One of the areas which we treat at this clinic is literacy- reading and writing skills. Most kids who struggle with reading don’t enjoy doing it and are not very motivated to read outside of the necessary reading for school. As an avid reader myself, this makes me sad because I want everyone to love books and enjoy reading as much as I do. As a speech-language pathologist, I am also very aware of the impact that a kid’s ability to read has on their academic performance, particularly as students begin to approach those late elementary years and beyond. A study released last year really highlighted this point:
“A student who can’t read on grade level by 3rd grade is four times less likely to graduate by age 19 than a child who does read proficiently by that time. Add poverty to the mix, and a student is 13 times less likely to graduate on time than his or her proficient, wealthier peer.”
Reading activates the brain
There is no doubt that reading is an important academic and life skill. And it turns out that reading has a huge impact on our brains- far beyond just the work of recognizing and understanding the words on the page. The article The Neuroscience of Your Brain on Fiction by Annie Murphy Paul (author of Origins: How the Nine Months Before Birth Shape the Rest of Our Lives) talks about a number of research studies looking at how the brain reacts when reading. These studies have found that reading actually activates areas of the brain beyond just the language regions. Words on the page can cause brain activity in the areas typically associated with touch (words like “He had leathery hands”), smell (words like “perfume” and “coffee”), and even specific motor areas (phrases like “He kicked the ball” activated different areas of the motor cortex than other phrases related more to arm movement).
Reading fiction taps into social skills
All of this research into how the brain reacts to reading indicates that the brain doesn’t differentiate a lot between reading about an experience and actually experiencing it. It makes sense, then, that reading different types of books would lead to different brain activity. Non-fiction and fiction provide for very different reading experiences. Reading fiction is unique because it allows the reader to experience how others deal with a wide variety of social interactions. Fiction also allows the reader an opportunity to actually enter into another person’s thoughts and feelings- something we clearly can’t do in real life! Research again supports the idea that the brain treats social interactions among characters in fiction books similarly to real-life social interactions. Strong associations were found among brain networks used to understand fiction stories and the networks used to figure out the thoughts and feelings of others (also known as “theory of mind”). Individuals who read fiction stories often have been found to better understand and empathize with others. Even in young children, research has supported that the more stories the children had read to them, the better their theory-of-mind.
Today’s a great day to break out those books with your kids. Happy reading!