The Incredible Power of Reading: What It Does For Your MindEmily A. Swan, Ph.D.
Semester after semester, the most frequent comment I receive from my students on my course evaluations is: “Why didn’t I learn these things when I was younger? It would have made the biggest difference in my life!” When I first began teaching college reading courses, I thought these kinds of comments were made simply because I had just gotten out of graduate school and I was teaching my students these things for the first time.
Fourteen years later, I can honestly say that this comment is still the most frequent comment made—regardless of which level of reading class I happen to be teaching! How can this be? Theoretically, the teachers I taught 5, 7, even 10 years ago should have taught their students what they learned, right? The students I have now were only in the 2nd or 3rd grade when I was first teaching their teachers about these reading concepts and principles. You’d think that somewhere along the way, they would get at least one teacher who could teach them what reading does for their mind. But somehow, all of the teachers I have taught, are either not teaching what they learned explicitly to their students or they aren’t teaching my future students, neither of which makes any sense to me. When I ask my students, semester after semester, “What does reading do for your mind?” they have NO idea!
Do YOU know what reading does for the mind? I’ll tell you up front: A LOT!
For the next few weeks, I will be teaching you how to empower your own children. I believe if parents understand the impact that reading, or not reading, can have on their children’s success in school and in life, they will be more motivated to take a more active and purposeful role in helping their children be successful. I cannot think of an example of a parent who doesn’t want their children to be successful; but being armed with knowledge sure makes it easier to help them! I will teach you the most important things I know that will make the biggest difference for your children. And hopefully, if any of your children decide some day to become teachers, and they happen to take a reading class from me, they might say: “Oh I know this! My parents taught me this! It has made a big difference in my life!”
Wouldn’t that be great?
What Reading Really Does Do For The Mind
1. Reading impacts cognitive development in children in powerful ways. Reading has both dramatic and exponential consequences on a child’s cognitive development. Reading can cause a “Matthew Effect” where the rich-get-richer and the poor-get-poorer. Anne Cunningham and Keith Stanovich (1998) describe this Matthew Effect which begins in the early stages of reading development. Young children, who are poor readers, have a difficult time decoding words and/or struggle with comprehension. These poor readers are exposed to fewer books than their more skilled peers. Poor readers find books too difficult, get frustrated more easily, and as a result read less, if at all. Their motivation to read decreases and their avoidance of reading increases. The less time poor readers spend reading, the fewer opportunities these children have to increase their skills. Poor readers expend lots of energy trying to sound out words, while not being able to focus on the meaning of the story, which makes reading boring and seemingly more difficult. When reading is difficult, poor readers continue to avoid doing it, which may create feelings of frustration and a loss of self-confidence. For poor readers there are both cognitive and motivational factors at play. Poor readers disengage in reading-related activities, withdraw, and develop negative attitudes towards reading. Unrewarding literacy experiences multiply and eventually create a downward spiral that continues to get worse, not better, if the situation is not corrected.
On the other hand, skilled readers learn how to sound out words early and practice their reading skills by reading often. Skilled readers’ word reading becomes more automatic, so they can focus more on comprehension, which makes reading more fun because they understand what’s happening in the books they read. The more they read, the more they learn, which gives skilled readers more to talk about with others, which increases confidence. Reading volume (or the amount of time spent reading) increases vocabulary development, a larger and deeper knowledge base, and more practice using thinking skills such as questioning, making inferences, retelling, and reading increasingly more difficult texts. For skilled readers, there is also a spiral effect, but this spiral moves upward. As you can imagine, the gap between the poor reader and the skilled reader continues to get wider as the years progress.
2. Reading volume makes a difference! Children who read a wide variety of books and spend longer periods of time reading literally get smarter. How much kids read really counts! Reading is the BEST way to increase knowledge so it makes sense that children who read often and for sustained periods of time learn more than children who do not read for very long or do not read a variety of different kinds of books. These children build background knowledge on a variety of topics and concepts. This background knowledge is key in understanding new information. Voracious readers have an easy time connecting new information to their background knowledge, making school easier and more enjoyable, compared to children who don’t read and who don’t have a lot of background knowledge.
