The link below is to an article that looks at a new study that confirms growing up in a home full of books is good for you.
Why do you read? Maybe you read to relax after a long day, to learn about unfamiliar people or places, to make you laugh or to let you dream. Maybe you never really ask yourself why, but turn to books out of some vague instinct that they’re what you want or need.
The question of why humans invest such a lot of time and other resources in reading is an interesting one for researchers of both minds and texts, especially when it comes to fiction and poetry, where the answer doesn’t seem as obviously pragmatic as just learning useful facts. Whatever the answer is, it promises to tell us as much about human nature as it does about literature.
For decades now, researchers in cognitive literary studies have been suggesting reasons for why we read fiction. The dominant thinking is some variant on the idea that reading (especially reading narratives, often fictional) is pleasurable because it serves some evolutionarily adaptive purpose, in particular by giving us the chance to hone cognitive skills of one kind or another, free of real world risks. One strand of the general idea that narrative reading may increase our “fitness” is that it may quite literally help us be healthier.
Self-help books are an obvious place to start. There’s a growing body of research on “self-help bibliotherapy” (reading a self-help book, with or without some kind of formal guidance) which indicates that self-help books can sometimes be effective alternatives or supplements to other kinds of therapy.
But very little is known about whether readers respond in clinically relevant ways to poetry, fiction, or other narrative genres, such as memoir. The lack of evidence has not prevented a range of claims and theories from being proposed, and small-scale clinical uses of fiction and poetry by psychiatrists and psychotherapists seem to be fairly widespread.
So is the belief in art’s healing power just wishful thinking, or is there something to it?
Identification and insight
The focus of my work is eating disorders. To find out more about the effects of fiction-reading in this context, I set up a partnership with the leading UK eating disorder charity, Beat. We designed a detailed online questionnaire to ask respondents about the links they perceive between their reading habits and their mental health (with a focus on eating disorders). The survey attracted 885 responses (773 from people with personal experience of an eating disorder).
We found that 69% of those with personal experience reported seeking out both fiction and nonfiction to help with their eating disorder, and that 36% had found the fiction or nonfiction they tried helpful. We asked people to rate the helpfulness and harmfulness of different types of text in relation to their eating disorder, and 15% rated fiction about subjects other than eating disorders as more helpful than any other text type. At the same time, memoirs featuring an eating disorder were rated the most harmful text type, with fiction about eating disorders in second place. This suggests a complex set of effects.
But how does reading fiction actually affect health, positively or negatively? The dominant theoretical view holds that therapeutic effects arise out of a process involving identification (with the character or situation in the text) followed by insight (into the nature of one’s condition). This is perhaps accompanied by some kind of strong cathartic emotional response, followed by a problem-solving stage in which the insights are converted into intentions for personal change. This type of model usually requires that texts should portray situations as similar as possible to the reader’s own, and that they should provide happy but realistic endings.
There are many reasons to question this model. If reading about someone the same as yourself is meant to be therapeutic, what makes it different from, say, rereading your own diary entries? Does the concept of similarity become self-limiting at a certain point, and if so, at what point? And on what dimensions (nature of illness, age, sex, socioeconomic status) is similarity most relevant?
There are also reasons to wonder whether insight is necessarily the main driving force for therapeutic change. In the case of chronic eating disorders, extremely high levels of insight are often coupled with a paralysed inability to act on that insight. So at least among long term sufferers, there may be a more important role for reading experiences that increase motivation or self belief for recovery, rather than providing yet more confirmation of the awfulness of the illness.
Help and harm
The survey findings also direct our attention forcefully to the power of reading to do harm as well as good: one 18-year-old female respondent in recovery from multiple eating disorders described harmful reading matter as “reminding me of why I wanted to starve myself and reinforcing my irrational thoughts”. The testimony on the effects of fiction about eating disorders was overwhelmingly negative; 18 respondents also spontaneously mentioned deliberately “self-triggering”, or choosing to read books they knew would exacerbate their disorder.
Many respondents reported that their eating disorder encourages them to read in such a highly selective way that anything and everything can end up supporting the disordered mindset. Self-perpetuating feedback loops also seem to play a powerful role. If you’re feeling trapped by some aspect of an eating disorder (like low self-esteem), you might be more likely to read a certain type of text, or to read in a particular way (like zooming in on every association of thinness with something positive). This then makes you feel worse (maybe feeling instantly fatter or more determined to lose weight), which in turn encourages more unhealthy reading patterns. These vicious circles can be hard to break.
But fiction-reading seems to be one of the things that can break them. Fiction about something entirely unrelated to disordered eating can be stabilising and therapeutic in numerous ways. This can be pragmatic and embodied (allowing regular eating to happen, for example) or broadly existential: exploring alternative worlds, or reminding yourself that your life really could be different. A 27-year-old male in recovery from anorexia described how:
After reading sci-fi my mood is raised and I tend to feel more at peace with the universe, cognitively and imaginatively stimulated and inspired.
So, next time you pick up a book, reflect for a while on your reasons for doing so. And think about whether, when you’re tired or stressed out or indeed more seriously unwell, you find forms of solace, healing, or inspiration in the apparently simple black marks on a white background.
