Literacy dramatically changes the brain. When we learn the alphabet, we are learning how to carve speech into foundational components. We are also developing phonemic awareness, which creates a distinction in meaning and facilitates the storage and meaning of speech sounds in memory. Researchers have discovered that even when literate people are only listening to speech, their brains engage more of the brain’s resources than does an illiterate person’s brain.

Literacy alters more than brain activity during language listening tasks. Literacy affects the anatomy of the brain. The part of the brain that links the parietal regions of both the right and left hemispheres is thicker in literate study subjects, which implies a large increase in the exchange of information across the two hemispheres. This exchange may explain the remarkable increase in verbal memory span in those who are literate. The verbal working memory of the literate brain—the temporary, short-term storage for instructions, recipes, names, and phone numbers—is more functional than in an illiterate brain.

What does this mean for parents? It means that in a similar way as being talked to, being read to helps individual bundles of neurons “fire” in important parts of the developing brain. This firing together will benefit your child as he or she learns to speak and one day read independently.

Reading to your young child doesn’t mean teaching him or her how to read. No information from neuroscience suggests that running through phonetic or alphabet skill drills with one- or two-year-olds is useful. Early reading, which some kids do, is not consistently linked to superior intellectual functioning later. Reading to a child is the critical piece to overall intelligence because reading aloud together expands the total number of words your child hears, learns, and processes. By reading to your child, you nurture the skills involved in actual reading later.

Cuddle up and make reading a part of your daily activities.