3. What your child reads makes a difference; reading books with rare words increases vocabulary and language skills.
On the other hand, children’s picture books contain a relatively high number of rare words and exposure to these books has a greater impact on your child’s vocabulary development than you’d think. The kinds of texts that have the greatest impact on your child’s vocabulary include newspaper articles, informational texts on scientific topics (e.g., books about animals, habitats, space, etc.), comic books, and children’s picture books.
One of the greatest impacts reading has on children is how much it impacts their vocabulary and language use, both in verbal and written language. Think about these facts: if your child only spends only 4.6 minutes per day reading or being read to, they are only exposed to 282,000 words in a year. But if you increase the time spent to just 14.2 minutes per day, your child would be exposed to 1,146,000 words in a year. What’s even more powerful is if your child reads or is read to for 65 minutes per day the number of words your child is exposed to is exponential: 4, 358,000 words per year! Just imagine! If you read a couple of stories to your child at bedtime every night, your child is not only getting exposed to tons of words, but the conversations you have with your child about what you are reading helps your child associate these rare words and the sheer number of words with this positive experience. Over time, the effects of this kind of exposure to words, manifests itself in a variety of ways. Children’s abilities to remember stories, use higher-level vocabulary words in their every day language, write with more imaginative language, build background knowledge, and connect stories to each other and to their lives are all powerful ways reading can impact your child in school.
The other thing to note is that the time spent reading with your child can never be made up later. The preschool years are such important years for cognitive growth that the exposure young children get to books and words will make all the difference in their lives for years to come. I cannot emphasize this fact enough! Reading to your children has a cumulative effect. Nothing can compensate for it later!
4. Reading makes you SMART! I tell young people all the time that the best thing reading does for your mind is that it literally makes you smart. Reading is the number one way to gain knowledge. You can read books about anything and everything. You can learn about people, places, inventions, history, the way things work, the way things are made, how to build things, create things, all about animals, space, ancient civilizations, you name it. Getting smart is the goal of reading. Playing videogames and watching television could never teach you what you can learn from reading. That is a fact.
Many parents believe that their children are either born smart or not and there’s nothing they can do about it. Kids are born with a certain amount of intelligence; this is true. But our intelligence can be influenced by the amount of reading we do. Children can get smarter by the way they use their minds and reading, thinking, and building knowledge have an important impact on intelligence. There are many children who are born with high intelligence who don’t read much. Their intelligence declines when they do not actively and purposefully use their minds or improve their skills. Yet, children who may be born with a lower amount of intelligence can improve their mental ability and agility through wide and frequent reading. The good news for parents is that the long term effects of children who read is that they create a habit for reading and this habit can impact their lives in exponential ways for years to come. Reading has positive effects on mental reasoning, memory, vocabulary, and declarative knowledge as found in many longitudinal studies.
So parents, take heart. Regardless of your child’s age or ability, reading to and with your children will have a positive effect on their academic and emotional success. If you are reading to your children regularly, keep it up; it matters. If you haven’t started reading to your children because they are too young; remember—they are never too young. They need to hear your voice. You can even read Sports Illustrated to your babies; they don’t care. They love to hear your voice and be held on your lap.
If your children are toddlers, read them stories or books about anything around them. Just read. Hold them on your lap, put your arms around them, and share stories together before bed. It’s the best time of the day and it will make a huge difference in their life for years to come. If your children can read on their own, you can still read chapter books to them and with them. Your children can read to and with each other. Take turns. Have fun! There are so many great books out there!
Action Plan for this week: Read to your children. 30 minutes per day, minimum. No excuses!
Next week: I’ll share three key things expert readers do that novice readers don’t do.