"I want a story!"


There are now so many ways for a parent or carer to fulfil this request; pick up a picture book or cartoon book, play an audiobook or an on-screen animation - you can even ask Alexa. Most children will enjoy access to stories from all these sources at some point, but what's really best? A Canadian study published in 2018 gives an insight into what goes on in a child's brain in each of these different scenarios and lead author, Dr John Hutton says that there is an apparent 'Goldilocks effect', with some story sources being too stimulating - 'too hot' - and some doing too little to arouse a child's full attention - 'too cold'. And of course, some are 'just right'.

Dr Hutton is a researcher and paediatrician at Cincinnati Children's Hospital with a special interest in 'emergent literacy' - the process of learning to read. His study involved 27 children at the age of around 5. The children's brains were monitored by an MRI scanner as they were presented with three types of stories: audio only; the illustrated pages of a storybook with an audio voiceover; and an animated cartoon. The scanner worked to pick up activity in the language, visual perception and imagination areas of the brain, and also measured connectivity between the brain's different areas. The results confirmed what Dr Hutton had suspected, that audio-only stories stimulate the language area of the brain, but cause little connectivity with other areas - 'too cold'. During the animated cartoon story, the brain scans showed a lot of activity in the audio and visual brain areas, but little connectivity between the two, or indeed with other areas relating to imagination - 'too hot'. Hutton feels that the children were expending a lot of mental energy trying to process what they were seeing and hearing and yet it was in this scenario that their comprehension of the story was the worst.

The picture book scenario turned out to be what Hutton called 'just right'. When children could see illustrations, language network activity dropped slightly but the children's understanding of the story was apparently 'scaffolded' by having images as clues, and their comprehension was improved accordingly. Most importantly, in the illustrated book researchers saw increased connectivity between all the networks they were looking at: visual perception, imagery and language - here the children were effectively exercising a mental muscle, bringing imagery to life in their minds, and developing imagination skills and the ability to reflect constructively on what they had seen and heard. And Dr Hutton believes that the effects of looking at a picture book along with an adult may be even more positive than his research suggests; the children in his study had to be enclosed and immobilised in an MRI scanner. Reading side by side with an adult entails layers of bonding and positive exchanges (known as 'dialogic reading') where the adult points out specific words, ask questions or gets a child to point out a feature in an illustration. The important work carried out by our amazing Schoolreaders thus helps develop a child's comprehension, gives vivid inspiration to their imaginations, and is the best possible start to a child's reading life.

Dr Hutton's study, "Goldilocks Effect? Illustrated Story Format Seems 'Just Right' and Animation 'Too Hot' for Integration of Functional Brain Networks in Preschool-Age Children", was presented to the North American Pediatric Academic Societies (PAS) on 6th May 2018 at a meeting held in Toronto.

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