Early Literacy Research Library (ELRL) - Article

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. Pediatrics, 136(3), 466-478.,

Access: FREE/Open Access

Publication year


core topic(s)

Shared Reading

Population Characteristics


Exposures, Outcomes, Other

Brain/Neurocognitive , Child Development (general) , Home Language/Literacy/Learning Environment , Language and Literacy Development


Our study used blood oxygen level–dependent functional magnetic resonance imaging to examine the relationship between home reading environment and brain activity during a story listening task in a sample of preschool-age children. We hypothesized that while listening to stories, children with greater home reading exposure would exhibit higher activation of left-sided brain regions involved with semantic processing (extraction of meaning).


Home reading environment.

outcomes evaluated

Brain activity during reading.


All participants in this analysis were enrolled in a longitudinal study of normal brain development at our institution (Cincinnati MR Imaging of Neurodevelopment; C-MIND)


Nineteen 3- to 5-year-old children were selected from a longitudinal study of normal brain development. All completed blood oxygen level–dependent functional magnetic resonance imaging using an age-appropriate story listening task, where narrative alternated with tones. We performed a series of whole-brain regression analyses applying composite, subscale, and individual reading-related items from the validated StimQ-P measure of home cognitive environment as explanatory variables for neural activation.

sample size

n=19 (children)


Measure of Cognitive Stimulation: preschool version of the StimQ (StimQ-P), administered to a custodial parent via telephone, including three subscales:

    1. Reading: access to books, frequency of shared reading, and variety of books read.
    2. Parental Involvement in Developmental Advance (PIDA): the teaching of specific concepts such as letters.
    3. Parental Verbal Responsivity (PVR): verbal interaction.

Measure of Brain Activity: blood oxygen level dependent fMRI.


Higher reading exposure (StimQ-P Reading subscale score) was positively correlated (P < .05, corrected) with neural activation in the left-sided parietal-temporal-occipital association cortex, a “hub” region supporting semantic language processing, controlling for household income.


In preschool children listening to stories, greater home reading exposure is positively associated with activation of brain areas supporting mental imagery and narrative comprehension, controlling for household income. These neural biomarkers may help inform eco-bio-developmental models of emergent literacy.


Although it used existing imaging and behavioral data, the StimQ-P was retrospectively administered, with a variable time from fMRI acquisition. Thus, recall and social desirability bias are possible, with parents overreporting reading practices. That said, household reading behaviors have been shown to be stable during the preschool period, tempering such recall effects.78 Families agreeing to participate in our study may be more likely to constructively engage in their child’s development (participation bias); although C-MIND is not advertised in the context of reading, its demographic mix is diverse by design, and all subjects who were able to be contacted agreed to participate, minimizing the prospect of self-selection. The exclusion of four low-SES families was a consequence of unreliable contact information (ie, phone out of service), shifting our demographic profile toward higher SES, although 37% of our sample was low-income. Our high reported StimQ-P subscale scores suggest potential ceiling effects, although the Reading subscale provided sensitivity ideal for our task. Finally, whereas our results show robust association between home reading environment and neural activation, our cross-sectional design cannot establish causation. Longitudinal studies are needed to discern the influence of shared reading on emergent literacy skills beginning in infancy, especially in low-SES populations. Such studies may help us better understand how the developing brain responds to various platforms, styles (notably dialogic reading), and interventions at different developmental stages, as well as identify children at-risk as early as possible to ensure the best possible outcome for all.