For several months now I have been posting about how to engage children with books, reading and literacy. One question that has yet to be explored is the question of why books and reading are so important. Exactly what benefits do our children gain from being proficient readers and reading a lot of books? Does this have any impact on society in general?
The most obvious is enjoyment. As a species we are programmed to enjoy stories. In this day and age that can come from video games, TV, movies and any number of other sources. Stories shape our world, and books are only one part of that. In my opinion they are one of the most fulfilling ways of experiencing a story. The words create another world, another lifetime, in your head. You can interpret the story, the characters and the setting in any way you like, the way that feels right to you, there is no right or wrong answer. Unlike pictorial forms of story telling your imagination gets free rein to imagine the visuals of everything you are reading on the page. Of course children begin with picture books which help to kick-start this process of imagination development, but they are not very old before the pictures become almost a hindrance rather than a help.
Exploration and development are also important aspects of reading for children. As they grow and learn they can be exposed to a thousand different cultures, lifestyles and ways of thinking in a safe and secure way. Children who read extensively are likely to be more engaged with the world at large, to be more informed and grow up to be more productive members of society (*on average, exceptions to this rule not withstanding). reading also helps them learn to distinguish fantasy from reality and to explore human emotions and relationships in their own head. This can lead to a higher “social IQ” and an enhanced ability to relate to, and empathise with, people with views that differ from their own.
Academically children who read a lot also have an advantage. Their language skills, writing ability and logical thinking skills are more advanced than their peers. They also exhibit a greater concentration span and level of self discipline than children who don’t read for pleasure. They are also likely to pick up a high level of general knowledge which can be useful in many situations, including studying for exams and applying themselves to challenges in the workplace as adults.
Continuing reading throughout their teens and into adulthood also conveys advantages. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development conducted a study which showed that reading for pleasure at the age of 15 was a key factor in predicting future upward social mobility. An article in the Daily Telegraph unpicked this research, suggesting that reading for pleasure at this age indicated an aptitude for the sort of lifelong learning that allows upwards social mobility through career advancement.
A society that reads is a more informed, more academically developed, more logical and ultimately more successful society. Crime rate and reading rate show a direct correlation. The higher the literacy level of a country or area, the lower the crime rate is likely to be. Prison inmates show a distinctly lower literacy level than the general population. Now this doesn’t mean in any way that all society’s ills can be resolved by everyone reading more, but it does illustrate that reading and literacy are fundamental social issues, and that the campaign to engage children with literacy has never been more important.