What's going on in a child's mind when you read aloud to them?

Surinder Sharma
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July 31, 2020

In the life cycle of a human being, the first five to eight years are crucial for the development of the brain, with the first three years most critical in shaping the child's brain architecture. Children learn more quickly during these early years than at any other time in their life. In these premature stages, there is a lot of pressure on parents to adopt the right technique of teaching and education. In a world that is constantly pushing a variety of methods and technology products for early learning, we have to understand the science and benefits of each of these on your child's early development. While reading aloud to your children might sound like an outdated activity, there are many benefits that additionally extend to your child's behavior and attention.

A new research conducted by Dominic Massaro, a Professor Emeritus in Psychology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, suggests that reading stories from a picture book is the most effective way of improving the vocabulary of children (Massaro, 2019). A common misconception is that daily conversations can substitute reading stories aloud to children. Massaro argued that "We talk with a lazy tongue. We tend to point at something or use a pronoun and the context tells you what it is. We talk at a basic level." This is why spoken english and written english is different. In an age when children can be picking up much more from stories, they are only picking up basic language from day to day conversations. Massaro found that picture books are two to three times more likely than parent-child conversations to include a word that isn't among the five thousand most common English words. It is a well known fact that the earlier you have a grasp on a language as a child, the sooner you will be able to master the language as an adult. Massaro said "Reading takes you beyond the easy way to communicate. It takes you to another world and challenges you."

Along with being one of the best ways to improve vocabulary, this is also one of the best ways to inculcate the habit of reading in children. After getting into the habit of being read aloud to, children found it interesting to revisit those books and browse them. They were able to identify the words they heard previously and were able to learn more with the visual context.

It is important to understand what is happening in your child's mind from a scientific point of view when you read aloud to them. In a study performed by Dr. John Hutton, a researcher and pediatrician specializing in "emergent literacy." In this study children in and around the age of four were exposed to three forms of story narration. Audio only, audio with static illustration (picture books) and dynamic animation (cartoon). After observing the children's brain patterns in a FMRI machine, it was concluded that the picture books were the best for them where the children's understanding of the story was maximized. With the audio only version, Hutton described this method as "too cold". The children were having a tough time understanding what was being said and there was no visual aid to give them any context. According to Hutton, cartoons were "too hot". Children were having a tough time figuring out what was happening as their mind was being over-stimulated. For these reasons, Hutton concluded that picture books are "just right." Children were being challenged just the right amount while also learning a lot more than the other two methods. The children were forming visuals from their own imagination while also learning new vocabulary.

Reading aloud to your child is the key to unlocking your child's full potential. Spending time reading with your child has shown benefits to their behavior, hyperactivity, and attention (Mendelsohn, Cates et al, 2017). By spending 15 to 20 minutes a day reading to your child, you are giving them a world of benefits. Reading aloud to your child from a picture book is a part of "positive parenting." At the end of the day, isn't that the mission? To make sure you are doing your part in building a strong foundation for your child's future success. Read to your children everyday and both you and your child will reap the benefits forever.


  1. Massaro, Dominic W. "Two Different Communication Genres and Implications for Vocabulary Development and Learning to Read." Journal of Literacy Research, vol. 47, no. 4, Dec. 2015, pp. 505–527, doi: 10.1177/1086296X15627528.
  2. Hutton, John & Dudley, Jonathan & Horowitz-Kraus, Tzipi & DeWitt, Tom & Holland, Scott. (2019). Functional Connectivity of Attention, Visual and Language Networks During Audio, Illustrated and Animated Stories in Preschool-Age Children. Brain Connectivity. 9. 10.1089/brain.2019.0679.
  3. Alan L. Mendelsohn, Carolyn Brockmeyer Cates, Adriana Weisleder, Samantha Berkule Johnson, Anne M. Seery, Caitlin F. Canfield, Harris S. Huberman and Benard P. Dreyer Pediatrics May 2018, 141 (5) e20173393; DOI: https://doi.org/10.1542/peds.2017-3393