The results of an international study into the reading skills of Year 4 students offer reason for optimism for Australian children.
The latest Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) shows that, on average, reading achievement among the Australian children surveyed improved significantly between 2011 and 2016. This is excellent news.
However, there is still cause for concern about Australia’s literacy standards, with the PIRLS study showing that a substantial minority of Year 4 children continue to struggle with reading.
The Progress in International Reading Literacy Study
In 2016, 6,341 Year 4 students from 286 Australian primary schools took part.
The study focuses on two reading abilities – reading for literary experience, and reading to acquire and use information. Students were given texts to read and then asked to answer multiple choice and short answer questions. Example questions include:
How does the author show you what the red hen is like?
According to the article, what is one way people have made the sea more dangerous for turtles?
Signs of improvement
The results show Australia’s national average performance improved significantly between 2011 and 2016.
With the exception of the Australian Capital Territory, all the states and territories showed an improvement. The improvement was statistically significant in Western Australia, Queensland and Victoria.
The increase in the average scores in many states is due to better performance by students at the top end of the scale. This is a wonderful outcome for those students.
While the 2016 PIRLS results run counter to the trends in the most recent PISA and TIMSS international assessments, the improvement isn’t entirely unexpected. Recent years of NAPLAN results have shown an improvement in average reading scores for Year 3 students.
It’s difficult to draw any firm conclusions about the reason for this improvement. But it’s fair to say there has been a strong focus on early reading since NAPLAN was introduced in 2008, putting a spotlight on progress in this vital area of education.
Indeed, the PIRLS results provide a very useful external validation of the reliability of the NAPLAN results, as they report similar trends in reading over similar periods.
The sting in the (long) tail
The improvement in average scores is certainly heartening. But the PIRLS data also show that when it comes to reading, many Australian children are still being left behind.
In 2016, 6% of Australian children did not meet the minimum (low) international benchmark for Year 4 reading. This is only a very small improvement from the 2011 figure of 7%.
Some 19% of Australian children in Year 4 did not achieve the intermediate benchmark. To reach this benchmark, children needed to be able to:
- make straightforward inferences about things that weren’t explicitly stated in the text
- work out the order of events in the text, and/or
- find and repeat explicitly stated actions, events, and feelings in the text.
PIRLS describes this benchmark as a “challenging but reasonable expectation”.
In 2011, 24% of Australian children in Year 4 did not achieve this benchmark. So the figure of 19% in 2016 is an improvement. But it’s a poor outcome compared to other countries, including England, Canada, and the United States.
Despite some improvements, Australia still has the second-largest proportion of children below the international intermediate benchmark for reading among English-speaking countries.
Early identification of low progress readers
Research shows that children who struggle with reading in their early school years are unlikely to ever catch up. These children need to be identified and supported much earlier.
This year, an expert advisory panel to the Australian government (which I chaired) reviewed early years reading assessments used around Australia. We found a deficit in the assessment of phonics skills in particular.
Phonics is the ability to translate the letters on a page into their respective sounds. It’s a skill that children (and adults) need so they can read and learn unfamiliar words. Without the ability to read and learn unfamiliar words, children have little hope of reading for meaning.
Based on the outcome of the review, the panel recommended (as have other experts) a trial and possible subsequent adoption of the Year 1 Phonics Check that has been statutory in English primary schools since 2012.
In this context, it’s worth noting that England’s results in PIRLS 2016 – the first group to take the Year 1 Phonics Check – are the best they have ever been.
The Phonics Check is a quick (five-minute) and effective reading check. It’s neither stressful for children nor onerous for teachers, and provides immediate information to teachers about this fundamental aspect of literacy development.
The expert panel acknowledged that phonics is one of five essential components, alongside:
But of those five components, there is good reason to believe that phonics isn’t being taught effectively or assessed consistently in many schools. For the children most at-risk of reading failure – including those from socioeconomically or language impoverished homes, and children with learning difficulties – the consequences are devastating.
Literacy on the agenda
This Friday, Australia’s federal, state and territory education ministers will come together for the year’s final Education Council meeting. Their agenda will include the need for a national Year 1 literacy and numeracy check.
The PIRLS statistics will be thoroughly dissected and debated. But it’s important to remember these statistics represent real children.
What does it mean to be unable to read? One mother of a Year 6 child poignantly described it as “not being able read the jokes in Christmas crackers around the table at Christmas lunch”.
This should not be the case for a child who has spent seven years at school. A literacy check in Year 1 could prevent many Australian children from falling through the cracks, and facing a lifetime of disadvantage.
The link below is to an article that reports on the findings of an interesting study regarding reading and empathy for others.
I’m not sure just how great these snacks are, but according to a study or survey (or something), these are the perfect snacks for reading. The link below is to an article that highlights what are the perfect snacks for reading – certainly they don’t appear all that healthy.
I am into my last days of annual leave, so it is doubtful I’ll be able to read anywhere near as much as I have this last week. I’ll probably have the Kindle out at lunch for a bit, so I’ll still be getting some reading in even while I’m at work. The Kindle has certainly made it a lot easier to have good reading material available no matter where I am. Loving the Kindle.
