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Your Child's Brain on Books

What's happening in your child's brain when you read a bedtime story?

Neeta Lind/Flickr
Source: Neeta Lind/Flickr

The New York Times recently profiled a study of what’s happening in your child’s brain while you’re reading a bedtime story. According to the study’s lead author, “I think that we’ve learned that early reading is more than just a nice thing to do with kids,” Dr. Hutton said. “It really does have a very important role to play in building brain networks that will serve children long-term as they transition from verbal to reading.”

This conclusion affirms the hope of all parents as they read to their young children day after day, evening after evening – that their efforts are literally feeding their children’s brains and will ultimately lead to reading success.

Unfortunately, it’s not what the study actually demonstrated.

The original study, published in the journal Pediatrics, involved scanning the brains of 19 preschoolers who were part of a longitudinal study of brain development. While in the scanner, children heard a recording of a woman’s voice reading 1-minute stories of 9-10 sentences each, interspersed with random tones. Children did not see any pictures. The children’s brains lit up in the “language hub” (left parietal-occipital-temporal association cortex) when they heard the sentences as opposed to the tones. No surprise here – activation in this region indicates the children were processing meaningful information when hearing the sentences, in contrast to the meaningless tones. Activation in this region also indicates that the children were forming pictures in their minds when they heard the sentences. Understanding speech in one’s native language involves translating sounds into meaningful units – words and sentences – and visualizing the objects and relationships they represent. Yes, human brains are activated in this region when hearing meaningful sounds.

The main point of the article, and the focus of The New York Times report, is based on a single and dubious correlation: Parents who reported reading and owning more books had children whose brains showed greater activation when hearing the sentences. As part of the larger study, the researchers asked parents a few cursory questions about how often they read books to their children and how many books they had in their home. It’s no surprise that parents responded affirmatively to these questions, especially when they were invested enough in their children’s development to have enrolled them in a brain imaging study. In fact, the range of scores on these questions was remarkably narrow (13 to 19, with a skew toward the higher scores). These kinds of questions are especially prone to a “social desirability bias” in which parents feel a strong pressure to overestimate how often they engage in activities, such as book-reading, that are widely touted by experts as good for children. Contemporary studies no longer take these questions by themselves as reliable indicators of the frequency of book-reading in the home. Researcher Monique Sénéchal has even created a cheat-proof test – a checklist for parents containing the titles of real children’s books mixed in with fake titles – to gain a more accurate estimate of how often the parents are actually reading. Finally, parents answered these questions up to 20 months after the children’s brain scans. Thus, the measure of book-reading frequency in this study is limited, as the authors themselves acknowledge.

Just as crucial, the researchers didn’t control for children’s language development in the correlation between their book-reading frequency measure and the children’s brain activation. Children with more advanced language would almost certainly have shown greater activation when hearing the sentences, simply because of their advanced vocabulary and mastery of sentence structure. Most likely, the highlighted correlation reflects children with better language skills having parents who report more frequent reading.

Certainly, book-reading is important for advancing children’s vocabulary. A plethora of correlational and experimental studies shows us that children learn new words from books, and that book-reading is a richer context for rare words than everyday conversations about, say, eating your mac ‘n cheese. But book-reading is not a panacea for children’s language development. In studies that have observed what parents are actually talking about in the home, conversations about past and future are much more frequent than book-reading sessions, and they contain more complex language than talk about the here-and-now (Rowe, 2012). Here’s an example of a mother and her 4-year-old daughter Anna engaging in such a conversation (Reese, 2013):

Mother: Do you remember when we went to the special playground?

Anna: What playground?

Mother: Yeah, it was mom’s old school. Wasn’t it? Do you remember the name of the playground?

Anna: (shakes her head “no”)

Mother: Do you remember some things that were at the playground?

Anna: Slides.

Mother: A pole to slide down, yes.

Anna: I could still slide slides down it.

Mother: Yes, because I didn’t know you could do that by yourself. So did you enjoy that playground?

Anna: Yep.

Mother: We should go back there sometime, huh?

This “narrative” talk about past and future is especially helpful for older preschoolers’ acquisition of complex language skills, such as embedded phrases. The mother in the excerpt modeled embedded phrases when she said, “Do you remember some things that were at the playground?” and “I didn’t know you could do that by yourself.” This complex language is the foundation for the academic language that children will soon encounter in their reading in school. My colleagues and I found that children’s narrative skill predicted their later reading success, over and above the role of their vocabulary (Reese, Suggate, Long, & Schaughency, 2010). Importantly, parents from all income levels and language backgrounds talk about the past and future with their children, whereas book-reading is more prevalent in white middle-class families.

Narrative talk about past and future could thus be a valuable tool in closing the word gap between rich and poor children.

So should you ditch your child’s bedtime story? Of course not! Keep on reading, and keep on talking. Both of these activities will enrich your child’s language development, and eventually their reading skills and success in school. I look forward to hearing about more brain imaging studies, from this research team and others, on how book-reading and other kinds of talk help develop your child’s brain.


Hutton, J. S., Horowitz-Kraus, T., Mendelsohn, A. L., DeWitt, T., Holland, S. K., and the C-MIND Authorship Consortium (2015). Home reading environment and brain activation in preschool children listening to stories, Pediatrics, 136, 466-478.

Reese, E. (2013). Sharing stories to enrich your child’s world. New York: Oxford University Press.

Reese, E., Suggate, S., Long, J., & Schaughency, E. (2010). Children’s oral narrative and reading skills in the first 3 years of reading instruction. Reading and Writing, 23, 627-644.

Rowe, M. L. (2012). A Longitudinal Investigation of the Role of Quantity and Quality of Child‐Directed Speech in Vocabulary Development. Child Development, 83, 1762-1774.

Sénéchal, M., LeFevre, J. A., Hudson, E., & Lawson, E. P. (1996). Knowledge of storybooks as a predictor of young children's vocabulary. Journal of Educational Psychology, 88, 520-536.

Thanks also to my students and colleagues from the Getting Ready for School team at the University of Otago.