Many of us, parents and teachers alike, have often believed that reading fiction is good for our children. When kids relax into reading a good story, they lose themselves and are swept into a different world—how could that not be a good thing?
It turns out, we were right all along, and we finally have proof to back up our claims! As study after study after study (after study) shows, in addition to being a quiet, reflective pastime, reading fiction offers children a number of benefits.
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Here, we take a look at some of the most important of these benefits and offer parents some tips that they can use to help their children learn to love reading.
The Benefits of Reading Fiction
"Reading lets you slow down and get perspective, and gives you the ability to get in somebody else's shoes, two things that are invaluable to me."—President Obama
1. Reading fiction helps children learn to interpret and infer.
Fiction (and creative non-fiction) is different from non-fiction in a number of important ways. One of the most important is the fact that, while non-fiction is simply meant to convey information, fiction doesn’t always have this goal. In fact, some fiction may purposely be written in a way that obscures information.
A story comes to all readers, including children, with holes that must be filled in with their imaginations. What does a character look like? Why is a character behaving that way? What are their possible motivations? Over time, reading fiction and being forced to answer these questions is like a form of mental weight-lifting, helping children realize important cognitive benefits.
2. Reading fiction aids creativity.
Creativity tends to be one of those things that we take for granted. It’s a natural ability, after all, isn’t it? The fact is, creativity is a skill. Just like any other skill, we must continuously nurture our creativity if we want to preserve and build upon it.
There are many ways that parents can help foster their children’s creativity. Encouraging them to read fiction (or, in the case of young children, reading it to them) is one great way. By introducing children to new ideas and ways of thinking about the world, fiction has powerful potential as a creativity booster.
3. Reading fiction makes us more empathetic.
Studies indicate that the better and more captivating the story, the more effective it is at changing assumptions and challenging stereotypes. In fact, research shows that fiction is more effective than nonfiction at changing our views about people different from ourselves.
Why? Because when children read a textbook or news article, there is a part of their brains that is thinking analytically, weighing and judging. When they are drawn into a great story, they connect to its characters emotionally and end up feeling an authentic empathy they do not forget when they finish the book.
“Stories helped our ancestors imagine other lives, plan for possible futures, and agree on cultural codes," writes Stanford psychologist and neuroscientist Jamil Zaki in her book War for Kindness. "In the modern world, they help in a new way: Flattening our empathic landscape, making distant others feel less distant and caring for them less difficult."
4. All reading builds vocabulary.
Whether it’s fiction or creative non-fiction, a good book builds vocabulary. As children read, they see words in context and over time fully internalize the meaning of those words as well as proper usage.
This is a gentle and fun way for them to gain essential knowledge. Words are the foundation of our communication with others and having a strong vocabulary makes that communication easier, deeper, and more meaningful. It can also offer an extraordinary benefit to children as they progress in school and when they are required to take standardized tests, including the SAT and ACT.
5. Reading fiction can help our children socialize.
Fiction can also help socialize children by teaching them important lessons about life and the way that our society and communities work.
As characters in the stories they read ride school buses, sit in cafeterias, and make friends, they teach their young readers about how people may react to situations and challenges. Seeing the mistakes characters make in stories can help their readers gain wisdom for use in their own lives. As material grows more complex and readers linger over passages, reflecting and contemplating their meaning even after the book is set down, there are even greater mental gains.
6. Reading fiction helps children learn to focus.
This benefit is true of all reading, but it’s an important one to note. If a child is going to take away any kind of message or lesson from reading, whether they are reading a novel, a short story, poetry, or even a textbook, they must be skilled at focusing on the task at hand: Reading.
Reading is a muscle that needs practice. The more children read books, the more the better they will get at tuning out distractions and being able to dive deep into their text—a skill they’ll use for the rest of their lives.
Tips to Get Your Child Interested in Reading
To the chagrin of many parents, there are children who don’t like to read (or, rather, think that they don’t like to read), and prefer to spend their time on their phone, computer or television. Here are some of our favorite tips you can use to help your child learn to love reading.
- Start early: Start reading to your children as early in their development as possible. From their earliest days, children are sponges for stimulation of all sorts, which their brains use to build and grow. Brightly-colored picture books and texts with fun sounds are especially great when they are young. By starting as early as possible, you can teach your child to love reading before they even realize.
- Keep it up: children can listen to books that are more complex than they can read for themselves. Reading to your child remains a cozy activity you can do together and “reading ahead” prepares your child to tackle more complex material later.
- Take turns: If you have a young child who is a reluctant reader, find ways to make reading seem less like a chore. Instead of telling them to “go read,” consider turning it into a bonding experience. Take turns reading passages or lines out loud to each other (which can be especially fun for siblings). The bond you make with one another will be as important as the book you read.
- Let your child choose: Especially as they grow older, it’s important to give your children a bit more freedom in what books they wish to read. In addition to giving them a sense of agency over their education and development, this can help remove the idea of reading as being something that they are forced to do.
- Model the behavior: As with any behavior, you’ll have a greater chance of convincing your child to get on board if you model the behavior yourself. Take a little bit of time each day to read something creative (not just the newspaper!) and make sure that your child sees you doing it.