The Science-Backed Reason You Should Read to Your Child

New research supports the importance of story time. 

mother-reading-to-young-child
Photo by Frank P Wartenberg/Getty Images

Grab The Very Hungry Caterpillar and cozy up with your kid—new research suggests story time might boost your child’s brain power.

The study, conducted by Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, examined the relationship between shared parent-child reading and brain activity, finding that higher reading exposure was positively correlated with the areas of the brain that support reading skills.

Nineteen preschoolers ages 3-5 participated in the study, which was published in the journal Pediatrics. The researchers measured the children's brain activity as they listened, through headphones, to a series of age-appropriate stories read in a female voice. As they listened, the children either closed their eyes or stared at a blank screen.

In addition, the child’s primary caregiver completed a three-part questionnaire, which assessed parent-child reading (access to books, frequency of reading, and variety of books), parent-child interaction (talking and playing), and whether parents taught specific skills to their children (such as counting and shapes).

The results showed that children from more stimulating home environments with increased reading exposure had greater activity in the areas of the brain that support narrative comprehension, mental imagery, and extraction of meaning—all of which are important for learning and reading. 

"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," study author John Hutton said in a statement when the preliminary findings were presented last April. "Of particular importance are brain areas supporting mental imagery, helping the child 'see the story' beyond the pictures, affirming the invaluable role of imagination."

Previous research has linked reading to a child to stronger parent-child relationships and improved oral language and literacy skills. This study, however, was the first to show direct evidence of the quantifiable effects on the brain. The authors hope the findings will prompt additional research, especially because children who enter kindergarten at a disadvantage often have trouble catching up with their peers.

"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,” Hutton said.

Need some inspiration to get started? Check out this list of 40 classic children's books even adults love.