Brain Waves

Examining perception, sound and hearing, language and learning.

The Neurobiology of Dr. Seuss

Babies' brains crave repetition, rhythm, and rhyme

 

Did you like green eggs and ham? Did you wish the cat in the hat would come to play at your house? Whether or not you loved hearing the spritely sentences of those stories as a child, your brain lapped them up-and children's brains continue to do so half a century after they were written. There is a reason these books still fill racks everywhere from Target to your local library. It turns out that listening to the infectious cadence of lines like Dr. Seuss's works wonders helping kids learn to read. One fish, two fish... My..!

 

Poet and cartoonist Theodor Seuss Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss, worked intuitively following his muse. But in the decades since he wrote his famous books, neuroscientists have been able to peer inside the brain and see what happens when children hear and learn language. They know now that Seuss was on to something. Repetition, rhythm and rhyme help children in crucial ways to process the speech they hear, and fine-tune the connections between auditory and language networks in the brain. Eventually kids use those networks to master phonological awareness, the ability to break spoken language into its component sounds. That is a critical gateway skill for reading.

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The link between sound and reading has been getting intense attention from researchers such as Kenneth Pugh of Haskins Laboratories and Usha Goswami of Cambridge University. Studies have shown that how a child's brain responds to sound on the first day of kindergarten correlates to how many words per minute that child will read in 4th grade. How fluently a child reads in 4th grade has everything to do with how well that child will be able to tackle more sophisticated tasks such as working through word problems in math and reading for evidence in science and social studies texts-the very skills being asked of American students in the new Common Core Standards. Experts in dyslexia like Goswami now say that problems with processing sound are at the heart of the majority of reading problems.

 

Since I discovered that my youngest son, Alex, couldn't hear I've thought a lot about how sound helps us learn. For deaf children, of course, sound or its absence has special ramifications. In my investigation of them, I came to see that I'd been taking sound for granted even with my two older boys, who can hear. That's a mistake no parent should make. Since the vast majority of children do use sound to learn to read, there are good scientific reasons for introducing old-fashioned nursery rhymes and poetry and using rhythm to teach language. That's exactly what we did when Alex got a cochlear implant. Playing with words, rolling them around in the mouth, and even figuring out how to read nonsense, are all activities that strengthen the brain architecture and allow a child to move on to Shakespeare.

 

Master Hop on Pop and "Oh the places you'll go."

 

Lydia Denworth is a New York based science writer. Her most recent book is I Can Hear You Whisper.

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