MRI Shows Association Between Parent-Child Reading & Brain Activity

Children with greater home reading exposure get a head start in language and literacy skills and go to school better prepared. Parents who take time to read aloud to their children not only promote emergent literacy and language development but also strengthen parent-child relationships.

According to the landmark 1985 report Becoming a Nation of Readers, reading aloud is the single most important activity for building the knowledge required for eventual success in reading. Read our full article on Reading Aloud To Children: Why It’s Important.

Now there is evidence that reading aloud to young children is in fact associated with activation of brain areas supporting mental imagery and narrative comprehension. In his research, Dr Hutton and his colleagues studied 19 healthy preschoolers ages 3-5 years old. 

To complete the study, each caregiver was given a questionnaire. This questionnaire required parents to answer questions that looked into the following areas: parent-child reading, parent-child interaction and learning and teaching at home to check if parents taught specific skills such as counting and shapes.

“We are excited to show, for the first time, that reading exposure during the critical stage of development before 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, Dr Hutton, a paediatrician and clinical research fellow at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center.

The children then underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) while they were listening to age-appropriate stories via headphones. fMRI is a process that measures brain activity by detecting changes associated with blood flow. No visual stimulus was provided and they were entirely awake during fMRI.

The result from the study demonstrates an association between home reading environment and activation of specific brain regions. These are brain areas that support emergent literacy during the prekindergarten period.

While listening to stories, children with greater home reading exposure showed significantly higher activation in areas within the left-sided, multimodal association cortex, which facilitates mental imagery and extraction of meaning (semantic processing). Critical for oral language, this region is later integrated into the reading network with hypoactivation, a biomarker of reading disability. This study suggests a novel, neurobiological correlate to oral language skills fostered by parent-child reading in early childhood, offering insight into how this practice may shape the developing brain, and informing an eco-bio-developmental model of emergent literacy and its promotion Home Reading Environment and Brain Activation in Preschool Children Listening to Stories


Hutton, J. S., Horowitz-Kraus, T., Mendelsohn, A. L., DeWitt, T., Holland, S. K., & C-Mind Authorship Consortium. (2015). Home reading environment and brain activation in preschool children listening to stories. Pediatrics136(3), 466-478.

Hutton, J. S., Phelan, K., Horowitz-Kraus, T., Dudley, J., Altaye, M., DeWitt, T., & Holland, S. K. (2017). Shared reading quality and brain activation during story listening in preschool-age children. The Journal of pediatrics191, 204-211.

MRI shows association between reading to young children and brain activity. (2015, April 25). Retrieved from

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