Early Literacy Research Library (ELRL) - Article

Linking Early Maternal Input During Shared Reading to Later Theory of Mind Through Receptive Language and Executive Function: A Within- and Between-Family Design

Venkadasalam, V.P., Jenkins, J.M., Ganea, P.A., Wade, M. (2022) Linking Early Maternal Input During Shared Reading to Later Theory of Mind Through Receptive Language and Executive Function: A Within- and Between- Family Design. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 223, 105469.,

Access: Institutional Access

Publication year


study description

Within-family sibling comparison design.

core topic(s)

Shared Reading

Population Characteristics


Exposures, Outcomes, Other

Brain/Neurocognitive , Child Behaviors and Skills , Child Development (general) , Language and Literacy Development , Parent Behaviors and Skills , Parent-Child Relationships/Interactions


This study explored whether early maternal input during shared reading predicted later theory of mind (ToM) understanding through children's receptive language and executive function (EF).


Maternal input during shared reading

outcomes evaluated

Theory of Mind, receptive language, and executive function.


Families were recruited through the Healthy Babies Healthy Children public health program in Toronto and Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, between April 2006 and September 2007.


The sample included 656 children clustered within 328 ethnically and sociodemographically diverse families. The shared reading sessions occurred when the younger and older siblings were 1.5 and 4 years old, respectively. Receptive language, EF, and ToM were measured when the siblings were approximately 5 years old to account for age differences. Multilevel modeling using Bayesian estimation was used to account for the effect of family-wide confounds (i.e., shared between the siblings in the family) while isolating child-specific processes (i.e., unique to each child within the family).

sample size

n=656 (children); n=328 (families)


Measure of Maternal Input During Shared Reading: Mothers were rated on their ability to both provide and ask for information on different linguistic aspects during a videotaped shared reading activity coded using an adapted version of the Systematic Assessment of Book Reading (SABR):

    • language development (e.g., labeling or definitions).
    • abstract thinking (e.g., making inferences).
    • elaborations (e.g., making connections to real life or imitations).

Measure of Child Language Ability: Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test (PPVT).


Measure of Child Executive Function (EF): Dimensional Change Card Sort (DCCS).


Measure of Child Theory of Mind (TOM): adaptation of the Wellman and Liu (2004) tasks that assessed children’s understanding of diverse desires, diverse beliefs, knowledge access, content and explicit false belief, belief-based emotion, real–apparent emotion, and second-order belief.


Measure of Child and Family Covariates: Early language was measured by the PPVT for the older siblings and by the MacArthur Communicative Developmental Inventories–Short Form (CDI) and parents answered sociodemographic questions about child variables and family characteristics.


The results supported two indirect paths from shared reading to children's ToM: one through receptive language alone and another that operated sequentially through receptive language and EF. These paths were observed only at the family level.


These findings emphasize the importance of maternal input during early shared reading for cognitive development and suggest a cascade from maternal input to ToM via language and EF during the preschool period.


One drawback of the current study is the inability to draw conclusions about the directionality of effects due to concurrent measurement of receptive language, EF, and ToM...Given that age and prior language explained significant variance in ToM scores, more tightly controlled studies are needed to test this proposed relation among shared reading, language, EF, and ToM, especially at the child level...Another potential limitation is that maternal input was measured only through a 5-min shared reading session at a single time point in this study. This small snapshot into reading interactions raises two issues—(a) the stability of this measure over time and (b) the type of input considered—because shared reading is not the only way home environments contribute to vocabulary development...Although the PPVT is widely used in research, studies have shown that receptive vocabulary has a weaker association with false belief understanding than other language measures...Finally, due to the study design, these findings cannot be generalized to families with only one child or older children. There is also variation in the way shared reading takes place with the different types of books (e.g., text vs. wordless picture books: see Chaparro-Moreno et al., 2017, and Sénéchal et al., 1995; different genres: see Anderson, Anderson, Lynch, & Shapiro, 2004). Thus, the pattern of results observed in the current study may differ if the reading stimuli are changed or include other features such as text.