Differences between Maternal and Paternal Book Reading to Children

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Reading aloud helps children expand their vocabularies while also building their ability to think, analyze and ask questions. It can also inspire a love of reading and learning for life. A 2014 study published in the Journal of Fathering suggests fathers and mothers may have different styles of reading to their children and both can be beneficial for development. In the study, researchers observed mothers and fathers while reading to their children. The study showed mothers asked their children more factual questions while labeling and categorizing objects, whereas fathers used language to talk about concepts extending beyond the images and wording in the book.1 When parents use different styles of reading aloud to their child, they are providing a variety of learning experiences that foster language and cognitive development and can support literacy achievement in later years.2 To promote these positive outcomes, healthcare professionals can provide caregivers tips to make reading time an enjoyable and educational experience for children.

One way of promoting a child’s speech and language development while reading aloud involves elaborating on details written in the children’s book and asking questions about factual information. In the study observing differences between maternal and paternal book reading, mothers most often used this style of reading with their children. For example, parents may ask their child how many apples they see in a green bucket pictured in the book.1 Researchers believe engaging children in conversation about factual information from the book may be the most beneficial for young children who are still expanding their repertoire of language for everyday objects and concepts.3 Focusing on factual information while reading aids their ability to understand concrete information.

Parents also help children’s language development when they integrate conversation beyond the context of the story. Researchers observed fathers incorporated more non-immediate language with complex vocabulary into storytelling by asking abstract questions to expand the child’s imaginative thinking and reflection on past experiences. After reading about a ladder in a story, fathers often discussed the last time they climbed a ladder, thereby encouraging the child to think about what this situation may have looked like or to reflect upon a previous experience.1 This style of reading may be beneficial for children with more developed vocabularies and book knowledge, because it can help them expand their vocabulary by thinking about contextual questions. When children analyze questions beyond their immediate environment, they must engage in more abstract thinking.3

Just as parenting involvement from both mothers and fathers has a positive influence on a child’s speech and language skills and cognitive development, both styles of reading can also be beneficial. An enriching reading experience encourages children to use their imagination and go beyond the context of the book in some situations, while also focusing on factual information to practice the skills they’ve already acquired such as counting, labeling, and categorizing.

At a well-child visit, physicians can share information about the benefits of early shared reading. When parents read to their children, they help to:

  • Build a child’s interest in reading-young children who show interest in reading may have stronger vocabularies in preschool and pre-kindergarten than children who show less interest.4
  • Promote emergent literacy skills-the skills or knowledge children develop before they can read or write themselves. This includes recognizing letters, and understanding that the print relates to spoken words.
  • Enrich vocabularies-children learn the meaning of new words from the written text in the stories and from conversations parents bring up while reading.4
  • Promote higher scores on language measures later in childhood-this noticeable improvement can start very early. A study published in the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology found that 12 month old infants had more developed language skills when parents began reading to them at 8 months than others their age. The earlier parents can begin reading to their infant, the better their language and literacy outcomes will be later in childhood.5

While asking about a child’s speech and language development at a well-child visit, medical professionals can also offer parents some advice to make reading an enriching activity:

  • Make connections-while you are reading, relate information to experience you’ve had or ask your child to relate the information to their experiences. Making connections is a good way to engage in discussion while you read.
  • Recast the child’s language-this helps them learn how to use complete sentences and learn new vocabulary.
  • Ask questions-ask what is happening in the pictures or how they feel about certain characters or events in the story. Children have the opportunity to reflect and think about how they would feel in this situation, and this is a way to practice recognizing and processing emotions.
  • Make inferences-for example, if a girl is putting on her boots and winter coat, it must be cold where she lives. Making inferences together can help a child come up with predictions for the story.
  • Answer the child’s questions-maybe the child does not understand a vocabulary word or a part of the storyline. Answering their questions will make them feel valued and encourages them to continue learning through reading.6

Parents can also find other tips to make story time fun on the Pathways.org blog.

Parents and caregivers can fit in reading time with their child each day by either starting or ending the day with a story. If parents have questions about their child’s speech and language skills, healthcare professionals can refer parents to the Pathways.org Early Communication brochure to learn more about important milestones their child should be meeting.



[1] Duursma, Elisabeth. The effects of fathers’ and mothers’ reading to their children on language outcomes of children participating in early head start in the United States. Fathering: a journal of theory and research about men as parents. 2014; 12(3): 283-302.

[2] Duursma, Elisabeth. Why story time is better when dad’s reading the book. The Sydney Morning Herald. 2 Oct 2015. www.smh.com.au

[3]Reese E, Cox A. Quality of Adult Book Reading Affects Children’s Emergent Literacy. Developmental Psychology. 1999; 35(1):20-28.

[4] Malin, J et al. Low-income minority mothers’ and fathers’ reading and children’s interest: Longitudinal contributions to children’s receptive vocabulary skills. Early Child Research Quarterly. 2014; 29(4): 425-432.

[5] Karrass J, Braungart-Rieker J. Effects of shared-infant book reading on early language acquisition. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology. 2005; 26(2): 133-148.

[6] Osewalt, Gnny. 6 Tips for Helping Your Child Improve Reading Comprehension. Understood. www.understood.org.

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