Have you ever wondered why schools and educators push kids to read so much? After all, there are different kinds of intelligence. Why should there be so much focus on just one way of learning? Many have argued that our society–and education system–is too harshly slanted towards rewarding visual learners. Is the obsession with reading just another way that this prejudice is apparent? Can reading really make someone smarter? Maybe all of these studies simply show that kids who naturally like reading more are better at taking tests that we use to collect arbitrary data about our children’s academic acumen.
Reading Versus Television
I love reading. Sometimes I love reading really silly books. In fact, you might say that I binge-read pop fiction the same way I’d binge-watch Alias on Netflix. Shouldn’t the determining factor on whether television “rots” your brain be how stupid the show itself is? For example, if I’m watching The West Wing, which can teach me about the nuances of the American governmental system (kinda)… how is that worse than reading about silly teenager Georgia Nicholson’s romantic exploits and mishaps?
Well, it has to do with the act of reading itself. Even if the writing is simple (adolescent, even,) your brain works significantly differently while reading than it does while watching a movie or show.
Studies have found that watching television directly affects the brain. It lowers verbal reasoning ability, and thickens the area linked to aggression. Television viewing is cited as a risk factor for developing Alzheimer’s, and impeding the brain’s higher function.
What Goes on in the Brain during Reading?
One study at Emory University had subjects read a historical fiction novel over several days. Each day, it monitored their brain activity to see if there were short- and long-term effects. It was found that reading increased connectivity in the part of the brain associated with language and reasoning. Students also had higher activity levels in the part of the brain that processes sensory motor information, which shows that readers were empathetically connecting to the actions of the characters in the book.
Reading reduces stress levels better than almost any other activity, better even than drinking tea or taking a walk. Reading also reduces risk for Alzheimer’s and other conditions related to impaired cognitive function.
What Makes a Good Reader?
The practical benefits of reading come into sharp focus in the classroom. Numerous studies have found that students who read for pleasure (outside of any school or family pressure, or external reward system) perform higher in mathematics, logical problem-solving, and verbal skills. These students are also more likely to build positive relationships at school, and have better behavior and interaction with family and teachers. Children who read for fun over the summer had better test scores when they returned to class and were more able to adapt to new challenges in the learning environment.
These results have led to many attempts to understand: what makes the difference between a student who reads for fun and one who doesn’t? How can we nurture a love of reading in students?
One major movement seen in numerous schools across the country is SSR, or Sustained Silent Reading. It’s a time set aside for students to simply read. They don’t need to read classics. In fact, they can choose comic books if they want. They don’t get rewarded or penalized for reading or not reading. Instead, they’re left alone to explore the written word. Studies have found that students in an SSR program perform better in school and testing, especially over long periods of time.
Successful readers interact differently with texts than resistant readers. Good readers make predictions along the way, re-evaluate their expectations, skim and re-read according to their goals and interests. They make connections between the book and their own personal background experience.
Engaged reading is the key to building a love of the written word. In fact, when readers reach a certain level of development, it’s as obvious as a light turning on. Suddenly, they’re not just reading words on a page – they’re projecting themselves into the story, seeing things beyond what’s specifically described in the book, and directly applying their imagination and personal experience to the text.
Practical Reasons to Read
In case I haven’t yet convinced you of the value of reading, I’m going to leave you with a few quick-and-dirty bullet points enumerating why reading is pretty much the best hobby ever:
- It’s basically free, so it’s a great way to get entertainment on a budget
- It builds empathy and compassion
- It helps you feel connected
- It helps you understand different worlds and mindsets
- It reduces stress and makes for better sleep
- It improves your memory and recall
- It builds your vocabulary so you can sound smart at parties
- It gives you better writing skills, which are necessary in almost every job you can think of
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