Study shows kids get more benefit from fathers reading to them over mothers

Story time: John Toomey reads nightly to his three children, Oscar, Luca and Ruby.

A Harvard study shows children reap more benefits if they are read to by their fathers rather than their mothers. Arlene Harris gets chapter and verse from different sides of the debate

EVERYONE knows that children benefit from ‘story time’ – whether it’s improving literacy skills or simply spending quality time together, there is nothing more fulfilling than the daily bedtime book.

However, a study from Harvard University in the US maintains that children reap more benefit if they are read to by their fathers as mothers tended to ask ‘teacher-like’, factual questions, whereas the dads tend to favour more abstract questions which spark imaginative discussions.

Lead researcher, Elisabeth Duursma, said: “The impact is huge, particularly if dads start reading to kids under the age of two.”

Dr David Carey, director of psychology at City Colleges and Dean of the College of Progressive Education, says fathers play a very big role in the development in their child.

“There is a large body of research evidence concerning the important role of the male in the life of children and this research is just one more to add to a huge list,” he says. “Fathers are incredibly important in the lives of children, so long as they are actually “involved” in the life of the child and this means more than just playing with them. It means taking an active, even if it is occasional, interest in their life, including education and reading.”

Educational psychologist Sean O’Flanagan is not convinced by this latest research and says it doesn’t matter who reads to the child as long as someone is doing it.

“Children benefit from having a variety of people read to them whether it’s parents, siblings, grandparents or friends, the list is endless,” he says.

“To reduce it to one parental role is far too simplistic and makes an assumption that children of single mothers are at an automatic educational disadvantage.

“There is no reason why a female couldn’t put the same expression into reading as the males in this study. It also assumes that all dads will be so expressive in their reading ability as the dads in this study, and that’s not always the case.”

John Toomey is an English teacher and a published novelist. He has been reading to his three children, Oscar, 7, Ruby, 4, and Luca, 6 months, since they were born and says it has become a way of life for them.

“Reading stories to your kids is crucially important,” he says. “We read to all of ours from the beginning and still do every night. Both my wife (Maire) and I read to them, but it’s probably more my thing than hers; I’m sure that’s because I’m an English teacher and have written a few things, but it just seemed to happen organically. We never actually discussed it. “From before they could speak, we have read to them in some form or other — picture books, asking questions, look and point. Then, progressing onto simple stories as the first words emerged, it’s all good. It used to take about two minutes, but now lasts for about half an hour, as the books have got bigger and the chapters longer, and, of course, as parents we’re all stretched for time and simply can’t do everything, so we must prioritise. In our house, we prioritise reading.”

Research in Britain has shown that one-in-four parents don’t read to their children or do so once every six months, while only 50% read to their children every day.

However, Laura Haugh of says their online community relishes spending time reading to their children and often it’s the dads who are the star of the show.

“Our MummyPages mums tell us that both they and their children cherish the story time element of their bedtime routine,” she says.

“For parents who work outside the home, story time is often the only part of the day where both parent and child sit down and relax together, but mums say that it’s the daddies that are often the best at getting into character, putting on funny voices and getting their child involved in the story.

“They also report that their child regularly asks to read the same book over and over again. This is not surprising, as toddlers, in particular, love repetition.

“In fact, it’s a good sign they are enjoying your reading.”

Wise words - top tips

- Reading to your child encourages a stronger bond as you spend quality time together.

- Research has shown that reading to young children helps to improve literacy and communication skills.

- It also helps to enhance imagination and concentration.

- Reading with your child teaches them that it is a fun experience.

- Parents should aim to spend at least 10 happy minutes every day reading aloud together.

- Read at least three stories a day to your toddler and one story a day to children aged under seven. Older children will enjoy novels or short story collections. Be animated while you read to your child, read with excitement.

- Engage your child; talk together about the pictures or the characters in the books.

- For young children, pick short books with lots of rhyme, rhythm, and repetition.

- Play games together about things that you and your child can see in the book, such as finding the letters that spell your child’s name.

- Never turn reading into a chore or get annoyed with your child about reading or their request for more stories.


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