Reading with Benefits


I like reading. I do it for fun as well as for work. I read as a reader, a reviewer, and as a writer. All different kinds of reading, and I’m told that reading decreases stress – that it enhances my wellbeing. The University of Sussex found that reading reduces stress by 68 per cent – according to cognitive neuropsychologist Dr David Lewis (2009). Of course for me personally, I wonder whether my stress at my ‘to be read’ and ‘deadline’ pile negates the positive well-being I’m supposed to derive from the actual reading?

Why do we place so much importance on our children reading? There are huge benefits to reading as well as reducing stress, including building empathy and enhancing well-being – it increases educational achievement in many areas; language development, general knowledge, grammar and comprehension, and it has positive emotional and social consequences (DfE 2012).

But what actually happens to our brain when we read? There have been numerous studies recently to try to discern this. From the researchers at Carnegie Mellon University who asked participants in their research to read a chapter of Harry Potter while hooked up to functional magnetic resonance scanning machines, to the dyslexia studies of Dr Shaywitz at Yale University, which show that readers sound out words they see even silently inside their heads – and when they can’t sound out the words their brains look different on an MRI.

At the moment UK schools tend to teach reading by teaching phonics – decoding the sounds. This triggers the ‘language’ part of the brain. But even before school, toddlers often pretend to read a story by turning the pages of a book, especially when it has just been read to them. Why do they do this? They are mimicking the action of their parents, and if the parent has read the story to them over and over – then they often learn it by rote. They are picking up the language through sight and memory already.

This works in the same way as facial expressions and speech – babies and toddlers learn through imitation. So when they learn to read, it’s actually just like talking.

Some MRI studies show that readers sound out words they see – once they progress beyond school – they still sound out the words but silently in their heads. In fact we learn to read one sound at a time – just how we talk. This is important in terms of phonics or decoding, because the English language contains only about 44 sounds, whereas there are more than 1 million words – so if you learned to read by sight memory alone it would take longer.

However, a reader has to take into account the order of the sounds – the irregularities in the English language – in fact nearly 13 per cent of English words contain ‘exceptions’ to the sound rules. It’s a wonder any of us learns to read at all!

All this decoding lights up the part of our brain that deals with language and then we commit words to our memory (the hippocampus) as we decode and comprehend them. But researchers have also discovered that what you read lights up different parts of the brain.

Studies at Lancaster University (2015) showed that with passages from Harry Potter the more emotionally arousing words that the text contained, the more the readers’ left amygdalas – the part of the brain that processes emotional responses – lit up as they read. Ie. Emotion was elicited from words and phrases within a passage rather than just building empathy over an entire narrative.

There’s a reason authors are taught to write from the perspective of all five senses – to really visualise the scene. When readers read a word such as lavender or cinnamon, it triggers the area of the brain associated with smelling, as well as hitting the language area. Likewise when a reader reads dialogue, the auditory pathways light up in the brain – as if the dialogue is really being spoken (even if the reader is reading silently on their own). This is why dull boring clichés don’t work – they don’t light up an extra part of the brain because we know the phrases so well they no longer function as metaphors or similes – our brain recognises them as just words.

Whereas if you read about a character ‘sprinting’ or ‘jumping’ or performing some sort of action, then it’s likely that the ‘motor’ part of your brain will also light up. The scientists at Carnegie Mellon discovered that when reading a passage about Harry Potter flying, the brain not only activated those parts traditionally associated with reading, such as the language compartment, but also the same brain region used to perceive other people’s motion, as if the characters were real people flying in sight of the reader.

No wonder reading teaches empathy – it’s as if we’re in the story ourselves.

In fact, some research has shown that reading ‘literature’ as opposed to ‘genre fiction’ can result in better empathy – maybe because there are more ‘sensual’ metaphors. The study of the Harry Potter readers found that those people who empathised with Harry Potter as a minority person became more sympathetic to minority groups in general.

Because reading isn’t just about decoding – it’s about comprehension. MRI scans have shown that when the brain starts to ‘sound out’ unfamiliar words, then comprehension switches off. So comprehension grows when the reader moves the word from their ‘decoding’ vocab into their ‘sight’ memory – once it is stored in the hippocampus. One problem the Literacy Trust found with their project on reading in schools is that about 20 per cent of children at each of the schools they worked with can decode but not fully comprehend – they just aren’t inferring meaning.

And only with comprehension can a reader gain those lovely benefits such as empathy and knowledge. This is why discussing books, as well as just listening to a child ‘decode’ is so important in teaching reading. ‘Listening’ to a child read means engaging with them about the text, not just hearing them decode.

I’m lucky. I read for pleasure as well as for work, so I should be empathetic and stress free. The 2009 University of Sussex study showed that reading for only six minutes slowed down the heart rate and reduced tension in the muscles. Six minutes! My problem comes when people throw these sort of statistics at me. For example, if you work out how many years you have left to live (on average) and how many books you could potentially read in a year (on average), and multiply the two – it isn’t very many. Now that’s stressful!


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