Two minutes in defense of reading

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Last night was the annual curriculum night, and I went off book a bit. I didn’t use my three minutes to tell the parents what I teach; they have the curriculum guide for that. I used it to defend reading. So here goes:

A recent study from Emory University titled “Short- and Long-Term Effects of a Novel on Connectivity in the Brain,” found that becoming engrossed in a novel enhances connectivity in the brain and improves the reader’s brain function.

I’m not a brain researcher, but what I understand is that the changes caused by reading a novel were seen in the left temporal cortex, an area of the brain associated with (no surprise) language reception, but it is also the area of the brain that is the primary sensorimotor region of the brain. Neurons here are the ones we think can trick the mind into thinking it is doing something it is not, a phenomenon known as embodied cognition.

This process is similar to visualization in sports—just thinking about swinging a bat, can activate the neurons associated with the physical act of swinging a bat.

The neural changes suggest that reading a novel can transport the reader into the life of the protagonist, to put them into the experiences or life of another person. In other words, reading builds empathy.

There is a lot that goes on when we read. Cognitive processes that occur when we read include decoding symbols into words, words into meaning, and then putting those words together to create context at a speed that allows for understanding. We all (I hope) have experienced the heart pounding hallucination when reading as we visualized an exciting passage in a novel. I know Stephen King has kept me up at night wondering what is under the bed.

This is hard work. When we read we are not “doing nothing.” I have three daughters launched into college and beyond– and reading for pleasure was as important an activity as their circus training, tinkering in the garage with scrap lumber and tools, or making non Newtonian solids by combining cornstarch and water.

In seventh grade English, the books that we read together begin relatively gently –with directly stated relationships and move to complex implied connections between characters and events. These are hard books to read which is why they may need my help – Shakespeare, Salman Rushdie, Harper Lee, Kwame Alexander – and many of these books are in the average seventh graders Instructional Zone – this is not a zone where we build fluency but where we work on the craft of reading. At this level, readers have to work too hard to gain speed and accuracy in their instructional reading level, which is why we have to allow time for reading in their INDEPENDENT reading level – for them to choose their own books. Books allow us both windows into other worlds and mirrors of our own experiences. Talk to your child about what they choose to read.

Seventh Grade English includes work with English as a language, writing for many purposes – fiction, analysis, memoir, multi-genre, and poetry – as well as work on reading comprehension for both fiction and non-fiction. It’s formative work.

I love teaching seventh grade. I love the way they think and their willingness to have fun. English class is not so much a test of knowledge but a problem to solve, a puzzle to unlock. We have things to learn, but mostly we have things to do.

(Stepping off my soapbox now.)

2 Comments Add yours

  1. liz robinson says:

    Could not agree more! Thanks for having the courage to stand for independent reading!

  2. Kate Tabor says:

    It was a little risky, but I’m glad that I did. STEM has its place, but we have to stand up for the humanities (and reading!!)

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