“You cannot open a book without learning something.” — Confucius
Do you remember the first book you read by yourself? For me, it was a children’s collection of short stories about animals and fairytale characters. I loved looking at the pictures that went with the stories, but I was especially proud of being able to read so many words all on my own. At the time, I didn’t realize the long-term impact that reading would have on my life, or know about the research that demonstrates the positive impact of reading on the brain.
I read because I loved it — I loved discovering new characters, new places, and hearing about adventures I never could have imagined on my own. Stories were a place of joy to me, and as an adult now they still are — a place of mental and emotional refreshment in the midst of busy and often stressful adult life.
But beyond the pure enjoyment reading can give, there are several valuable developmental benefits that accompany reading, whether young or old. Even before studies came along to demonstrate this, parents and educators recognized the positive effects of reading and encouraged it as a method for developing character and social skills in their students. Below are three ways that reading meaningful stories can positively impact your young student’s life.
Cultivating New Perspectives
As noted in An Invitation to Consider the Value of Personal Stories in Cultural Narratives,
“Personal stories, or stories of self (e.g., memoir, autobiography, and fiction based on real experiences), in children’s literature offer rich opportunities for inquiry into who we are and what matters as we connect with and learn about other people.”
Fiction has increasingly become centered on “stories of self” as the novel has gained influence and popularity in literature. Whether based on a true story or entirely fictional, this type of story gives readers an understanding of another person’s mind, including their hopes, dreams, disappointments, and lessons learned.
This can be particularly beneficial for children, who, as their brains develop, are learning that they are not the center of the world.
Understanding varied perspectives may also be called “Theory of Mind,” as described in David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano’s study, Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind.
As the authors mention in their abstract, “Understanding others’ mental states is a crucial skill that enables the complex social relationships that characterize human societies.”
Their study indicates that reading literary fiction does enhance the brain’s ability to comprehend varied perspectives, at least temporarily.
Another well-known study from Emory University noted that reading fiction improves a “reader’s ability to put themselves in another person’s shoes and flex the imagination in a way that is similar to the visualization of a muscle memory in sports (Bergland, 2014).”
The only other way to grow in the ability to understand others’ perspectives is through personal experience. Stories offer an easy and enjoyable way to stretch beyond those experiences, limited as they are for each of us by time and space.
According to Miriam-Webster.com, empathy is “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.”
Education without empathy is worse than useless — to have knowledge without kindness and a sense of community to guide it is to follow a faulty mode of education that only develops half a person. To educate the mind without the heart leads to all kinds of injustices, both personal and political.
Educators have long understood the importance of empathy in education, especially as the classes they teach fill with students from varied backgrounds, cultures, and life experiences.
As noted in Smith’s article Do Scientists Read Enough Fiction?, past research has shown a positive correlation between reading literature and developing empathy. However, there has been some pushback on the research methods used in this study, making this a developing field for scientists and psychologists.
However, as explored in the article Understanding and Improving Emotion Regulation, studying literature is a valuable activity that leads to the broadened perspectives necessary for empathy to grow. This article also advocates for expressive writing, an activity closely related to reading, as a method to regulate emotion.
Although science is still exploring the mind-brain connection between reading and enhanced empathy, the personal experience of readers seems to strongly affirm it. It is definitely known that reading strengthens brain function and overall connectivity (Berns et al, 2013).
Stories spark creativity in adults and children alike, wakening our imaginations to worlds and ideas beyond what we know.
As David Smith writes in his article Do Scientists Read Enough Fiction?, “Of all the skills a scientist should possess, I would think creativity and empathy are near the top of the list.”
Smith is a busy academic scientist, but he finds that his work and life can become too computational and boring without the integration of creative literature and stories. At the beginning of his article, he describes how reading literature enabled him to complete his PhD by training him to read comprehensively for long periods of time. Now a full-fledged adult, he takes reading breaks to boost his creativity while working on large projects.
Smith writes that “there is something about reading imaginative literature by masterful word smiths that helps me overcome [procrastination] and inspires me to write. Scientific papers, at their very best, can approach great literature.”
This creativity and inspiration can be fostered from a young age by exposing our children to imaginative stories that help them learn to ask questions and view the world as a place of curiosity and wonder.
Dare to Read
We want the world for our children — and there is no better way to give it to them than through imaginative literature.
Spending time with literary fiction positively impacts brain development by exposing readers to new perspectives, fostering empathy, and sparking creativity.
These qualities are an incredibly vital part of education — in fact, without them, all the technical skills and knowledge children can learn at school are worthless. The longer I work in education, the more firmly I believe this.
Because understanding new perspectives, developing empathy, and fostering creativity is so important, reading imaginative fiction at a young age is an extremely valuable use of time. As your student explores new worlds and confronts challenging situations and questions, they will grow in significant ways all while enjoying a good story.
If you are interested in helping your child develop a love of literature, consider signing up for one of the Read With You’s programs. We teach children to love reading by enjoying literature with them, practicing level-appropriate language skills, and cultivating curiosity. Students around the world have already experienced the benefits of our unique, literature-based tutoring model.