Your Kids’ Biggest Brain Booster

Shut off those screens and crack open that fabulous book

by Sandy Coots | 11 Mar 2016 at 5:31 AM

When is the last time you actually picked up a book — and sat down and read it?

We’re all reading something, of course. We’re getting text messages from our kids, emails from friends, memos from the boss, and a near-constant stream of words flashing across our TV screens or tablets. We’re not too bad at digesting newspaper, magazine and web articles, either.

But everything is getting shorter and quicker as our attention span shrinks to a mere 8 seconds, according to a 2015 study done by Microsoft. The trend, however, is creating what many are calling a wave of aliteracy, which means we can read but we just don’t.

Mary Warner is a professor of English and director of the English Education Program at San Jose State University. “This has become especially apparent in the school context — so a teacher gives an assignment and the students don’t read. Those who are in the category of aliterate say, ‘I’d rather be doing (fill in the blank),'” Warner told LifeZette.

There are countless studies showing the importance of reading to and with our children. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), in fact, recommends promoting early literacy development in children, starting from the time they are infants and continuing until they are at least kindergarten age.

Sally Skunda, a retired kindergarten teacher and reading specialist, told LifeZette, "It was a real challenge to see some children in my class who had absolutely no exposure to the written word when they started school. They did not know the difference between a letter and a number, and were struggling so hard to understand what we were doing on a daily basis."

Kristen Turner, PhD, an associate professor in the Graduate School of Education at Fordham University, agreed.

"There’s a lot of research that shows that emergent literacy or the development of how words work on a page and how sentences are formed — that happens when kids are very young when parents or other adults read to them. Children who go to school without that experience are already far behind," Turner told LifeZette.

But reading is necessary for more than just success in school. Jan Adams, also a retired kindergarten teacher from Davison, Michigan, said, "It’s communicating words. Words are the basis for all communications with all people for all reasons."

Naomi Baron, a professor of linguistics at American University and the author of "Words on Screen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World," added, "It’s also interpersonal interaction. We use language with other people not because we’re trying to convey information, but because we want to have some kind of social connectivity to them."

Though aliteracy might be on the rise, there are ways to combat it.

In 2009, Warner traveled to over a dozen middle and high schools in the San Jose area. She took 150 books and did what she calls a "book pass." The process was simple: She passed the books around so students could read the cover, hold them and make a list of the ones they’d like to read. It turns out that when students had someone suggest or recommend a book, they became more interested. As one student put it, "These books came recommended."

For many parents and kids alike, reading really is still a daily ritual. Sam and Deb Smith (not their real names) from Lutz, Florida, explained to LifeZette, "We tell the kids whenever we get in the car, 'Bring something to read.' And when Sam would deploy, he would record himself reading so that I could play it for the kids (while he was gone)."

In some ways, technology is creating a new kind of reader. Turner shared details of a study she did with teenagers. "One girl said, 'I’m more comfortable sitting on the couch with a printed book, or I can take it to the beach and not worry about getting it wet.' Then I had another girl who told me, 'No, I prefer my Kindle because I don’t get distracted by it. I’m more comfortable sitting on the couch and I prefer taking it to the beach because I can take more than one book.' It’s funny that one picks the print book and one picks the digital book for the exact same reasons — that’s really reader preference."

While a 2014 study found it was more difficult for Kindle readers to remember the course of events in a short story than those who read the paperback, the goal is to just keep people reading — in whatever form of reading that may take. The practice has been shown to reduce stress, increase emotional intelligence, and possibly even delay the onset of dementia by keeping the brain active. Reading continues to help us build neural pathways in our brains.

"Reading long, literary sentences sans links and distractions is actually a serious skill that you lose if you don't use it," reported mic.com. "Before the Internet, the brain read in a linear fashion, taking advantage of sensory details to remember where key information was in the book by layout."

The bottom line, according to Warner: "The more you read, the more you exercise your reading muscle."

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