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Empathy Day 2023: Reading for pleasure and empathy

17 May 2023

Reading for pleasure

You’ve no doubt heard the phrase ‘get lost in a good book’. You may well have used the phrase to describe a reading experience or habit of your own. There are so many ways to get lost in the course of a great reading session. It might be the unrelenting grip of a thrilling plot. It could be the sheer sweep of emotions in a tale of high drama. It could, when the writing is especially strong, be the magical transportation that can happen when you connect very deeply with the experiences of a well-drawn character. Sometimes this may sit at the level of deep sympathy, but when the conditions are right, it could be a shift of an empathic kind. It’s worth considering how we might support those conditions in our classrooms as we know that building empathy carries all kinds of benefits.

Why does empathy matter?

Our friends at EmpathyLab lead the way in offering support in relation to understanding and nurturing empathy in the classroom and at home.

It’s worth drawing out some of the key findings and benefits shared, just so we’re clear why this is worthy of classroom attention when time pressures are running high.

A great place to start in finding out more about what empathy is and the evidence base around why empathy matters quite so much is to head to their research page.

Not persuaded? We have some insights of our own to share, drawn from findings from our latest Annual Literacy Survey this year.

Our research: reading for pleasure and empathy

Our research team have pulled together some key findings of about the link between empathy and reading, drawing upon the extensive response to our 2023 Annual Literacy Survey:

Of the 64,066 children and young people aged 8 to 18 that responded, nearly 1 in 3 (31.9%) told us that reading helps them understand the views of other people. Similarly, nearly 1 in 3 (31.6%) said that reading helps them learn about other people and cultures. Crucially, 1 in 3 (34.1%) said that something that they have read has changed how they think about other people.

More girls than boys said this. For example, 36.3% of girls said that that something they have read has changed how they think about other people compared with 31.2% of boys. Our findings indicate that more of those aged 16 to 18 and those aged 14 to 16 felt this way compared to their younger peers aged 8 to 11 and 11 to 14. For example, 54.4% of those aged 16 to 18 agreed that something they have read has changed how they think about other people, compared with 39.4% of those aged 14 to 16, 32.1% of those aged 11 to 14 and 34.4% of those aged 8 to 11.

Besides these findings, there was a link between reading to understand others and reading enjoyment as well as reading frequency. For example, twice as many of those who told us that something that they had read had changed how they think about other people enjoyed reading compared with those who hadn't had that experience (60.3% vs. 30.2%). Similarly, twice as many also told us that they read something daily in their free time compared with their peers who hadn't had that experience (39.6% vs. 20.1%).

Although we cannot draw firm conclusions from these associations, it is worth considering how reading provides opportunities to explore, learn about and sometimes be immersed in the lives of others. Might there be some kind of virtuous cycle that the more we read, the more we understand, the more we understand, the more we enjoy, and, so the more we read again? This certainly seems to reflect so many accounts of the pleasures of reading. If you’d like to know more about how you can support the development of these kinds of reading experiences, Empathy Day 2023 is a perfect starting place.

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