Social Networks, Web Applications & Other Tools
Not a lot has happened with the social networks in the book/reading niche over this last week, except that I have been updating Goodreads on a regular basis as to what I am reading, progress and cataloguing the books as I go.
I did do a quick addition to Quotista, which has a lot of potential but doesn’t appear to be being developed any further, which is quite disappointing. It could really be something good if it was improved from time to time. It looks so good. So, I have also been using a personal WordPress.com blog for filing quotes. This will be able to be searched and catalogued as I go and will make a very good tool down the track, curating my reading over the years, while still being able to use my books as valuable tools for further research and study. I think it works OK.
Currently, I am reading two books – well one actually, but about to start another. These are listed below:
I have started reading this twice – it is an excellent read and I wanted to absorb what I had read, so I thought why not start again. Highly recommend this one.
– Phantoms on the Bookshelves, by Jacques Bonnet
I haven’t really started this book as I finish this post, but it will be one I’ll be starting some time today.
– One of these book was ‘Treasure Island,’ by Robert Louis Stevenson. I read this on the Kindle and it was a very quick read, finishing it in two days. My book review is linked to below.
I haven’t yet completed a book review on this one, it will be coming soon.
I haven’t yet completed a book review on this one either, but it will come this week sometime hopefully.
Purchased & Added to Library:
I again grabbed a heap of free ebooks from Amazon. These are all of the books I’ve posted on my Blog ‘The Book Stand,’ so all posted there I also downloaded for myself. I’ll certainly have more books than I can ever read that’s for sure, but certainly never wanting for choice. No harm in grabbing them while there free and in digital format – if I don’t read them all, what does it matter? At least I’ll have them if I want to read them.
Among the books I actually purchased this week:
I have decided post a weekly update of my reading progress. I did post an update of what I was reading back in April, so this won’t be the first post of this kind. This will however be the first of regular weekly updates on my reading progress.
Some of the books below have been on the list since April, with very little progress due to a holiday break and a general break in reading activity over the last month or so. This is all set to change as I again get my head into a book or two.
My Current Reading List:
History of the United States, from the Discovery of the American Continent – Volume 1, by George Bancroft
Life of George Washington – Volume 3, by Washington Irving
The Sermons of the Right Reverend Father in God, and Constant Martyr of Jesus Christ, Hugh Latimer, Some Time Bishop of Worcester – Volume 2
History of the English Baptists, from the Reformation to the Beginning of the Reign of King George I – Volume 1, by Thomas Crosby
Memoirs of the Life, Times, and Writings of Thomas Boston, of Ettrick
Bible and Bible Study
The Joy of Reading, by Charles Van Doren
Terrorism and the Illuminati – A Thousand Year History, by David Livingstone
Post War – A History of Europe Since 1945, by Tony Judt
Yes, I have finally managed to put up another post on this Blog – been quite a while I know. I apologise for that – been very busy with other pursuits.
Today’s book review is on ‘Edmund Barton,’ by John Reynolds. This book is the first in a series on Australia’s Prime Ministers by Bookman Press. The Bookman Press series sought to re-publish the best biographies on each of the Australian Prime Ministers to coincide with the centenary of Australian Federation. ‘Edmund Barton,’ by John Reynolds, was first published in 1948.
This book, though about Edmund Barton, is also a good introduction to the process of Australia becoming a federation of colonies to form the modern day nation of Australia. A biography of Barton must be a study of the beginning of Federation as Barton was probably one of the most important players in bringing Federation to pass, which also meant the creation of Australia as one nation. It is a fascinating introduction to just how a modern Australia was born from the federation of the various colonies that were then situated on the Australian mainland and in Tasmania.
As far as reading goes, I found the book to contain much that interested me, as I have not read or studied a lot on the federation of Australia and the process by which it was achieved. For me this has been an important addition to my understanding of Australian history in an area in which my understanding was quite poor. Having said that, I do not think the book is necessarily an easy read, but requires discipline to keep at it.
from the Reformation to the Beginning of the Reign of King George I, by Thomas Crosby
As noted in a previous post, I have been reading ‘The History of the English Baptists from the Reformation to the Beginning of the Reign of King George I,’ by Thomas Crosby. I have also been adding this work to my website (a link to this book appears at the end of this post).
I have now completed reading and adding the preface, table of contents and part of the first chapter.
The preface covers the period from the early church through to the first Baptists in England, tracing the origins of the Baptists and disproving their rise to that of the Anabaptists at Munster and the disaster that occurred in that city as a result of the Anabaptist rebellion.
Though a lengthy preface, it briefly touches on such as the Albigenses, the Waldenses, Wickcliff, Donatists, etc. Crosby goes back through history, from the reformation to the first century finding evidence of Baptistic beliefs and practices. It is a very interesting study, even though it is brief. Another interesting aspect of this study is the evidence for early Baptistic existence, even in the writings of Paedobaptist authors and the evidence against the early practice of infant-baptism in the early church.
To read the preface and further, please follow the link below: