The Many Benefits of Reading For Pleasure

At my daughter's last medical appointment, our doctor expressed surprise at the sight of a young person contentedly reading a book while she waited for him. She wasn’t misbehaving or bored or annoyed. She wasn’t zoned out looking at a screen. She was immersed in the story, her brain and imagination completely engaged.

“It’s so nice to see a kid reading,” he said, a little sadly.  “No one reads books anymore.”

As a librarian, I know this isn’t true -- not exactly. Libraries are busier than ever, promoting reading and providing access to books. But he is right that screen-based entertainment has certainly pushed books to the margins of many people's lives.

“People do read books,” I told him, a little weakly. Then I gestured around his waiting room, which is filled with iPads and large screens playing a constant loop of the latest animated film. “Just not here.”

I reflected on this incident recently as I read yet another research paper extolling the benefits of reading for pleasure. The evidence is clear that children and teens who read for the sheer enjoyment of it do better across a whole range of measures -- from academic achievement to social skills to emotional health and well being -- than those who aren’t readers. The evidence is also clear that screen-based forms of entertainment (such as gaming, social media, and television) do not bring any such benefits and in fact are correlated with a whole host of harms, from obesity to depression.

Given the benefits of reading and the negative impact of screens, why do parents and doctors and restaurant owners and even some schools push screens at young people rather than books? I suppose it’s the easier thing to do -- easier in the moment, anyway. It’s like handing a child a sugary drink instead of water. It makes the child happy in the short run, but in the long run it’s an unhealthy and damaging thing to do, especially if it is done too much. 

It's possible, too, that some adults push screens because they think that technology is good for young people. Maybe they think that technology is always best, always more educational, than a book or other analog forms of entertainment. But the research does not support this point of view.

This isn't to say that there is no place for screen-based entertainment in young people's lives. Gaming is fun -- and so is social media. My children are like all other children: They love to play video games and connect with their friends on Instagram; they have favorite television shows and movies that they watch over and over again. But these things, like sugary drinks, need to be moderated so they don't take over. Too often, the moment a young person is bored is the moment a screen comes out. As something that relieves boredom, screen-based entertainment is fine. But as something that contributes to a young person's development and well being, it is rotten.

Sometimes, I feel so sad for young people. Our culture creates a catch-22 in which we criticize them for poor social skills and for always being on screens, and yet we as adults do not do the hard work of fostering a reading culture. Our waiting rooms and restaurants are filled with screens not books; our schools have almost completely cut out independent reading time and libraries; our governments are quick to fund technology initiatives over reading ones.

Reading is like any hobby or skill: It has to be developed over time and encouraged. Even if our doctor had a waiting room filled with books, his patients probably wouldn’t pick them up. Young people can’t become readers in an instant, and they can’t become readers in a culture that constantly pushes the instant gratification of a screen at them, rather than the more meaningful and nourishing choice of book.

Study after study tells us that reading for pleasure:

  • Increases students’ engagement in learning, resulting in higher test scores and more positive attitudes about school and education

  • Improves reading achievement, which includes such things as as a strong vocabulary, a greater use of complex grammatical structures, and the development of a good writing style

  • Promotes cognitive development

  • Increases empathy and social skills

  • Is entertaining (a student who loves books is never bored)

  • Is correlated with better health

  • Leads to a positive sense of well being

  • Reduces stress.

I’m lucky to work in a middle school in which independent reading and reading for pleasure are a valued part of the culture. Students in middle school are entering a confusing time of change and growth. Books are the safe place for them to explore issues such as changing friendships, emerging sexuality, and our complicated and often unfair world. At our school, all students have a choice novel (that is, a book that the student chooses) that they are expected to have with them at all times -- for those moments in the day when they need a break, for those moments when they need to wait, for those moments when they need a little magic. I wish these same young people carried their choice novels outside of school as well. A student who entertains himself with a video game isn’t gaining any new understanding or insights into himself or his universe, but a student who immerses himself in a book is.

With the increasing amount of evidence supporting the benefits of reading for pleasure, I hope the pendulum will swing back a little bit, in support of schools that provide students with time for independent reading -- and in encouragement of parents who pull out a book instead of an iPhone when a child needs to be entertained. It is the harder thing to do, but by far the better one.

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