Early book sharing vital for development

Teaching parents how to share books with their infants could dramatically improve child cognitive ability in developing countries, researchers have found.

Results from a pilot study in South Africa, conducted by psychologists from the University of Reading and Stellenbosch University, indicate that extending simple learning techniques to mothers and children boosts language acquisition skills and other cognitive functions.

The team of researchers have secured funding to begin a major study of book sharing in informal urban communities on the outskirts of Cape Town, and are hopeful the technique can be rolled out across Southern Africa.

Mark Tomlinson, Associate Professor of Psychology at Stellenbosch University, said that the team “made sure to develop the materials for the Southern African context: there are no red double decker buses from London, for example.”

“The training is done in a group, so you don’t need lots of community health workers going from one house to the next. It’s not hugely labour intensive: over a week you could run a lot of courses with a lot of women,” said he said.

Peter Cooper, Professor of Psychology at the University of Reading, agreed that the programme has great potential in Southern Africa.

“Within the developed world there is a wealth of research evidence demonstrating that early book sharing predicts better language and literacy skills, but the potential of this approach has not been explored in low and middle income countries – until now,” said Cooper.

Book sharing is based on a proven link between caregiver-infant interaction and infant language acquisition. The “joint attention” of a mother and child to the same object is beneficial to the child’s development. The technique is thought to impact literacy later in a child’s life, but does not involve reading or writing.

“We’re talking about very young infants, around 14 months old, so we’re not trying to teach them to read but to improve their cognitive development and ability to learn language,” said Tomlinson.

“We use picture books without words. We are trying to get the mother to engage with the child in a shared activity: the child points to pictures and then the mother can point at and name the picture. It is really about setting an early foundation for the schooling that will take place later on in the child’s development,” he added.

The lack of words means book sharing works well in areas of low adult literacy.

“This is only step one of a lot of things that then take place in the child’s development. But it lays a very nice foundation that is quick and cost-effective,” Tomlinson concluded.

Post published in: Opinions & Analysis

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