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060: What do children learn from reading books?

We’ve done a couple of episodes on reading by now; episode 3 (which seems so long ago!) asked whether you might have missed the boat on teaching your toddler to read.  Of course, we know that you’ve only missed the boat on that if you think that sitting your child in front of a video so they can recite the words they see without really understanding them counts as “reading.”

Much more recently in episode 48 we talked with Dr. Laura Froyen about the benefits of shared reading with your child and how to do that according to best practices from the research literature.

Those of you who subscribe to my newsletter will recall that I’ve been working on an episode on storytelling for months now.  Part of the reason it’s taking so long is that books on storytelling technique say to use original stories wherever possible because the language in them is so much richer, but if you’ve ever read something like an original fairytale you know they can be pretty gory, and even the most harmless ones actually contain some pretty adult themes if you read between the lines.

So I wanted to know: what do children really learn from stories?  How do they figure out that we want them to learn morals from stories but not that animal characters walk on two legs and wear clothes?  How do they generalize that knowledge to the real world?  And are there specific types of books that promote learning?

Join me in a conversation with Dr. Deena Weisberg of The University of Pennsylvania as she helps us to help our children learn through reading!

Other shows mentioned in this episode

003: Did you miss the boat on teaching your child how to read?

010: Becoming Brilliant

048: The benefits of shared reading



Cheung, C.S., Monroy, J.A., & Delany, D.E. (2017). Learning-related values in young children’s storybooks: An investigation in the United States, China, and Mexico. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology 48(4), 532-541.

Ganea, P.A., Ma, L., & DeLoache, J.S. (2011). Young children’s learning and transfer of biological information from picture books to real animals. Child Development 82(5), 1421-1433.

Heath, S.B. (1982). What no bedtime story means: Narrative skills at home and school. Language in Society 11(1), 49-76.

Hopkins, E.J., & Weisberg, D.S. (2017). The youngest readers’ dilemma: A review of children’s learning from fictional sources. Developmental Review 43, 48-70.

Ostrov, J.M., Gentile, D.A., & Mullins, A.D. (2013). Evaluating the effect of educational media exposure on aggression in early childhood. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology 34, 38-44.

Read, K., Macauley, M., & Furay, E. (2014). The Seuss boost: Rhyme helps children retain words from shared storybook reading. First Language 34(4), 354-371.

Also published on Medium.


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  1. Jessie on March 27, 2018 at 4:24 PM

    Hi Jen! Where can I find that list of books you had collected during your research on this episode?

    • Jen Lumanlan on March 30, 2018 at 9:51 AM

      Hi Jessie – if you’re a subscriber to the show, you actually received it in your newsletter a week before this episode went out. If not, then enter your email address at the top of this page to download the list. LMK if that doesn’t work…

  2. Kirsten Read on May 12, 2018 at 7:42 PM

    What a great podcast at the intersection of real developmental science *and* what parents want to know 🙂

  3. Andy on July 21, 2018 at 3:53 AM

    At about the 42:30 mark on this episode, while discussing racial issues in society, I think you say something about having more awareness of this topic after “reading this work” (or “book?”). I tried rewinding to see what book you’re talking about, and started looking into Dr Weisberg’s writings too. I’m interested if you can clarify what you read that evidently had such an impact on you. We can all benefit from greater introspection and education in this area.

    • Jen Lumanlan on July 23, 2018 at 6:15 PM

      Hi Andy – Thanks for providing the time stamp – that helped me figure out what you were talking about:-) I was referencing the study I mentioned at the beginning of the (rather long) question I asked Dr. Weisberg at 37:37, which is Shirley Brice Heath’s book Ways with Words. It was published in 1983 and has become an absolute classic. It’s an academic work but it’s very readable. This book was what introduced me to some of the different ways that people in different cultures in English-speaking countries communicate, and I expand on my learning further in the subsequent episode on storytelling. Let me know if you have further questions on this…

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