MRI shows association between reading to young children and brain activity

Credit: Robert Kraft/public domain

Among the advice new parents receive is to read to their babies early and often. The hope is that sharing books together will help children's language development and eventually, turn them into successful readers.

Now there is evidence that reading to is in fact associated with differences in brain activity supporting early . The research will be presented Saturday, April 25 at the Pediatric Academic Societies (PAS) annual meeting in San Diego.

"We are excited to show, for the first time, that reading exposure during the critical stage of development prior to kindergarten seems to have a meaningful, measurable impact on how a child's brain processes stories and may help predict reading success," said study author John Hutton, MD, National Research Service Award Fellow, Division of General and Community Pediatrics, Reading and Literacy Discovery Center, Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center. "Of particular importance are brain areas supporting , helping the child 'see the story' beyond the pictures, affirming the invaluable role of imagination."

Professional organizations such as the American Academy of Pediatrics and advocacy groups have encouraged parents to read to their children from birth to foster early learning and create connections in the brain that promote . Direct evidence of effects on the brain, however, were not previously available.

To show whether reading to preschoolers affects brain networks that support reading skills, Dr. Hutton and his colleagues studied 19 healthy preschoolers ages 3-5 years old, 37 percent of whom were from low-income households. Each child's primary caregiver completed a questionnaire designed to measure cognitive stimulation in the home. The questionnaire looked at three areas: parent-child reading, including access to books, frequency of reading and variety of books read; parent-child interaction, including talking and playing; and whether parents taught specific skills such as counting and shapes.

The children then underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which measured brain activity while they were listening to age-appropriate stories via headphones. The children were awake and non-sedated during fMRI, and there was no visual stimulus. Researchers were interested in whether there would be differences in brain activation supporting comprehension of the stories in areas known to be involved with language.

Results showed that greater home reading exposure was strongly associated with activation of specific supporting semantic processing (the extraction of meaning from language). These areas are critical for oral language and later for reading.

Brain areas supporting mental imagery showed particularly strong activation, suggesting that visualization plays a key role in narrative comprehension and reading readiness, allowing children to "see" the story. "This becomes increasingly important as children advance from books with pictures to books without them, where they must imagine what is going on in the text," Dr. Hutton said.

The associations between home reading exposure and remained robust after controlling for household income.

"We hope that this work will guide further research on shared reading and the developing to help improve interventions and identify at risk for difficulties as early as possible, increasing the chances that they will be successful in the wonderful world of books," Dr. Hutton concluded.

Explore further

Doctors to parents: Start reading to kids early

More information: Dr. Hutton will present "Parent-Child Reading Increases Activation of Brain Networks Supporting Emergent Literacy in 3-5 Year-Old Children: An fMRI study" from 12:15-12:30 p.m. PT Saturday, April 25. To view the study abstract, go to
Citation: MRI shows association between reading to young children and brain activity (2015, April 25) retrieved 21 July 2019 from
This document is subject to copyright. Apart from any fair dealing for the purpose of private study or research, no part may be reproduced without the written permission. The content is provided for information purposes only.

Feedback to editors

User comments

Apr 26, 2015
Clearly reading to children is good. These children aren't being exposed to reading - they are being read to. Big difference. Was there any experimental design to distinguish between "reading" exposure (being read to) as opposed to non-reading simple human voice exposure? Would telling a child a story rather than reading to them produce the same results in the MRI? Would telling them about quantum physics accomplish the same - or just put them to sleep? Failing to understand the basic kinds of distinctions and design experiments appropriately to sort them (not to mention having a statistically significant experimental populations) plagues educational research to the point of being embarrassed for them. This is not a study, at best it's observation and what ever data was produced is neither statistically significant (too small a population) - nor evidence. Most scientist and most reputable scientific publications don't/won't publish these kinds of pre-research observations.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more