A New Chapter Begins – Exploring the Joy Superpower of Reading

We all know it – technology has shaped our attention span so that now it’s almost equivalent to that of a goldfish. Reading a book without looking at your phone every two pages might feel like a challenge, even for people like me who didn’t grow up with smart phones. Therefore, it’s no wonder if today’s youth doesn’t enjoy reading that much: in England, only 35% of 10-year-olds report that they like reading ‘very much’.

Meanwhile I was lucky enough to develop a regular reading habit (thanks to my parents who encouraged me to read), the lowering rates in reading activity and literacy are alarming. Why should we read? Let’s explore!

Reading: your way to academic success and to a silver tongue

Let’s start with reading’s linguistic and educational benefits. One of the first well-known studies was Stanovich’s & Cunningham’s study from 1992. In this study, the researchers demonstrated that exposure to print has significant correlations with measures of vocabulary, cultural knowledge, spelling ability, and verbal fluency. Their results thus suggest that exposure to print is a contributor of its own in the development of certain verbal skills.

This research branch was taken even further by Mol & Bus in 2011. In their paper, they examined the impact of print exposure on three different age groups: (a) preschoolers and kindergartners, (b) children attending grades 1-12, and (c) college and university students. Moderate to strong correlations with print exposure were found  for reading comprehension as well as for technical reading and spelling in every category. They also found that frequent readers are more successful students. Another important finding of theirs was that:

The outcomes support an upward spiral of causality: Children who are more proficient in comprehension and technical reading and spelling skills read more; because of more print exposure, their comprehension and technical reading and spelling skills improved more with each year of education.

It’s therefore fair to say that reading is one of the best tools you can give to a child to improve their chances of academic success and linguistic development.

Yummy to your brain

The results mentioned above are due to cognitive changes your brain experiences when reading regularly. Takeuchi et al. (2016) examined the impact of reading to the brain’s white matter amongst a large sample of children. They found that reading enhances the microstructure of the white matter in the brain, more specifically in the left arcuate fasciculus (AF), in the left inferior fronto-occipital fasciculus (IFOF), and in the left posterior corona radiata (PCR). Not surprisingly, these areas affect reading ability, semantic aspects of language, orthographic processing and also phonological processing.

However, you don’t have to be young to enjoy the benefits of reading. Wilson et al. (2013) assessed if a life-long habit of regularly doing cognitive activities could slow down cognitive aging. The results indicate that both early- and late-life cognitive tasks (including reading) can help our minds remain up to 14 % sharper than our less active peers. Other tasks included in the list were visiting a library and writing letters.

Stories for understanding others better

Last but not least, reading can help us understand other people better. Kidd & Castano (2013) investigated the connection between reading and understanding other people’s mental states – that is, the Theory of Mind (ToM). The researchers predicted that when reading literary fiction, one must use more flexible interpretive resources to relate to the feelings and thoughts of characters.

The team first compared the effects of reading literary fiction with reading nonfiction and then focused on testing their predictions about the different effects of reading literary and popular fiction. The first part of the experiment showed that reading literary fiction, relative to nonfiction, improves performance on an affective ToM task. The second part of the experience showed that this effect is specific to literary fiction.

To get you started, Goodreads has made a list of Time Magazine’s best 100 novels of alll time.

Do you have a habit of reading? Did your parents read to you as a child, or do you read to your own children? Share us your story down below or on social media with the hashtag #joysuperpowers . Don’t forget to tune in next week for our new podcast episode with the wonderful reading expert Kim Jocelyn Dickson!

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