The many and varied benefits of reading...

Written by: Karen Sullivan | Published:
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Reading, even for short periods, has an impact on brain development and academic achievement, but also develops other skills such as empathy. Karen Sullivan explains

A few months ago, research commissioned by Renaissance UK found that secondary school children are not adequately stretched when it comes to reading material, with “reading age” matching chronological age by the end of primary school, but falling behind by up to three years by the age of 16.

Data was collected from almost one million students for the What Kids Are Reading report, conducted by Keith Topping, professor of educational and social research at the University of Dundee, who said: “The brain is a muscle that literacy skills help train. As it gets more toned, like all muscles, it needs more exercise. Currently, primary schools are exercising it more vigorously by reading more challenging books – we now need to replicate this in secondary schools.”

Prof Topping goes on to suggest that all secondary school teachers (not just English teachers) should look closely at literacy levels and remember that even the brightest children need to be stretched.

I have to say that I agree with his suggestions, for the same and other reasons. The reading list supplied by my son’s secondary school (for year 7) is breathtakingly unimaginative, and does not reflect in any way his reading interests nor even push him out of his comfort zone.

The usual classics combined with modern series that are, to my mind, the equivalent of literary junk food, make up the majority of titles. And here’s the thing. Reading habits are established early on, and if we supply and suggest poor-quality books, it creates an appetite for more of the same – rather like poor eating habits define a diet.

I have said it before and I’ll say it again: while reading and literacy has an impact on brain development, it does much, much more. In particular, it is responsible for the development of empathy and a great understanding of both self and others.

In June 2015, the Reading Agency released a report entitled Literature Review: The impact of reading for pleasure and empowerment, and, among other things, concluded that: “The main outcomes reported were enjoyment, knowledge of the self and other people, social interaction, social and cultural capital, imagination, focus and flow, relaxation and mood regulation.”

In particular, it reported improved emotional intelligence, creativity and imagination, better self-expression, communication skills and understanding/knowledge of other cultures, higher attainment in other subjects, including numeracy and mathematics, and, perhaps most importantly, enjoyment and escapism.

Relaxation associated with reading can also reduce stress levels significantly, which can affect mood, behaviour, overall physical and emotional health and, of course, performance. A 2009 study undertaken at the University of Sussex, found that reading silently for just six minutes slows down the heart rate and eases tension in the muscles, reducing stress levels to a point lower than when the stress set in.

Cognitive neuropsychologist Dr David Lewis said: “It really doesn’t matter what book you read; by losing yourself in a thoroughly engrossing book, you can escape from the worries and stresses of the everyday world ... the words on the printed page stimulate your creativity and cause you to enter what is essentially an altered state of consciousness.”

The researchers found that reading was 300 per cent more effective than going for a walk and 68 per cent better at reducing stress than listening to music.

However, Prof Topping is correct when he suggests that the quality of the books that young people are reading matters. While we should celebrate the fact that children are reading – and, of course, enjoying the psychological benefits of escapism and relaxation – it takes good-quality literature to provoke thoughts, to stimulate the brain, to encourage cognitive and emotional development and to experience the full benefits of reading.

All students, of course, are prescribed books of literary merit within the curriculum, but how can we encourage kids to seek them out and how can we demystify books that are considered “literature”? One of the most important elements is to ensure that kids are motivated to read, and this involves the need for enjoyment and pleasure. Clark and Rumbold (2006) explored the motivations for reading for pleasure and found that it occurs most frequently in response to “intrinsic” motivation (i.e. self-directed) rather than extrinsic (in response to goals, prescribed reading or rewards).

They also discovered that it is this type of reading that is linked to increases in general knowledge, understanding of other cultures, community participation and insight into human nature and decision-making. It would be natural to presume that allowing students to choose their own reading material is the best way to encourage the “enjoyment” element, and support self-directed reading; however, this does not, as suggested by Prof Topping, necessarily ensure that they are reading age-appropriate material that will stretch them in the right directions.

Next time, I’ll look at ways to challenge students to read outside their usual genre and at an age-appropriate level, to immerse themselves in books that will bring a host of personal and societal benefits, and to become self-directed readers – readers for life. At a time when our students are at their unhappiest since records began, with stress levels and anxiety soaring, and in a society where inexplicable violence is casting a bewildering and terrifying shadow, books may provide an invaluable solution.

  • Karen Sullivan is a best-selling author, psychologist and childcare expert. Email kesullivan@aol.com. To read her previous articles for SecEd, including in this series, go to http://bit.ly/1SNgg00

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