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Reading to young children associated with differences in brain activity

Association between reading and brain activity in young children

A new study has found evidence that reading to young children is associated with differences in brain activity that support early reading skills.


Researchers studied 19 healthy preschoolers ages 3 to 5 years old, 37 percent of whom were from low-income households. Each child’s primary caregiver answered questions in three different areas: parent-child reading, parent-child interaction, and whether they taught specific skills such as counting and shapes. Parent-child reading included access to books, variety of books read, and frequency of reading, and parent-child interaction included talking and playing.

The children underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which measured brain activity while they listened to age-appropriate stories through headphones while awake.

Researchers found a particularly strong activation in areas of the brain that support mental imagery, and said that this type of visualization plays a critical role in how children understand narratives and readies them for reading by enabling them to “see” the story.

"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 lead author John Hutton, MD, of Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center.

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"Of particular importance are brain areas supporting mental imagery, helping the child 'see the story' beyond the pictures, affirming the invaluable role of imagination."

The associations between reading exposure and brain activity remained strong even after controlling for household income.

The study does not prove a cause-and-effect relationship, and the results are considered preliminary until they are published in a peer-reviewed journal.

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

A 2011 study conducted by researchers at Purdue University found that preschoolers who are interested in literary-related activities are more likely to show positive, adaptive behavior in the classroom. Girls tended to be more interested in books than boys, which is consistent with other aspects of child development, according to lead author Jennifer Dobbs-Oates, an assistant professor of developmental studies.

[Photo credit: gpointstudo / Shutterstock]