BETWEEN THE LINES

Fiction unlocks a more meaningful world for young readers

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 10 March, 2015, 6:06am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 10 March, 2015, 6:06am

My love of reading and all that I've gained from it define me as much as my relationship and life experiences. I am confident that my children will also be shaped by the books in their lives and by the rich reading environment in which they are being raised. However, my passion for reading also stems from learning about how reading can change brain development and enrich lives.

Three things I recently learned about reading have further fuelled this passion.

First, bigger vocabulary leads to faster thinking. Second, fiction allows readers to develop the so-called theory of mind. And third, bibliotherapy is not literature.

It is widely acknowledged that children who read for pleasure learn more words than those who do not. Daniel L. Everett, in his study of the Piraha people of the Amazon, took this a step further and examined the implications of a broader vocabulary. He found that the Piraha are able to recognise quantities despite not having any words for numbers or counting in their language. However, they had poor memory for quantities due to their lack of such terms. Words are basically labels. And when you can assign a label to a concept, your brain can better process, retain and retrieve that label. Therefore, it is posited that people with a broader vocabulary think more quickly. And building vocabulary by reading is much more enjoyable than through flash-cards.

Reading fiction has an effect on the brain that is not achieved with reading non-fiction. While a sports fan would gain information by reading a book on baseball history, they would gain more insight from W.P. Kinsella's Shoeless Joe. Fiction allows readers to be transported to the world inhabited by the books and gives a glimpse of environments and situations they have not experienced.

Fiction also offers readers an opportunity to be privy to the thoughts and feelings of others.

A recent study showed that young children who were read stories developed a keener theory of mind than those who weren't. It concluded that "there was substantial overlap in the brain networks used to understand stories and the networks used to navigate interactions with other individuals".

Theory of mind is the capacity of the brain to figure out the intentions and feelings of others; it is different from empathy. Although both help us to identify with another person, the perspective is different. When I see a homeless man and think, "I can imagine how I would feel if I were in his shoes", I am feeling empathy. On the other hand, I have theory of mind when my thought process delves deeper, "I can imagine how it feels to be him in his shoes". The former approach is to consider the plight of the homeless man; the latter approach is to understand his view of the world based on his experiences, fears and dreams.

While theory of mind is a recent discovery for me, my new word of the moment is bibliotherapy - a term I learned from Diane Frankenstein at her recent reading workshops. In the world of children's books, bibliotherapy is a genre created for the purpose of teaching a single subject. Not surprisingly, such books are simplistic in plot and characterisation. Picture books about going to the dentist, starting school and good manners fall into this genre.

In contrast, quality children's literature uses words and illustrations that help readers make sense of the world. The best examples bring many layers to a story, and allow readers to make inferences about multiple themes. It's up to parents to expose children to quality literature so that they can express themselves with a broad vocabulary and developed theory of mind. In doing so, they can help their children grow up to be happy, balanced people.

To better equip parents for this great challenge, Bring Me A Book Hong Kong has launched The Read-Aloud Collection, a new guide to the best English books for children, from babies to teenagers. To download, go to bringmeabook.org.hk

Annie Ho is board chairwoman of Bring Me A Book Hong Kong