Teaching Reading through Fiction

Responding to the news article on teaching reading through nonfiction (cited below), Howard Gardner (Education, Harvard) writes to the NYT : “Those educators who selected a reading program that valued fictional works presumably thought that was an appropriate emphasis. It is now up to those educators to provide measures that might reveal better performances on their curriculum — for example, richer imaginations by students or a greater likelihood of reading books of any sort outside the school environment.”

But on the same topic, yesterday’s NYT contained an opinion piece, “Your Brain on Fiction,” whose author, Annie Murphy Paul, cites evidence that reading literature activates and strengthens cognitive capacity, particularly for empathy, concluding: “Reading great literature, it has long been averred, enlarges and improves us as human beings. Brain science shows this claim is truer than we imagined.”

I believe that the most nuanced take on this question remains Suzanne Keen’s Empathy and the Novel (2007), which finds that, while reading may increase empathy, it isn’t reading alone, but reading in the specific context of the classroom with a skilled teacher, that turns empathetic readers into altruistic citizens.

About Jennifer Summit

I am a professor of English at Stanford University. My research interests generally focus on the medieval and early modern periods, but I've become increasingly interested in how we might use some of the methodologies and questions that have been generated by the academic subfields of the history of reading and the book to understand the uses of literacy today.
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