More than just information or entertainment: reading expands empathy

We know that avid readers tend to be successful students. But evidence continues to build that reading can also create kinder, more sensitive and culturally aware people. While helping kids gear up for a new school year, it’s all the more reason to make reading part of their summertime wind-down and frequently-from-now-on routine.

In an article last year for Reading Partners, an organization that “mobilizes communities with the proven, individualized reading support they need to read at grade level by fourth grade,” Katie Priske, AmeriCorps Regional Site Coordinator, called out subtle but important benefits of kids reading stories.

In the article titled, “Research Shows Reading Improves Kids’ Emotional Intelligence and Increases Empathy,” she writes that “Studies show that reading can help kids build developmental skills of emotional intelligence and empathy, enabling our young readers to better connect with other perspectives and human experiences.” She uses supporting evidence includes research reported in Scientific American a few years earlier.

Priske observes that “Whether fiction or nonfiction, reading offers a unique experience to become engrossed in the stories and life experiences of the characters in the book,” adding that this provides “readers with the opportunity to connect with other worldviews.”

Some studies suggest fiction that transports readers is especially powerful, and The uptick in empathy isn’t limited to kids, either. This past January, Jessica Stillman, a contributor to Inc.com, wrote “New Study: Reading Fiction Really Will Make You Nicer and More Empathic.” In it she references research “led by University of Rochester psychologist David Dodell-Feder,” which reviewed 14 previous studies on the relationship between reading fiction and empathy.”

In 2016, Erin Clabough, Ph.D., writing for Psychology Today, in a blog post titled “A Neuroscientist on How to Really Read to Kids,” drew important conclusions about how reading to kids while also asking them to reflect on the story can draw out the best in kids. She notes that “Educational studies have repeatedly shown that it’s the reflection process where the deep learning happens,” adding that “The most powerful part of reading often happens when you put down the book.”

She further elaborates that “The value of the story is found percolating in our children’s heads afterwards—in the thoughts banging up against their assumptions and their carefully constructed worlds.”

For example, the young readers could get much to consider (especially with reflection prompted by mom and dad) from the Start to Read! Level 3 storybook A Different Tune. The story opens with, “Once upon a time, in a land far away, everyone looked alike and did things the same way.” Children learn that being different from everyone can be a wonderful gift. The book is available in a classic and updated version as well as several formats including the print book, iOS eBook, and iOS Read-Along iOS eBook, among others.

Clabaugh observes that “empathetic people are better bosses, coworkers, negotiators, and friends,” and she suggests that when reading to kids, rather than just moving straight through the story, we pause, reflect, and ask questions from time to time. As a result, she says, “The real magic happens inside our own heads when we try on someone else’s life.”

For anyone who has experienced the joy of “traveling” to new and distant places in the pages of a book, and meeting characters quite unlike one’s immediate circle of friends and family, whether a heart-wrenching classic or a sci-fi thriller, it’s not hard to understand why reading can build empathy and emotional IQ.

Perhaps Katie Priske describes these “softer” benefits of reading best and most succinctly, when she concludes that “stories matter, and understanding others matters.”