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Making connections: Reading, thinking and wellbeing

February 23, 2022 by Nóra Wünsch-Nagy

When we thought about the past year, both on this blog and in our daily lives, one thing stood out as being especially important - the connections we forge and keep. So this year, we have decided to delve deeper into the theme of CONNECTIONS, looking at it from twelve different perspectives. Each month, we will explore the connections in stories, learning, relationships, and many other aspects of our lives, and we will show you how to develop them with your students. We will do this through language-based activities and stories so that you find plenty of opportunities to develop your students’ English language skills while guiding them in establishing connections and supporting their own learning. 

When we think of connections, E.M. Forster’s famous line ‘Only connect…’ comes to mind. What exactly does this line from the 1910 novel, Howards End, mean? The full quote goes like this: ‘Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer.’ Reading these words in the context of the novel, we realize that the real value, and often difficulty in life, is making healthy personal relationships. This basic human need to feel connected gains special significance today. The more time we spend in digital environments, the more we need to make connections, and the more we realize that they come in many shapes. 

In January, we focused on connections in stories and the literary concept of intertextuality. Now we look at connectedness in reading, thinking, and wellbeing, an idea inspired by research in the fields of cognitive linguistics, psychology, and literacy studies.

Before children learn to read

We need to go back in time a little to understand the impact of reading on children’s cognitive development. Even before students learn the basics of reading and writing, they are exposed to stories in many forms through nursery rhymes, bedtime stories, storytelling, and tv shows. A large amount of research shows that these experiences have a positive impact on the child’s psychological and cognitive development. Not only does storytime create a special bond between the caregiver and the child, but it also prepares children for successful education. By learning to learn about the world through stories (which are expressed mostly through language and images), children get the chance to practise basic literacy skills and higher cognitive processes (as introduced by psychologist Lev Vygotsky): selective attention, comprehension, questioning, concept formation, summarising, voluntary memory, analysis, and self-reflection. In the meantime, they also learn to interact with a caregiver (who acts as the storyteller) and this is the foundation of how they will interact with narratives they encounter in films, novels, or in the classroom.

Apart from these cognitive skills, children also benefit from the psychological impact of spending time with a storyteller: they share time together, learn to focus on a shared concept, practise communication, and experience themes and events they might not ever have imagined. Not only does storytime boost their imagination, but it also builds empathy through witnessing different people in different life situations and different contexts. The experience of feeling safe, loved, and cared for during storytime also contributes to its positive effects.

When children learn to read

Children reach an important milestone when they learn to read and write. As linguist Michael Halliday pointed out in his study "Towards a language-based theory of learning", when children reach the phase of reading and writing in both their linguistic and cognitive development, they learn to reconstitute reality using written language. This shift takes them from a spoken and more general knowledge of the world to a more abstract and educational one. Different forms of texts pose different types of challenges to the students' thinking skills. By learning to read a wide range of genres through anecdotes, historical recounts, narratives, biographies, recipes, protocols, reports, reviews, arguments, and so on, students learn to interpret the world in all its facades. 

What we gain by reading

By developing the abstract and complex skill of reading, children gain access to one of the most powerful tools available. Through reading, we enter unknown fantasy worlds, we meet imaginary, historical and real people, visit faraway places and explore our own neighbourhood. The more stories we read, the more complex our thinking becomes. Reading stories expands our vocabulary in unexpected ways: each landscape, city, profession, cultural experience has its own set of lexical items we can learn through reading. We open ourselves to a host of new adventures and experience other people’s reactions to hardship, loss, challenges, happiness and all they live through. We don’t need to enter bibliotherapy sessions to enjoy the psychological benefits of reading. Curling up on an armchair with a good book positively influences our wellbeing and sense of self-care. However, if we have the chance to discuss our reading experiences with others, it can have an even better effect on how we feel.

The impact of reading for pleasure on wellbeing and cognitive development

Research studies conducted all around the world consistently show how important it is to read for pleasure. 

Here they are with some key quotes from studies done in the UK, New Zealand, United States, and South Africa:

  • Mental wellbeing, reading, and writing by the National Literacy Trust: Children and young people who are the most engaged with literacy have better mental wellbeing than their peers who are the least engaged (Mental Wellbeing Index scores of 7.9/10 vs 6.6/10)
  • Reading for wellbeing by the National Library NZ: Reading for pleasure has been shown to impact all 4 dimensions of health. It slows cognitive decline and enhances life satisfaction, relationships, coping skills, attitudes to, and engagement with learning. It allows imaginations to flourish and enhances empathy. It also reduces stress and brings a greater understanding of self and others. In short, it has the power to transform lives. 
  • Reading to your children: the cognitive benefits by NaliBali: Reading to children gives caregivers the potential to lay the foundations for their subsequent cognitive development. Cognitive skills affect the likelihood of greater educational success later on – irrespective of one’s socio-economic background. It is important to remember that cognitive skills are not “fixed” in children. 
  • Reading to young children by The University of Melbourne: Reading to children at age 4-5 every day has a significant positive effect on their reading and cognitive skills (i.e., language and literacy, numeracy, and cognition) later in life.

If you are interested in finding out more, we recommend the following book: The Cognitive Development of Reading and Reading Comprehension (published by Taylor and Francis).


For your language classes

Some tips on channeling the positive impact of reading on thinking and wellbeing in the language class

  • Encourage your students to read for pleasure.
  • Set a good example and give time and space to reading in class/school: organize a book club, a reading circle, dedicate lessons to reading only, and set aside plenty of time for talking about what you are reading.
  • Give your students the chance to read a wide range of topics.
  • Take your students to a library for fun and for library lessons.
  • Ask your students to talk about their reading experiences.
  • Practise reading aloud with students: it can help them with pronunciation and comprehension.
  • Encourage students to enter a dialogue with the texts.
  • Help students reflect on their reading experiences by giving them the chance to summarise, analyze and then reflect on what they have read.
  • Read difficult texts together so that you can model reading at a higher level.
  • Show them that any kind of reading is good for them: young adult novels, magazines, interviews, biographies, journals, non-fiction, poetry, or drama are just as valuable as the literary canon.

Join us next month, when we will talk about making connections between concepts, abstract ideas and experiences in reading, speaking, and writing. In the meantime, you can also check out our other mini-series on Reading Strategies.