Study: Reading to Children Activates Child’s Brain


A new study says that parents reading to their children has major, meaningful, measurable impact on a child’s brain.

NBC RightNow reports that Dr. John Hutton of Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center monitored the brains of 19 preschoolers between the ages of 3 and 5, using an MRI. The observation was made as the children were listening to age-appropriate stories on headphones.

The kids’ parents were interviewed about their interactions with their children, including the time they spent reading to their young ones. Although the study is not able to prove cause-and-effect, reading to kids at home on a regular basis was strongly linked to activation of certain areas of the brain involved in deriving meaning from language.

These areas are a crucial part of speaking and reading stated the study, which was presented last week at the Pediatric Academic Societies annual meeting in San Diego.

Also, there was particularly major activation in areas of the brain that support mental imagery. Visualization is important in understanding narratives and preparing children for reading by supporting them in the process of “seeing” 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,” Hutton said in an American Academy of Pediatrics news release.

Experts have encouraged parents to read to their children from birth because it helped in promoting language development, but, before now, there had been no evidence that this could also have a direct effect on the brain.

“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,” Hutton said.

This is the first time that direct evidence of reading’s effects on the brain have been measured. Other information included in the parent interview part of the study were: the child’s access to books; frequency of reading and book variety; and the teaching of specific skills such as counting or shapes, writes Colleen Cappon of Fox News. Of the participants, 37% were from low-income families.

“Areas of strongest correlation with home reading environment were exclusively in the left hemisphere, known to support language.  Specifically, in a posterior region referred to as the parietal-temporal-occipital (PTO) multi-modal association cortex,” Dr. John Hutton told

More work needs to be done, says Hutton, but he has high hopes that further research will allow for early detection of children at risk for reading problems. He adds that his continued research will help discover the different aspects of reading environments, at risk populations and interventions, and eventually “a longitudinal study of key contributors to brain networks supporting literacy from birth through kindergarten.”

Reuters’ Kathyrn Doyle says that Hutton explained that most studies have included older children who could have already been struggling with their reading. He added that the MRI can detect changes in the flow of oxygen-rich blood in the brain, which allows for an indirect access to brain activity. The more activation seen by the researchers was directly linked to the amount of reported reading by caregivers.

“This was mostly attributed to semantics, understanding what’s being heard or read,” Hutton told Reuters Health by phone.

Hutton stated that this finding should “reinforce the value of imagination.”