Reading gives brain a workout

Educators recommend non-fiction for children. This is because non-fiction promotes learning across different subjects and teaches them different ways to approach a text – such as through inquiry-based thinking.
Educators recommend non-fiction for children. This is because non-fiction promotes learning across different subjects and teaches them different ways to approach a text – such as through inquiry-based thinking.ST PHOTO: DAVE LIM
The interactive wall at Sengkang Library, an e-book display juxtaposed with physical books. The theme changes every two months and the current one is on exploring fantastical worlds through books.
The interactive wall at Sengkang Library, an e-book display juxtaposed with physical books. The theme changes every two months and the current one is on exploring fantastical worlds through books.ST PHOTO: DAVE LIM

It also improves your empathy and transports you into unfamiliar experiences

Fancy a workout that improves empathy, prepares you for new situations and boosts your brain function?

A quick and easy way to start is by picking up a book. Associate Professor Leher Singh from the National University of Singapore's psychology department said: "Reading is an excellent way to build an understanding of the world and how it works and to form expectations of people, places and things."

In psychology, this is called a schema - a way of organising the world inside your head, according to the patterns you have learnt in your everyday life.

Reading could actually transport you into an unfamiliar experience.

Associate Professor Annabel Chen, deputy director of Nanyang Technological University's Centre for Research and Development in Learning, pointed to recent neuroscience discoveries about how the brain responds to reading.

Researchers have found that reading novels brought up activity not only in the parts of the brain previously associated with story comprehension and language recep- tivity, but in the somatosensory cortex and motor regions as well.

"It is likely that the novel transported the reader into the body of the protagonist, thus tricking the mind into thinking it is doing something it is not, a phenomenon also known as embodied cognition," said Prof Chen, who is a clinical neuropsychologist by training.

  • 69%

  • Respondents who had read  at least one book in the past  12 months, according to the National Library Board's 2016 National Reading Habits Study on Adults.

"A good example of embodied cognition is visualisation in sports, like thinking about playing tennis can activate neurons associated with the physical act of serving or hitting the ball. Thus, the increased connectivity in these regions suggests the ability to put ourselves in someone else's shoes."

Dr Tan Wah Pheow, manager of Temasek Polytechnic's Centre for Applied Psychology, said the act of reading is "akin to exercising your whole brain".

Prof Chen explained the idea of the whole-brain workout: "Reading requires many higher-order cognitive functions, such as visual imagery, working memory and concentration to keep track of the plot and imagination of the scenarios described."

SERIOUS OR LIGHT TOPICS?

But even those with a reading habit may wonder: Does it matter how often you read or whether you are curled up with Harry Potter or War And Peace?

Prof Chen said: "The type of material one reads really depends on the goal of reading the material and the person's level of suggestibility."

She added: "Fiction can help activate different brain regions involved with imagery. It allows a short escape from daily hassles for psychological well-being."

Dr Tan said: "Maybe the question should be how engaged people should be when they are reading. Highly engaged people are said to be engaging in deep processing, where they read for meaning and context, and critique what they have read."

He added: "More engaged reading leads to better understanding and learning. It also results in a higher level of brain activation."

While fiction promotes empathy on the part of the reader, Dr Tan said that educators recommend children to read non-fiction.

This is because non-fiction promotes learning across different subjects and teaches children different ways to approach a text - such as through inquiry-based thinking.

Psychologist Frances Yeo from Thomson Paediatric Centre said that reading across different genres exposes learners to a variety of writing styles.

"The student should receive direct instruction on how to analyse written text and learn how to write for different audiences," she said. "I feel that many students lack this."

But there is still a long way to go if Singaporeans are to reap the full brain benefits of reading.

The National Library Board's 2016 National Reading Habits Study on Adults found that about 69 per cent of respondents had read at least one book in the past 12 months. The National Arts Council's 2015 National Literary Reading and Writing Survey saw fewer than half of the respondents reading at least one "literary book" between March 2014 and March 2015.

Ms Sujatha Nair, assistant director of the Ministry of Education- aided Dyslexia Association of Singapore Literacy Programme, said: "Whether you have the reading ability of a pre-emergent or an expert, you should always aim to read as much as possible. This is especially important for struggling readers who tend to be reluctant readers."

She recommended starting with a daily target of half an hour and building it up to one to two hours a day dedicated to reading.

Temasek Polytechnic's Dr Tan said: "I advocate the reading of works that are engaging and which invoke deep processing, regardless of whether they are fictional or not."


When and how to start kids on reading

Given the social and cognitive benefits of reading, how should parents and caregivers train their children for literacy?

Have realistic expectations and support children from young with reading sessions and a text-rich environment, say experts.

OTHER PERSPECTIVES

Reading together with your child gives you  an opportunity to  talk with him about emotions and taking the perspective  of other people.

MS FRANCES YEO, a psychologist at Thomson Paediatric Centre.

Associate Professor Leher Singh from the National University of Singapore, who specialises in infant language development, said: "When a child is not ready, early reading can backfire by inducing reading anxiety". The child, under pressure to read, starts to dread the activity and associates it with negative emotions.

But by age six or seven, a child should be able to read independently. Prof Singh said children should be given a supportive reading environment from an early age.

This includes encouraging them to read what interests them. "Some like to read about world wars and others about dinosaurs," she said.

Ms Frances Yeo, a psychologist at Thomson Paediatric Centre, suggests starting children off on "sight words", which are high-frequency words that language learners must be able to recognise as a whole, without having to break them down into letters or sounds.

"Once a child is able to read some sight words, parents can teach them phonological skills to decode or break down unfamiliar words."

But Ms Sujatha Nair of the Dyslexia Association of Singapore said: "Some children may naturally incorporate concepts like the alphabetic principle through early exposure, but it should not be expected of all children. Those with learning disabilities will require direct and explicit instructions in reading."

Ms Gabrielle Lai, a lecturer in Temasek Polytechnic's psychology studies programme, said caregivers should expose children from young and show that reading is a pleasurable activity.

She said: "Reading fluency is more than just skill and drill. In fact, adopting such an approach would be detrimental to the child's interest in reading, which will then affect the development of reading and literacy proficiencies."

And children will read regularly, Ms Yeo pointed out, "only if they see their parents reading at home".

Reading for pleasure can build skills beyond basic literacy.

Ms Yeo said: "Reading together with your child gives you an opportunity to talk with him about emotions and taking the perspective of other people." For example, children can identify with characters in books and learn how to deal with situations, such as confronting school bullies or visiting the doctor.

Ms Khoo Sim Eng, head of the film studies minor at the Singapore University of Social Sciences, said: "Regular reading improves vocabulary and grammar. This isn't just about being able to show off big words. Having a wider vocabulary allows us to express ourselves more clearly and precisely."

Ms Elaine Lee, a lecturer in early childhood education at Ngee Ann Polytechnic, said that one way to make reading appealing is to create stories together or "make games out of everyday activities".

A trip to the supermarket can also be a literacy exercise - parents can point out grocery labels and help their children decode the printed material, she added.

Annabeth Leow

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 06, 2017, with the headline 'Reading gives brain a workout'. Print Edition | Subscribe