How Reading For Pleasure Will Save The World
You children are entering a wobbly world of misinformation and hyper-saturated screen images. Therefore, the single best thing your children can do is to begin reading for pleasure, vigorously.
The impact of free reading
In their book, Reading Unbound, education specialists Jeffrey D. Willhelm and Michael Smith argue that pleasure reading, or free reading, is so materially effective that it should be considered a civil rights issue. “Data from major longitudinal studies show that pleasure reading in youth is the most explanatory factor of both cognitive progress and social mobility over time”. In fact, pleasure reading is an even more powerful predictor of academic and social progress than parental socioeconomic status or educational background. This finding, in particular, floors me every time I come across it.
Again and again, the amount of free reading done outside of school has been found to relate to growth in vocabulary, reading comprehension, verbal fluency, and recall of general information. Students who make the effort to read independently become — not shockingly — better readers overtime. They score higher on standardized tests in all areas of achievement, including math and quantitative skills. Additionally, they perform better academically than their non-reading peers.
Reading improves concentration, expands one’s worldview, breeds good conversation, and develops empathy and theory of mind in young people. Willhelm and Smith identify one of the pleasures of free reading as social pleasure. “When the reader relates to authors, characters, other readers, and oneself by exploring and staking one’s identity”. This pleasure enlarges one’s capacity to engage the world from perspectives other than one’s own. Not only that, but it also allows one to feel deeply the burdens and triumphs of others. In short, it allows them to empathize.
As far as college preparation goes, high school students can’t make a better investment than learning to love reading. A majority of the work done in a college setting, particularly when studying the humanities, is reading work. After all, learning to interpret the best of what has been thought and said is the greatest gift of a college education. More than that, it’s what makes us human.
Why aren’t children reading more?
These are point blank, extraordinary conclusions that should lead every parent in America directly to the nearest bookstore with their kids in tow. Sadly, it just isn’t that simple. Given the panoply of entertainment choices available to children, almost none of them pick up the book before the remote.
Recent studies find that fifth-graders spend only 2 percent of their free-time reading. As students get older, reading time decreases even more. Screens are winning the battle for our young people’s imaginations. This is a problem that needs fixing.
Researchers at the Cincinnati Children’s Research Foundation have used FMRI scanning to chart the relative brain function patterns in reading and watching a screen. Predictably, they found that the young brain positively lights up when reading. But when under the seductive spell of screen time, brain connectivity decreases dramatically. A disturbing report from Harvard University reveals that the brain is more active while sleeping than while watching TV.
Finding a love for reading
We need to recapture the magic of sitting down with a great book. Of reading long into the night with a flashlight under the covers. Of reading together as a family, a classroom, a group of friends. The pleasures and personal benefits of reading what one wants to read cannot be denied. And, like all things, it gets better with practice.
In 1787, Thomas Jefferson wrote: “The basis of our government being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter”. Here is a timeless reminder that being a reader gives you tremendous power in a world of ever-shifting informational tides.
Beyond making children better people, better students, better thinkers, and doers, reading for pleasure might just save our democracy too.