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29.11.2016 | Josephine Lister

Reading, A Romantic Reverie Or The Key To Unlocking A Child’s Future?

Reading has been proven to teach kids empathy, and is therefore an important tool for parents, teachers and schools to utilise when trying to help students enhance this vital skill.

In this age of nostalgia, anything remotely from the past becomes our new favourite thing. TV and film are infiltrated with reboots, one of the biggest Netflix hits this year was Stranger Things, a pure 80s nostalgia trip. Surely reading too falls into this category, a lovely past-time, but no longer relevant for future generations.

So why should we save reading?

One of the key skills children need in our globalized society is empathy. We’ve previously explored how empathy is the future trend in education. The basic principle is that kids will be encountering people from all different backgrounds and cultures throughout their lifetimes due to the globalizing nature of our current climate. Because of this, kids need to be able to understand those different from themselves. They need the skill of empathy.

Allan Kjaer Andersen, principal of Ørestad Gymnasium in Copenhagen, renowned for its innovative learning environment, discussed this issue with us. ‘In order to innovate you have to be able to collaborate. In order to be a global citizen you have to have empathy and believe in yourself, have resilience and things like that (...) these skills are just as important as the traditional subject skills.’

Reading has been proven to teach kids empathy, and is therefore an important tool for parents, teachers and schools to utilise when trying to help students enhance this vital skill. Studies have been carried out to show that even on a neurological level, when you empathize with characters in a book, it rewires our brain to exert the same feelings towards people in real life.

Olli Vesterinen, Project Manager at the Ministry of Education and Culture of Finland, told us about the importance of exposing children to people outside of their own community:

‘There needs to be a system that ensures young people are socialized into communities that consist of more than just their families and friends. A system in which the curriculum brings together societal communication. The difficulty lies in differentiating values and goals.’

This can easily be incorporated into education through reading, where a book can show you a life and an experience entirely different from your own. The good news is that, of course, reading is already a large part of formal education. One school has even scrapped homework in favour of reading books instead. Incorporating reading into education is easy, it’s already there!

So problem solved right? Not quite. There is a difference between reading the text, and really understanding it. Rafe Esquith, an awarded American teacher and founder of the Hobart Shakespeareans, spoke to us about this issue.

‘The biggest problem is that we’re not preparing them to read. (...) As a result we have a whole generation of children who even though they can read words, do not comprehend what they’re reading, do not understand important concepts that great writers are trying to teach them. They need to read with an expert.’

Reading alone isn’t enough to make it effective, you have to make it come alive.

The easiest way to do this is to read with someone else. The activity of reading together can increase the bond between a parent and their child, creating a moment where their minds can meet. It can also create a similar atmosphere in the classroom, creating a safe imaginative place, where ideas and thoughts can be acknowledged and explored.

The idea of classroom reading may bring up sombre memories. Students taking turns to read a segment aloud and then the teacher asking what the passage is about, only to receive silence in return. That’s not what reading should be about, as Esquith continues:

‘We want children to love to read and we want them to have fun. Reading should be about laughter and tears, and arguing about meanings and being shocked.’

The role of the teacher is clearly important to unlock the potential of literature. Sending children home to read a chapter for the next day, or simply having them read in groups in class is not enough. They need an expert to guide them, to help them learn how to really read, to go deeper than the words on the page.

‘The role of a teacher is to make learning fun and to show children the relevance of the reading to their own life. A great book is not about the characters in the book, it’s about you (...) That’s the teacher’s role – connecting the work and making it relevant to the children’s lives,’ says Rafe Esquith.

To make stories count, you have to draw the parallels to the present, to make it relevant. The process of reading is more than just a story, which is not supposed to be stuffy or unapproachable, but an exploration of humanity.

Not only can reading improve empathetic tendencies, but it can help children from disadvantaged backgrounds improve their future prospects.

Rafe Esquith has improved the lives of his students, who come from areas of high deprivation in Los Angeles, through his use of Shakespeare. He has seen his pupils excel from year to year because of this.

‘I want my students to have the same opportunity (as children from wealthy backgrounds) and by understanding language well, it levels the playing field. The fact they are fabulous readers is the real reason my students get to the top schools, there are many reasons for this of course, but that is the key reason.’

To make stories count, you have to draw the parallels to the present, to make it relevant.

Reading provides children with skills that helps to bridge the wealth gap between themselves and their more privileged counterparts. By reading with an expert Esquith argues that they are learning invaluable skills that help to enhance their prospects.

‘There are so many skills they’re getting from reading with an expert. They’re learning enormous amounts of language, they become better listeners, better speakers, better writers, better communicators.’

Through teaching examples such as Rafe Esquith’s, we can see how a small change to educating style can improve the futures of those who would otherwise fall through the net of education.

We are already using reading in schools, so this change can be implemented by teachers immediately. Newer formats of storytelling (technological or otherwise) aren’t necessary to get kids engaged. Books still have a place in our educational system, we just need to teach kids how to read to unlock meaning and emotions, rather than making sure they’ve read the right number of pages.