This is a Child’s Brain on Books: How Reading to Children Can Shape the Developing Brain

Published August 2015

Educators and pediatricians have long encouraged parents to read early and often to infants and preschoolers. Now research from the Reading and Literacy Discovery Center (RLDC) shows why this good habit can be good for the brain.

The project included 19 children, ages 3-5, listening to a narrated story through headphones while researchers monitored their brain activity. The team used functional MRI imaging to gather brain data. They also used the StimQ-P home cognitive stimulation scale to evaluate the child’s home reading environment.

Children from robust home reading environments showed greater activity in the left parietal-temporal-occipital (PTO) association cortex, a brain “hub” linked to semantic processing, long-term memory and the integration of visual imagery. This hub is thought to facilitate imagination and language comprehension.

“As providers and pediatricians, we can talk about the importance of reading to parents until we’re blue in the face, but now we can point to an image of a child’s brain ‘on books’ and make a compelling case that reading is a critical health issue,” says the study’s lead author, John S. Hutton, MD.

Hutton is a member of General and Community Pediatrics and Research in Patient Services, which houses the RLDC. He also is the “bookstore pediatrician” who owns Cincinnati’s blue manatee children’s bookstore.

“The amazing thing is that even when the stories had no pictures, we observed strong activity in visual areas of the brain, suggesting a link to imagination and creativity during this formative time,” says Hutton. “This study adds novel, neurobiological evidence to the known benefits of reading together during early childhood. A brain-based model also provides insight into how reading together may shape neural development, and what interventions may be most effective.”

Fig A:  This 3-D image of the posterior left hemisphere—the side typically dominant for language—features a bright area of increased brain activation when children listen to stories read to them. The activated area is the parietal-temporaloccipital multi-modal association cortex, a hub for integrating multi-sensory inputs. This study indicates that children with greater exposure to books and shared reading at home tend to be better at self-generating the visual images associated with imagination and narrative comprehension.
Click image to view caption.


Hutton JS, Horowitz-Kraus T, Mendelsohn AL, DeWitt T, Holland SK, Consortium CMA. Home Reading Environment and Brain Activation in Preschool Children Listening to Stories. Pediatrics. 2015 Sep;136(3):466-78.