Reading for Empathy, Identity and Wellbeing

Pupils reading at St Andrew & St Bride's

Susan Brownlie is an English teacher at St Andrew’s and St Bride’s High School in East Kilbride, one of the six First Minister’s Reading Challenge secondary pilot schools. Prior to becoming a teacher, she spent a decade as a school librarian.

Ever since I was a child I’ve known instinctively that reading was good for wellbeing. I was never very outdoorsy and when forced on a bracing Sunday hill walk, I’d always sneak a book along with me. When I’d had enough, I’d find a sheltered spot and read there, until my parents collected me on their way back down.

Positive Reading Experiences

Over the last 20 years as a librarian-turned-teacher, I have worked tenaciously to create positive reading experiences for pupils. Initially, reading was something my colleagues and I recommended pupils do at home and we focused on the academic benefits. However, in the classroom we observed a lack of joy in reading for some pupils, and, at times, a struggle to engage in reading at all. As adults, we read to detach from work, to unwind and relax, and we enjoyed discussing our reading choices with each other during breaks. We wanted the same lifelong pleasure for our pupils.  

We began with the questions that had stopped us before. How would we justify 10 minutes of personal reading time in every S1 and S2 English lesson and during morning registration? Would staff, parents and pupils get on board? We needed to tackle the assumptions that reading only happens in English class and that there isn’t the time for reading elsewhere. Ultimately, we needed to find the evidence to show what we intrinsically knew; that reading for pleasure had far wider benefits than simply increasing attainment.

Reading and Emotional Wellbeing

We soon discovered there was a wealth of evidence illustrating the benefits reading has on emotional wellbeing, including alleviating stress, developing empathy and building relationship between the reader and the wider world. Readers have always instinctively known that the ability to connect strongly with characters on the page helps us to bring empathy to our relationships with real people. However, it has now been scientifically proven that reading actually helps our brains rewire to do just that.   

The wider research, as well as being affirming and inspiring, is vital to developing your school’s approach to reading for pleasure in the long term. In particular, the work of Professor Sue Ellis has given us the confidence to realise our vision. She advocates the extent to which children feel part of a reading community affects what they read, how much they read and how they approach texts. By helping every pupil and staff member in our school feel included as readers, no matter their reading history, we can help influence and support where they go next.

Applying the Research

The research and resources from Research Rich Pedagogies and EmpathyLab have underpinned our approach. We can now see the value in practice and our school community is on board as a result. Now, we start our day reading, no matter where in school a pupil might be. This is true for everything from an S2 registration class in a Science lab to the S1 and S6 pupils participating in our Paired Reading in Registration programme.

Our evidence and reflections from the FMRC pilot year are available as a case study, but that year was only the start of our journey towards a community where everyone thinks of themselves as readers. In every school, teachers and school librarians should be encouraging reading for pleasure to help all pupils build their own positive reading identities. As part of this, it is important that pupils see the adults in their community as readers too.

As former UK Children’s Laureate Chris Riddell sums it up, ‘Reading allows us to see and understand the world through the eyes of others. A good book is an empathy engine’.

Through our shared belief in reading for pleasure at St Andrew’s and St Bride’s, we’re committed to helping all our pupils fine tune their empathy engines as readers.

Further Information

Ellis, Susan and Smith, Vivienne (2018) Literacy, language and wellbeing, in Wellbeing, Education and Contemporary Schooling (ed) Malcolm Thorburn. The University of Edinburgh.

Ellis, Susan (2015) Improving Literacy in Scotland: Four Policy Proposals, The University of Strathclyde.

Miller, Donalyn (2009) The Book Whisperer: Awakening the Inner Reader in Every Child, San Francisco, CA, Jossey-Bass.

Pieper, Kenny (2016) Reading for Pleasure, Carmarthen, Independent Thinking Press.

The Reading Agency (2015) Literature Review: The impact of reading for pleasure and empowerment, BOP Consultancy.

Scottish Book Trust, Creating a Reading Culture: Get your whole school reading, Scottish Book Trust 

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