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How Reading Cultivates Empathy

In celebrating the National Read Across America Day, we must first be aware that the dearth of fiction in the Common Core State Standards. As most of us know, the Common Core emphasizes nonfiction text. Students are reading more informational text, speeches, short articles, and such. There are very few novels, poems, or plays included in the mandatory readings.

What is alarming isn't the fact that Common Core era students won't be reading as much of the traditional cannon as they may have before, but the fact that children will have fewer opportunities to develop their empathy for others if their exposure to literature is reduced.

Psychologists David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano, at the New School for Social Research in New York, have proved that reading literary fiction enhances the ability to detect and understand other people's emotions, a crucial skill in navigating complex social relationships.

In a series of five experiments, 1,000 participants were randomly assigned texts to read, either extracts of popular fiction such as bestseller Danielle Steel's The Sins of the Mother and Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, or more literary texts, such as Orange-winner The Tiger's Wife by Téa Obreht, Don DeLillo's "The Runner", from his collection The Angel Esmeralda, or work by Anton Chekhov.

The pair then used a variety of Theory of Mind techniques to measure how accurately the participants could identify emotions in others. Scores were consistently higher for those who had read literary fiction than for those with popular fiction or non-fiction texts.

"What great writers do is to turn you into the writer. In literary fiction, the incompleteness of the characters turns your mind to trying to understand the minds of others," said Kidd.

Reading fiction that helps us expand our empathy for others might just be as essential as learning to read manuals, or maybe even more so. There's enough evidence in our world today that we need to intentionally cultivate empathy, and then there's evidence that people are already reading less than they ever have.

Therefore, we'll have to make strategic decisions about when and how to integrate literature. The time for fiction will be limited, so we'll have to be even more strategic about incorporating a poem, short story, or novel here and there. We'll need to differentiate even more so that children can select literature to read -- and we might guide them towards literature that depicts the "other," so that we're intentionally cultivating their empathetic skills.

We have prepared a Read-a-Book Bingo to help guide reading on topics that will encourage socioemotional learning and empathy.

We'd love to hear which books you've already read or will choose to read here in our Read-a-Book Bingo!


Mini Sprout
Mini Sprout
Mar 17, 2021

What a wonderful perspective!

Tiny Sprouts
Tiny Sprouts
Feb 09, 2022
Replying to

Thank you! It really help us recenter our focus, doesn't it 😚

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