Sharing picture books boosts infants' development

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Sharing books could significantly improve the development of toddlers living in the poorest parts of the world, according to a new study by the University of Reading.

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Sharing picture books significantly improved children's vocabulary, comprehension and attention span

Research conducted in a poor South African community found that training mothers to share picture books with their infants led to a dramatic change in the children’s cognitive development.

Professors Peter Cooper and Lynne Murray, co-directors of the study from the School of Psychology and Clinical Language Sciences, found that mothers were able to notably improve their children’s vocabulary and comprehension using simple techniques. These included following the child’s interest, pointing and naming things on the page and elaborating on content from the stories.

Results showed the attention span of the children whose mothers took part in the study almost doubled. Researchers said that as early attention is a strong predictor of later intellectual performance, training mothers to share books could benefit the children when they go to school and even enhance their future career prospects.

Professor Murray said, ‘It is notable that the skills the mothers gained from the book sharing training transferred to the wider mother-infant relationship, with mothers becoming more sensitive and reciprocal with their infants in free play situations. The enhancement of sensitive parenting could be of real benefit to child social and emotional development.’

The study was conducted in Khayelitsha, a township on the outskirts of Cape Town. The researchers worked in partnership with Stellenbosch University in South Africa, providing mothers with 14-to 16-month-old infants with weekly training sessions on book sharing for two months.

Professor Cooper said, ‘Our study, the first of its kind in a low-income country, demonstrates that it is possible to introduce sensitive book-sharing into contexts where this activity is unknown, and that doing so markedly improves child language and attention. Effective early book sharing could play a major role in boosting the educational prospects of children around the world.’

On the request of the World Health Organisation, the team have recently trained a group of community workers in the Cameroon in book sharing. The researchers are also in negotiations to train community workers in other parts of Africa following the results of the work in Khayelitsha.

Illiteracy is a global concern that can affect a child’s health and future prospects. Research by UNESCO revealed that 175 million young people, mainly from low and middle-income countries, lacked basic literacy skills.

A study by the World Literacy Foundation also estimated that illiteracy costs the global economy more than $1 trillion a year through lost job opportunities and the costs of unemployment and ill health.

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