Why Read Fiction?

Deb Lundgren

by Deb Lundgren, New School Services Project Manager


As educators, our time, particularly our school time, is valuable. As priorities, shouldn’t students be learning about their world and the machinations of the society they shall encounter as adults? Should curricula focus upon teaching pragmatic skills (e.g., mathematical computation, accounting, managing a budget, cooking, civics, etc.) that shall serve students in adult lives and in their careers? Why spend time on “frivolous” pursuits such as reading fiction, when student and staff time is at a premium? And when student achievement is measured by performance on standardized tests?

The importance of play.
A growing body of research highlights the Importance of play to promote cognitive flexibility/adaptation and to facilitate learning. In narrative fiction characters confront and resolve impending problems and challenges, take risks, and model communal team efforts. Reading fiction flexes the adaptive cognitive muscle of complex problem-solving in ever-changing settings. By identifying with a character and by experiencing novelty, a reader learns different ways to approach obstacles in real life and learns how to generate options and make choices for decision-making. Play is practice for real life, and reading fiction is “virtual” play.

Teaches attentional focus.
Reading fiction trains your brain to focus intently upon one sustained, focal cognitive activity for an extended time period. Sustained focused cognition promotes critical and creative thinking and problem-solving. Reading fiction is immersive, and trains your brain to persevere when confronted with a problem or task. Reading is a whole-brain activity that engages multiple brain regions and assists with memory retention and executive decision-making. Reading increases the number of synaptic connections in the brain—bolstering our memory capacity and enabling the brain to better identify similarities, differences, and relationships between ideas in order to creatively solve problems or achieved desired goals.

Improves communication skills and expands understanding.
Language is a complex, functional symbolic tool used to represent reality. Reading fiction expands one vocabulary, and ergo, one’s capacity to organize and recognize patterns, to determine similarities and differences, and to make sense of sensory input. Reading fiction improves language use dexterity—the ability to decode, understand, and make meaning both verbally and in writing. Reading fiction is language-immersive, and improves one’s ability to both translate language and to use language in varying contexts. One learns decoding and encoding skills, as well as higher order analysis (components), synthesis (summary) and evaluation (choice) skills to create meaning.

Enhances the process of learning.
Learning is a cognitive adaptive response/effect used to enable our survival. (Lessons learned, and the ability to organize our experience to communicate with them via language, allows us to make decisions and to take actions to our benefit.) Reading fiction assists students to learn how to learn. As multiple areas of the brain are engaged in the reading process, myelination takes place that strengthens neural connections and works the hippocampus. Reading expands neural networks and increases synaptic connections within the brain. Additionally, reading fiction increases levels of dopamine, serotonin, and endorphins in the brain. As a result, higher-order executive thinking processes such as decision-making, problem-solving, impulse control, plasticity (adaptability), and memory are enhanced.

According to Maryanne Wolf in her book, Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain:

Human beings invented reading only a few thousand years ago. And with this invention, we rearranged the very organization of our brain, which in turn expanded the ways we were able to think, which altered the intellectual evolution of our species. . . . Our ancestors’ invention could come about only because of the human brain’s extraordinary ability to make new connections among its existing structures, a process made possible by the brain’s ability to be reshaped by experience.1

Provides role models.
Fictional characters face adverse circumstances and learn the value of adaptability, perseverance, intelligence, and team efforts in order to solve a problem/achieve a goal. Students may observe traits in the characters that are similar to themselves, and this may bolster self-confidence when they encounter similar circumstances in reality. In sum, they have already practiced and rehearsed these situations. Fictional characters can model adaptive responses to situations (flexibility), leadership qualities, initiative, conflict resolution strategies, and productivity – skills that are highly beneficial in real life.

Fosters empathy and collaboration.
Narrative fiction is holistic—art that stimulates both thought and feeling. Fiction is comprised of both artifice (the extraordinary) and verisimilitude (the recognition of recognizable elements of human nature). Through narrative, students are provided opportunities that allow them to examine what their own responses may be in a given situation and to imagine different alternatives for response. They learn how others that may be different from them and how they may think or feel. Students may develop social skills as a result of relating to a fictional character. An understanding of others promotes the ability to collaborate and fosters kindness and compassion. A reader of fiction becomes aware of the commonalities of the human condition —the things that unite us all as mutual Earth travelers. Community connections are an essential element of safety, learning, and survival to all thinking species. Reading fiction helps to promote a sense of “belongingness” that is a basic human need and from an evolutionary perspective, is crucial for survival. Reading fiction allows us to know that are not alone.

Promotes curiosity and fosters imagination.
Stories pose “what if” questions. A reader of fiction may thus practice asking “what if” questions in real life. Imagination is the spark of creativity – the ability to “think outside the box”—to make novel connections and to identify patterns between often unlike ideas and see relationships between them. Imagination allows us to make predictions about our world and to create theories-hypotheses that may then be proved empirically. Imagination is generative. Imagination and creativity allow us to solve problems, to examine alternatives, and to make choices between those alternatives. Imagination allows us to take risks and to innovate.

Creates inner calm.
Reading fiction may provide a respite from worries and the ubiquitous information and sensory data onslaught of everyday life, to promote a sense of peace. Reading fiction may be used as a tool to calm students with sensory overload issues, as well as to promote well-being. Reading fiction allows one to develop confidence in the ability to overcome obstacles—promoting a sense of well-being.

Enables agency and choice.
Reading fiction empowers students to make choices and to take control of their own learning. Students learn self-sufficiency and decision-making, as well as develop confidence.

Fun. 
Yes, this is a reason. Reading fiction is fun and enhances student motivation. It encourages students to “strive and thrive.” Reading for pleasure heightens endorphin and dopamine levels in the brain and stimulates the brain’s pleasure centers; it is literally physiologically, as well as psychologically addictive! This creates a neural reinforcement feedback loop. Repeated reward creates a reading habit that can be lifelong—thus increasing the ability of the mind to think both critically and creatively and to process information efficiently and effectively. And having a little fun during the school day is as good a reason as any.


1 Wolf, Maryann. Proust and the Squid.


REFERENCES

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Flood, J. (Ed.). (1984). Understanding reading comprehension: Cognition, language, and the structure of prose. [online] ERIC Number ED239225, International Reading Association. Available at https://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED239225

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Hurley, D. (January 23, 2014). Can reading make you smarter. [online] The Guardian. Available at https://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/jan/23/can-reading-make-you-smarter

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Schlaggar, B. L., & Candliss, B. D. (July, 2007). Development of neural systems for reading. [online] Annual Review of Neuroscience, Vol. 30, pp.475-503. Available at https://www.annualreviews.org/doi/abs/10.1146/annurev.neuro.28.061604.135645

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The power of play: A research summary on play and learning. (n.d.). [online] Minnesota Children’s Museum. Available at https://www.childrensmuseums.org/images/MCMResearchSummary.pdf

Wolf, M. (2017). Proust and the squid. HarperCollins.

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