ISSN 1671-3710
CN 11-4766/R

Advances in Psychological Science ›› 2022, Vol. 30 ›› Issue (1): 65-76.doi: 10.3724/SP.J.1042.2022.00065

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The relationship between children’s reading and theory of mind

ZHAO Lihua, YANG Yunmei, LI Jing()   

  1. CAS Key Laboratory of Behavioral Science, Institute of Psychology, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing 100101, China; Department of Psychology, University of Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing 100049, China
  • Received:2021-03-05 Online:2022-01-15 Published:2021-11-25


Reading and theory of mind (ToM) both play important roles in the development of children. A large number of previous studies reveal that reading and ToM may have two-way promotion effects. On the one hand, shared reading with parents or teachers enables children to initiate joint attention. In this process, children and storytellers use a lot of terms of mental state to communicate with each other, and they can also construct an alternative social situation through social imagination and perspective-taking ability. In daily life, children will also understand stories by guessing and inferring the thoughts, intentions, desires and emotions of the characters through simulating real social activity, which promotes the development of children’s ToM. On the other hand, numerous studies have shown that ToM can also promote the development of children's reading ability in a lot of aspects. For example, in the process of reading, ToM can help children to improve their abilities to establish a macro view of reading, use metacognitive reading strategies, construct story situation models, and even promote their micro ability to understand specific phrases, sentences, discourses and multi-text materials. What's more, ToM may increase the reader's ability to express and monitor the characters' thoughts and emotions during the reading process. When readers can understand and express the mental states and emotions of the characters in the story, it indicates that they may have made some inferences and judgments about the mental states which are unclearly stated in the story. In this case, readers can understand the story more easily and are more likely to find the fun of reading, which may trigger more reading behaviors, thus leading to more frequent use of ToM and promote its development. Both reading and ToM show a good trend of mutual promotion and common development. In addition to behavioral research, further neurophysiological evidence shows that there is some overlap between the neural activity of reading and ToM. In the reading process, the default network shows strong activation. As the main support network for social cognition, default network also plays an important role in the development of ToM. In addition, the mirror nervous system contributes to the interaction between reading and ToM as well. The mirror nervous system enables individuals to understand or experience the actions, thoughts, intentions, and feelings of others. In addition, reading literary works, especially literary novels, can improve the individual's ToM by enhancing the mirror nervous system. Both behavioral and brain mechanism studies support that there may be a potential two-way promoting relationship between reading and ToM. In the future, it is necessary to pay more attention to the potential relationship between ToM and reading. Further in-depth and long-term longitudinal follow-up studies are needed to provide abundant empirical evidence for the relationship between reading and ToM. In addition, more attention should be paid to the development of ToM in school education and its positive influence on children's self-protection and compliance with moral norms. In line with the development of science and technology, it is also necessary to pay more attention to the influence of multimedia reading on children's ToM. Besides, in daily home reading or school teaching, parents and teachers should make efforts to increase intervention training to improve children's ToM and reading comprehension ability. For example, feedback training in reading is beneficial to promote children's perspective-taking and ToM, which includes emboldening children to talk deeply about their mental states and desires, asking children more questions, and encouraging children to play pretend games. All of these interventions may, to varying degrees, promote children to think about different views and mental states in various ways during reading process.

Key words: theory of mind, reading, parent-child book reading, picture book

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