The Brainy Benefits of Bedtime Stories, p.3
They'll also learn to predict what will happen next based on their prior knowledge ("Uh oh! The wolf wants to blow the house down!"). Later, these lessons in recognizing patterns, understanding sequences, and predicting outcomes will help children in other areas, from math and science to music and writing. And reading aloud doesn't need to stop once kids can read on their own; in fact, that's when they develop reading comprehension skills, Dr. Walter says. To practice, ask a child what she thinks will happen next or how she would end a story differently.
Experts suggest that parents continue the tradition even into the teenage years. By choosing books that are slightly above a teen's skill level, you'll continue to expose her to new words to add to her vocabulary. What's more, reading aloud can provide fodder for family conversation. "It's so much easier to talk about a tough issue outside the context of your immediate life," Dr. Walter explains. "If the issue then comes up in personal life, you can say, 'Remember what we talked about?'" For talking to adolescents about death, she suggests reading Katherine Patterson's classic Bridge to Terabithia; likewise, the Little House on the Prairie books offer families the opportunity to discuss racism.
To best confer reading's cognitive benefits, a child's experiences with books should be enjoyable, says Peter Gorski, M.D., chair of the early childhood committee of the American Academy of Pediatrics. "More than anything, you want him to associate reading with emotional warmth and fun," he says.
When kids are cozy and comfortable, reading aloud to them can even lower their stress levels. When a child experiences any strain -- such as being bullied or starting a new school -- his brain tries to protect him by producing the hormone cortisol, which activates the body's "fight or flight" response. In small doses, cortisol can actually help kids handle normal stress. In larger amounts, however, it can block learning.
While there have been no scientific studies on how bedtime stories affect children with spiked cortisol levels, neuroscientists say it stands to reason that being read a familiar book while snuggling close to a parent can comfort a child, thus lowering his cortisol levels to help him concentrate better. To enhance the calming nature of storytime at your house, cuddle up with your child in a comfortable place, with his favorite blankets and stuffed animals nearby.
"Relax and just enjoy being with your child," Dr. Gorski says. "Just think of what that close time you're spending together will do for your own cortisol levels!"