and other health care providers who are practicing in the research, academic and clinical arenas. The four sponsoring organizations are leaders in the advancement of pediatric research and child advocacy within pediatrics, and all share a common mission of fostering the health and well-being of children worldwide. For more information, visit http://www.pas-meeting.org.

Follow news of the PAS meeting on Twitter at @PASmeeting and Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/pages/Pediatric-Academic-Societies-Annual-Meeting/134020174135. Use hashtag #PASMEETING.


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