With an abundance of videos online to engage kids in stories, why bother with books, right? But, as you may have guessed, illustrated storybooks still trumps animated and audio-only versions of stories when it comes to boosting brain development, a recent study shows.
For the research, children ages 3 to 5, all of whom have not yet learned to read, were presented with stories by author Robert Munsch (you might own a copy of his Love You Forever) in three formats: audio only, a picture book with audio, and an animated video. Using an MRI machine, the researchers noted the children's brain activity as they listened and looked at these books.
What they found may make you want to stock up on more books your child can hold. The researchers observed that kids found it hard to follow along with the audio-only version, and story comprehension was the worst for the animated video format. The best results were seen when the story was told with illustrations and audio.
In the audio format, “It seemed like the language network was having to work a little bit harder to keep up with the story and to really figure out what was going on,” lead author Dr. John Hutton, a pediatrician and clinical researcher at the Cincinnati Children's Hospital, explained to CBC.
The kids were also struggling to put a visual picture to the words, he added, likely because “kids at that age don't have access to as many images. Like, they haven't seen as many things out in the world.”
On the other hand, story comprehension was the worst for the animated video version of the story, and there was not a lot of connectivity among brain networks either, reported NPR. “Our interpretation was that the animation was doing all the work for the child,” said Dr. Hutton. “They were expending the most energy just figuring out what it means.”
Pictures with audio, however, hit the sweet spot. It lit up the areas of a children’s brains that dealt with language, learning, and visual imagery. “There was a really nice balanced integration of the visual networks and the default mode network and the language networks,” said Dr. Hutton. “They all seemed to be cooperating a lot more.”
He explained further, “If you have a picture, that gives the child something to start with, they bring their imagination into play and they could bring the story to life in their mind.”
What’s more, results can even be greater when it’s mom or dad reading the story to the child (the benefits of which we have discussed many times in Smart Parenting). “That's a whole other layer,” said Dr. Hutton, as it adds more positive elements into the mix including emotional bonding, physical closeness and “dialogic reading” where mom and dad can make story time interactive by talking about the pictures and asking the child questions about the story.
He also added a word of caution on kids who spent too much time watching videos. When kids are read to, they get to exercise and develop the connections in the brain. Children miss out on this when story time is replaced with screen time.
“Possibly, kids that have too much exposure to the animated content when they're young could underdevelop those networks and, as a consequence, not be as engaged during stories later on and they become somewhat addicted to just having the content fed to them,” he said.
It’s one way a child becomes a “reluctant reader.” As NPR described it, reluctant readers are just so because they get much less from a book. “Overwhelmed by the demands of processing language, without enough practice, they may also be less skilled at forming mental pictures based on what they read, much less reflecting on the content of a story,” said NPR writer Anya Kamenetz.