There was a time when the regal hardbound encyclopaedias, dictionaries and atlases were looked up to as supreme sources of information. They offered fascinating nuggets of wisdom, enriched our vocabulary and enlightened us with answers to mind-boggling questions.
Mark Twain, Enid Blyton and Lewis Carrol lit up our imagination and coloured our childhood with mental escapades to mystery islands, abandoned fortresses and enchanted forests. Books held the power to grab our sustained attention while it worked away at sculpting our imagination and widening our perspective.
Enter the internet with information and entertainment all in one place; we saw the demure paperbacks slide quietly into the shadows. Parents switched loyalty to tablets and smartphones, which could answer their children’s myriad questions and keep them distracted while they juggled the multiple roles the nuclear household demanded.
Everything from fairy tales, bedtime stories and novels to non-fiction evolved into easily consumable digital versions to keep pace with the readers’ changing appetites. The choices to access stories and information broadened, but reading as a habit declined.
Now, given that the digital media doles out all that the books offer (and more), why are we still stressing about introducing the digital natives to the pleasures of reading rather than let them turn to educational apps, audio books or animated videos for their full dose of stories and information?
Is it merely to pass on a tradition to the new generation for old memory's sake? Or are there more compelling reasons to take the effort to keep the reading habit alive?
Well, apart from the obvious benefits of improving children’s vocabulary and subsequently their confidence, extensive studies show that reading plays a substantial role in stimulating brain development and cognitive skills, in addition to offering a range of psychological benefits. Let’s see what they are.
The Benefits of Reading
1. Reading increases attention span
According to neurologist and writer, Susan Greenfield, reading can increase the attention span and concentration in children. Unlike digital media, which let the readers flit from tab to tab, books make a reader follow a linear pattern, making them take the time to visualise, process the plot and take in complex layers of the story in front of them, paying undivided attention to what they are reading.
Digital media, on the other hand, promotes a habit of skimming topics, often preventing children from following an unbroken, fully thought-out trail of logic, says paediatric neurologist, Dr Martin Kutscher. This practice of jumping from one quick, rewarding titbit to another often leads to less immersion and attention to the topic at hand and a shallower comprehension when compared to reading a physical book.
2. Improves the ability to analyse cause, effect and significance
According to John Stein, emeritus professor of Neuroscience at the Oxford University says, reading is a far from a passive act. It exercises the whole brain. As stories follow a structure with a beginning, middle and the end - reading allows the brain to think in a sequence linking cause, effect and significance. The effect is more profound in younger children as their brain is more plastic, and the neural pathways get established easier at a younger age. As 90% of a child’s brain development happens within the first five years, the earlier the child is introduced to reading, the easier it will be to develop it as a skill that will last them a lifetime.
3. Cuts down stress levels
A 2009 research by Mindlab International at the University of Sussex suggests six minutes of reading can cut down stress levels by more than 68%, more than listening to music or going out for a walk. Psychologists say reading can distract your mind from thinking about stressors and allows the tension in your muscles to ease, bringing down stress levels.
4. Enriches relationships
Children who enjoy reading ( especially literary fiction) are found to be more considerate about other people’s feelings, as they are capable of seeing things from a different perspective and are kind and considerate to people who are different from them. According to Keith Oatley, Cognitive Psychologist at the University of Toronto, books are life simulators that allow us to see ourselves in someone else. Children who read books are found to be able to better understand their own emotions as well as those of others, which places them on better footing to have larger social circles and more satisfying relationships.
5. Helps to cut down the risks of Alzheimer's and Dementia
The findings of a study by the Rush Memory and Ageing Project, published in the American Academy of Neurology's medical journal suggests reading books and magazines, writing and other mentally stimulating activities can help to preserve brain health and cut down the risks of Alzheimer’s. Robert. S. Wilson, Professor, Rush University Medical Centre, Chicago says exercising the brain by taking part in activities such as reading from childhood through old age is vital to maintain brain health in old age. People who read have a slower rate of cognitive decline and are less prone to degenerative diseases such as dementia and Alzheimer’s later in their life.
While the digital media plays its fair share in supporting several areas of learning and has undoubtedly opened up unprecedented avenues for the curious learner to access and assimilate information, let's not forget to nurture good old fashioned reading as a skill that has earned its worth to be maintained as a habit for a lifetime.