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The power of reading: how books help develop children’s empathy and boost their emotional development

September 4, 2015

‘There is strong evidence that reading for pleasure can increase empathy, improve relationships with others, reduce the symptoms of depression and the risk of dementia, and improve wellbeing throughout life.’

girl reading from morguefile no attribution neededReading picture books and fiction can have a very powerful influence on children, and not only in terms of functional literacy and academic achievement. Reading can also help children develop empathy and promote their emotional wellbeing in all sorts of ways.


As American author Anna Dewdney wrote in the Wall Street Journal:

‘By reading with a child, we are teaching that child to be human.  When we open a book, and share our voice and imagination with a child, that child learns to see the world through someone else’s eyes.  I will go further and say that that child then learns to feel the world more deeply, becoming more aware of himself and others in a way that he simply cannot experience except in our laps, or in our classrooms, or in our reading circles.

‘When we read a book with children, then children – no matter how stressed, no matter how challenged – are drawn out of themselves to bond with other human beings, and to see and feel the experiences of others.  I believe that it is this moment that makes us human.  In this sense, reading makes us human.’

Dewdney’s thoughts are backed up by academic research. In a Cambridge University study, Maria Nikolajeva found that ‘reading fiction provides training in developing and practising empathy and theory of mind’. In short, fiction helps us understand how other people feel and think.

Another study, published in the ‘Journal of Applied Social Psychology’, explored the specific impacts of reading Harry Potter books and found that in children, high school and university students reading Harry Potter improved attitudes towards stigmatised groups.

So what’s going on in your brain when you read? Scientists at both Emory University and Carnegie Mellon University in the U.S. have found that when you read about characters doing active things (running, flying), the parts of your brain that are involved in movement in real life are stimulated.

Neuroscientist Gregory Berns, one of the authors of the Emery study, said

‘The neural changes that we found associated with physical sensation and movement systems suggest that reading a novel can transport you into the body of the protagonist…we already knew that good stories can put you in someone else’s shoes in a figurative sense. Now we’re seeing that something may also be happening biologically.’ (

Emotional Wellbeing

Recently the UK organisation The Reading Agency commissioned a review of all the relevant literature, to look at ‘The Impact of Reading for Pleasure and Empowerment’. The review covered research findings from England, Canada, the United States, Holland, Germany, New Zealand and Australia, with a significant focus on children and young people. (There is more literature available on children and young people than other readers.)

It found that: ‘There is strong evidence that reading for pleasure can increase empathy, improve relationships with others, reduce the symptoms of depression and the risk of dementia, and improve wellbeing throughout life.’

For kids, the positive outcomes of reading included enjoyment, knowledge of the self and other people, social interaction, social and cultural capital, imagination, focus and flow, relaxation and mood regulation, as well as improvements in communication abilities and longer-term education outcomes.

Reading for Pleasure

The Reading Agency’s study was particularly focused on reading for pleasure (also called ‘recreational reading’).

Internationally, there are concerns that children are not reading for pleasure as much as they used to. So, what’s the state of things in Australia? The OECD look at education and reading habits of 15 year olds in a number of countries, as part of their regular PISA surveys. Their most recent survey showed that Australia’s results were close to the average of 52 per cent of 15-year-old boys and 73 per cent of girls report reading for enjoyment.

On this measure, Australia sits in 41st position — out of 65 countries — with several including Kazakhstan, China, Greece and Thailand sitting well above the average.

Read more

You can find the full Reading Agency report here.

If your child’s enthusiasm for recreational reading has waned, check out Better Reading’s tips for re-motivating them here.

And, if you’re interested in the many ways reading benefits children, check out:

Our article on what happens to kids’ brains when they listen to a story, how picture books can develop vocabulary, and the Number 1 reason kids enjoy being read to

Our article on truly great reading aloud and storytelling

Our article about whether dads read aloud differently, and why it’s important for dads to tell stories

Our list of seven great reasons to read with your kids

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