Only connect: reading development, empathy, and why it matters

    Published: 14 December 2021
    ‘He wished he had inhabited more of his life, used it better, filled it fuller.’

    Anne Tyler, An Amateur Marriage

    ‘I read so I can live more than one life in more than one place.’

    Anne Tyler on reading

    It’s almost Christmas. So, we’re sure you won’t mind if we consider the place of emotion in reading? That we get perhaps just a bit human? I’ve started with a pair of quotes from one of my favourite authors - a writer celebrated for the craft of her sentences, as well as the insights and warmth she brings to bear on the characters she creates. The choices are deliberately related: one speaks of a reflection on the fullness of a life; the other speaks of the promises of living more than one life through the act of reading. It’s a not-too-subtle pairing and it could lead to the mistaken belief that I am suggesting that readers – keen, avid, volitional readers - are an elevated breed with some kind of passport to a superior lifetime. I wish. Not the case at all. I do think, however, there is something in the experience of being transported by reading – of experiencing other lives - that holds its own power in the primary classroom if we can support children to move towards experiencing it for themselves.  This is not something that just happens without some supportive conditions.

     I think this power of transportation may do more to foster a desire to read than many extrinsic rewards in the longer term.  With that in mind and based on an extensive range of work over the years devoted to developing reading fluency, and then developing writing in KS2, I’d like to talk a little about empathy. Empathy isn’t the be-all-and-end-all in our emotional responses to literature, nor is it essential to how we go on to form interpretations. Often it might not be needed at all to appreciate what we read. But I do think it is important enough to warrant more attention than it has perhaps received in recent years.

    In Daniel Willingham’s The Reading Mind, there is a section that shifts from his focus on cognition and enters the world of emotion. There, Willingham suggests that there are two key factors in reading success.  Ridiculously briefly, given the associated literature, these are:

    • high quality word (lexical) representations – in terms of robust mental representations of sound, spelling, and meaning, each of which are strongly interconnected
    • broad knowledge about the world

    [That brevity hurts me more than it hurts you, trust me, but I am conscious of the scope of this blog and all that]

    Willingham poses the question of why some readers have excellent lexical representations and background knowledge and others do not?  The main reason offered is volume of reading, and here we tread logically towards attitudes.  Why do some read a lot and some not very much at all? Willingham distinguishes three kinds of attitudes:

    • cognitive – stemming from a rational, logical analysis
    • emotional – likes and dislikes, how things make us feel
    • behavioural – not logical nor emotional though we might use them to rationalise what we do: we do it because we do it

    Here’s the key bit: Willingham then asks the question of whether attitudes towards reading are cognitive, emotional, or behavioural and, having noted the limited research, places his bet on emotional for the win. He sets out that being a good reader increases the likelihood of enjoying the experience of reading, and goes on to lay out the virtuous spiralling that can be roughly drawn as follows:

    Enjoys reading > reads more > strengthens reading > enjoys reading > reads more and so on…

    But this can’t be enough.  Willingham goes on to explore how positive attitudes are linked to positive associations and offers a short series of childhood reading memories and the ‘warm glow of nostalgia’ that the likes of Winnie the Pooh, or Horton Hears a Hoo offer him to this day. I wonder if like me, you can begin to connect to this as a fellow reader.  The soft glow of nostalgia that might lead you, too, to appreciate in a tangibly emotional way, the power and magic of reading. 

    Like Willingham, I have had more than my fair share of warm-glow-reading: my mum reading me The Tawny Scrawny Lion when I was ill, and then us, like the lion, eating soup at the end of the story; my dad reading me The Magic Faraway Tree – my one clear memory of a bedtime story with him; later being thrilled by The Ghosts by Antonia Barber,  read to me and my junior classmates by the expert Mrs Jessop who knew just…when…to…stop. I know I am lucky to have enjoyed and remembered all of these. Willingham is clear – again – on the power of those formative reading experiences and the associations that emerge from them. 

    The mental album of such moments doesn’t stop there and the warm glow spreads beyond the immediacy of personal reading of a book, and into adulthood.  Here we might consider our reading experiences as teachers.  One highly memorable moment for me was reading The Little Match Girl to my year 6 class.  In this episode, I remember vividly a profound moment of connection with one child, and then just as vividly, a jarring moment of disconnection with their classmate.  I go into more details about this in a recent podcast (see link below) because it was one of those instructive moments for me in the power of exploring emotional responses in formative reading, and what it looks like when it’s lacking.  I mention it because it rested on who was connecting, understanding, and empathising, and who wasn’t. I think it was an important moment for all concerned. 

    Willingham argues that ‘because reading attitudes are mostly emotional, logical appeals about the value of reading won’t do much.’ (Pg. 140).  Might it pay for us to get a little emotional here, in a certain sense, in terms of the ways by which we follow up the reading of especially powerful fiction?  I think so.  I’ve seen more and more discussion in recent weeks on this topic, and it reflects a slew of recent policy and guidance notes. Is there a place for discussion of emotion and the affective domain in reading?  I’d hope this is beyond question.  Willingham seems to think so.  And for some, it seems to become more and more pressing, especially when we consider take up of English beyond compulsory study.

     One step towards addressing that has been to discuss the topic with my colleague Marie-Clare for the aforementioned podcast.  You can find that podcast – titled The Importance of Empathy – here:


    Some generous colleagues have carved out the time to listen to our discussion and I have now had several requests for a reading list. If you had told me two years ago that I would have been including Carol J. Clover’s Men Women and Chainsaws in a Herts Primary English reading list, I would have wondered whether you needed a little lie down. But there it is. And here is that reading/watching list (pdf). I really hope it proves helpful.

    I think this sort of work, outlined in the podcast, is very important in primary reading provision.  I think it matters more than some might realise. It can sometimes seem to be seen as a somehow ‘soft’, desirable, but perhaps not essential by-product of the things we do to develop skilled reading. I think it is much more important than that.  So, it is a fairly lengthy chat.  My colleague Marie-Clare and I also consider how we might develop empathy, why its cognitive benefits may have been overlooked over time, and even how it might be a key bridge between reading and writing. In the course of doing so, we also touch on the important topic of representation and why it matters that representations offer multiple views of any given social context. Those topics stretch way beyond the scope of this blog and the podcast, but we have a good crack at scratching the surface. 

     As Marie-Clare helpfully summarises in the podcast, the journey from sympathy to cognitive empathy (appreciating or understanding another’s feelings) to affective empathy (the transportation of feeling those feelings) offers a movement towards a deeper engagement with text, and an experience that telegraphs the miraculous, uncanny miracle of reading: these mental lives and worlds conjured up by rows of printed characters. In the podcast, I consider how some children can sit outside of that, immune, if we let them or fail to notice – much in the same way that we will find children that do not activate meaning-making at the outset of our reading fluency programme.   And it is this transportation that so many avid, vocal, famous readers have tried to articulate in so many ways. It’s not something we can or would want to measure in a rubric, but it’s something we can facilitate and nurture through the choice and reading of great books and other materials, with space for thought, talk, more thought, more talk. 

    In truth, I had written quite an extended blog on this topic.  On reflection, and with some very wise feedback from some very kind colleagues, we’ve decided perhaps here and now is not the time and place. It’s been a heck of a term.  Life is too short, no matter how many lives we might live in the course of our reading.  If you would be interested in some further thoughts, including some further reflections on Daniel Willingham’s insights, then do look out for a more in-depth blog on my personal site.  We’ll link to it here when it is ready.

    For now, though, happy reading - and perhaps listening - of the deepest kind, and season’s greetings from one reading human to another.

    National Primary English Conference

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