Early Literacy Research Library (ELRL) - Article

Story Time Turbocharger? Child Engagement During Shared Reading and Cerebellar Activation and Connectivity in Preschool-Age Children Listening to Stories

Hutton, J.S., Phelan, K., Horowitz-Kraus, T., Dudley, J., Altaye, M., DeWitt, T., Holland, S.K. (2017) Story Time Turbocharger? Child Engagement During Shared Reading and Cerebellar Activation and Connectivity in Preschool-Age Children Listening to Stories. PLoS One, 12(5), e0177398.,

Access: FREE/Open Access

Publication year


core topic(s)

Shared Reading

Population Characteristics

Poverty/Low-Income , Toddler/Preschool

Exposures, Outcomes, Other

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


The objective of our study was to assess the relationship between child engagement during shared (mother-child) reading via direct observation and neural activation utilizing an established fMRI story listening task[49], in a sample of preschool-age children.


Shared reading.

outcomes evaluated

Child engagement and neural activation.


Dyads recruited from a longitudinal home injury prevention trial serving low-SES mothers, based at our institution (Cincinnati Home Injury Prevention (CHIP) trial.


We utilized functional MRI to explore the relationship between child engagement during a mother-child reading observation and neural activation and connectivity during a story listening task, in a sample of 4-year old girls.

sample size

n=22 (mother-child dyads)


Measure of Child Engagement: video observation of shared reading was scored by three scorers trained in dialogic reading methodology:

    • 1 = Somewhat Engaged: persistent attempts to do something else
    • 2 = Very Engaged: often tries to do something else, redirected to the story easily
    • 3 = Extremely Engaged: focused for the entire story with almost no shifts

Measure of Neuronal Activation: fMRI during story listening task.


Children exhibiting greater interest and engagement in the narrative showed increased activation in right-sided cerebellar association areas during the task, and greater functional connectivity between this activation cluster and language and executive function areas.


Our findings suggest a potential cerebellar “boost” mechanism responsive to child engagement level that may contribute to emergent literacy development during early childhood, and synergy between caregiver and child factors during story sharing.


While we attempted to contact all mothers with daughters in our target age range, we were unable to do so for many, and those who did enroll may be more engaged in their child’s development. However, by design all mother-child dyads in the CHIP cohort are at-risk for poor outcomes, limiting the range of such bias. Our decision to exclusively sample girls limits generalizability, though we view this as a strength, allowing us to efficiently collect high-quality data in young children. Furthermore, while gender dimorphisms in brain structure and function in young children have been described[56, 95], these have been found to be negligible for our story listening task[52], leading us to expect similar findings in boys. Our homogeneous sample of low-SES mothers also limits generalizability, though we see this too as a strength, as low-SES populations stand to benefit most from improved insights and interventions. A larger study involving a diverse sample would help determine to what extent SES moderates child engagement during shared reading and its influence on neural processing. Our child engagement score reflected a single snapshot, and may not be representative of longer-term behavior. However, household reading behaviors tend to be stable during the preschool period[96], and such focal observations have been reliably utilized in in assessment of home environment[97], including reading[98]. Our assessment of child reading engagement was conducted outside of the scanner, given restrictions on motion and interactivity during the scan itself. However, it is reasonable to assume that observed engagement in story reading exhibited by the child during the same study visit, reflective of longer-term experience and interest, is a fair proxy for that manifest during the story listening task. Future studies could assess child engagement during the MRI task itself via an age-appropriate post-scan questionnaire. Finally, whereas our results show compelling correlation between observed child interest in and engagement during shared reading and neural activation and connectivity during a story listening task, our study design cannot establish causation. Longitudinal studies are needed beginning in infancy, to better understand dynamic home, maternal/caregiver and child factors contributing to healthy brain development and emergent literacy.