This Is Your Kid’s Brain On A, B, C

There's a new way forward for preschoolers who want to learn to read good (and do other stuff good, too).

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The following was produced in partnership with our friends at KinderCare.

Everyone agrees reading to your kids is peak dad duty (books are kind of a big deal around here). Reading together strengthens your bond, sparks their imagination, and lets you add mischievous critters and inspiring kitchen appliances to your voiceover reel. You might want to expand the repertoire soon because research suggests that teaching your preschooler to read is about much more than repetition and memorization.

The New Neuroscience Of Reading Acquisition

The years between kindergarten and third grade are when your kid goes from knowing letter sounds to reading whole books on their own, and preschool is when you set them up for that crazy growth. That’s according to Dr. Fumiko Hoeft, an Associate Professor of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry at the University of California San Francisco School of Medicine, who led a series of studies on where, when, and how reading ability originates in the brain.

Hoeft is lauded for figuring out the “where,” but you’re more interested in the “how,” because who can pronounce “temporoparietal,” anyway? According to her research, training and developing “executive function” (a set of processes that govern behavior regulation, self-control, and persistence) can improve your kid’s reading performance before they ever set foot in a kindergarten.

That’s because reading scenarios like letter recognition, certain sounds, and words with multiple meanings, are better handled by kids with strong executive function skills like working memory, flexible thinking, and focus. As Dr. Hoeft told The New Yorker, “That is really good news because that is something we do well — we know how to train executive function.”

So, that nightly routine with your preschooler serves 2 important purposes: It immerses them in words and teaches them vital executive function skills like sitting still and focusing on the story while Daddy workshops his talking toaster impression.

What You Can Do With This

For starters, know that your kid’s daily preschool class read aloud already benefits their executive function — and that’s coming from someone who’d know: KinderCare’s Manager Of Curriculum Development, Meg Davis. Davis notes that with all those little brains in one circle, there’s bound to be a huge variety of excitement levels and attention spans, which means everyone needs to exhibit some amount of inhibitory control (the ability to regulate attentional responses). So whether your kid is engrossed in Curious George or wandering off like him, just being part of a group setting will start waking up their focus muscles. If you really want to help your kid learn to read, though, that stuff needs to continue outside the preschool walls. Davis says the key to early literacy for preschoolers is constant exposure to words and daily reading, which means you’re going to want to try out these tricks at home.

Turn Story Time Into A Q&A: You can help gauge your kid’s focus level by asking them engaging, predictive questions during appropriate times in the story (it’s ok, you don’t have to break character). “What do you think happens next?” “What do you think the rabbit should do?” “Do you think he should go to sleep already?” By stopping periodically without interrupting the story, you’re priming your kid for focus, impulse control, and future book club membership. (Ages: 3-4 years)

Model What A Reader Looks Like: The newspaper (some of you remember those, right?), the mail, your to-do list — all loaded with words. The plots are terrible, but that’s not the point. You want your kid to understand that reading and literacy are parts of everyday life in their house. They don’t even have to participate or know the alphabet yet. Simply observing you reading the mail can teach your kid the importance of gathering information. It does help if your reading is obviously pleasurable, so maybe avoid trying to decipher the cell phone bill in front of them. (All Ages)

Break Out The Labeling Gun: If you don’t think your house is wallpapered in words, you can always label things like they do at preschools like KinderCare. Putting signs on shelves or in play areas can help attune kids to the idea that print has meaning. By the time their brains are actually able to perform more complex reading tasks, they’ll recall those initial connections and be more curious about turning letters into meaningful sounds, words, and sentences themselves. (Ages: 3-4 years)

Don’t Waste A Good Car Ride: Kids are awesome at recognizing and recalling shapes and logos, so make word-spotting a game. “See any stop signs?” “What letter does that sign start with?” “Were we supposed to turn left back there?” (Ages: 2-3 years)

Get Hands-On: Your kid doesn’t have to be ready for pencils yet to start learning their letters. Try spreading some cornmeal on a cookie sheet and showing them how to form letters in it with their finger. Or make letters from, or in, Play-Doh. Help them cut out big letters from a magazine and glue them onto a piece of paper. This kind of stuff is still effective because motor skills are part of a host of abilities that factor into developing your kid’s reading brain. Plus, you probably haven’t worked on your Sammy The Scissors voice in a minute. (Ages: 2-3 years)

A Note From The Doctor About Your Parental Anxiety

The key with early reading education is paying attention to where your kid is at and what they’re ready for developmentally — yes, executive function is crucial, but, as noted, there’s a whole mess of skills required to put it all together, including motor skills, listening comprehension, processing, and more. Take it from Dr. Hoeft’s alter ego, Mama Dr. Hoeft: ”My oldest son, who’s 7, had very good oral language skills when he was young, so I thought he would be an early reader. I tried so hard to engage him — I had all these letter cards and things — but he was just not interested,” she says. “Now, you can’t get him off a book. He has a better vocabulary than I do.” That’s great, Doc, but does he know what “temporoparietal” means?

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