I have spoken many times, and on a variety of platforms, about my role as a Shannon Trust mentor. When I look back on my time as a mentor, which I do regularly, I always have a little reflective smile to myself. Not just because of the wonderful feelings you get from giving back but also because it brings back memories of my own reading journey. One that begun many, many moons ago.
I’m the youngest of six siblings, 3 sisters and 2 brothers, and it was my sister next up from me who taught me to read, from quite a young age I was a pretty good reader. Growing up as a child I never used to spend my pocket-money on sweets, it was always comics for me. Beano, Whizzer & Chips, Buster, Topper, Cor!! And The Beezer. I used to get the special annual they’d release for Christmas each year as well.
Coincidentally, it was also this sister as to why my name is David. My mum’s side of the family were from Wales and when my sister was born on St. David’s Day the fact she was a girl meant calling her David wasn’t a real option. So, when I came along next, my name came with me. Since finding out, although I’ve managed to silence this voice over the years, a nagging doubt as to ‘what my name could’ve been’ were my sister born a boy along with ‘would I have even existed’ played on my mind. Evidence for the latter being I was a boy and the final child born. Obviously my parents couldn’t improve on me so that’s why they stopped 😉😊.
When I was around 9-10 I joined a local youth club, Concorde Youth Club, all my family before me had been members, some still were. Very difficult to get away from being compared when you have a few older brothers and sisters. At home, at the same schools (infants and juniors to this point), public parks and now it would appear my local youth club as well. Fortunately, I went to a different senior school. Coincidentally, where three of my cousins went to. Yup! You guessed it. Compared once again. However, this time it was being told I was just like two of them. Suffice to say they also purchased a school to prison ticket and had travelled the same route before me.
I also played regularly for Concorde’s football team, however, I played for the team as Tony and not as David. I can easily recall my family laughing at one report of one of our games in the local paper because they printed my name wrong. They stopped laughing once it appeared a few times over the following weeks and I told them I had done it on purpose.
But not why.
Only because I didn’t know why myself.
Maybe it was all to do with David?
Learning to read for me opened up a whole new world of escapism. It also gave me a love of learning along with a love of reading and a thirst for knowledge. That comment may seem strange from someone that was booted out of school at 14. But! I have never said I didn’t enjoy learning, it was school I took issue with, and from a young age.
So, that is what learning to read did for me – in fact, without being a mentor I’d have no imagination whatsoever about not being able to read – but what other benefits are there? Other than opening up a whole new world of discovery that is. I’d like to open this next part with a quote from indigenous American filmmaker, novelist and poet Sherman Alexie
“If one reads enough books one has a fighting chance. Or better, one’s chances of survival increase with each book one reads.”
I could easily say that the quote from Sherman says it all but I’d like to break it down even more and as it is me I’d like to go way, way back in time. Good time to reiterate that in order to know where we are going and where we are, we should find out where we once were.
What is thought to be the world’s first novel was an epic romance novel that spans 54 chapters and was written by a Japanese lady in the 11th Century. ‘The Tale of Genji’ was written by Murasaki Shikibu. Here we are many centuries later and not only is the world still enjoying novels they are reading them on more platforms than Murasaki would never have dreamt of in her wildest dreams.
So, that was a bit of history and now for the science. According to research on the US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health website there is a report titled Reading skill and structural brain development where they say this in the introduction to the report:
“Reading is a learned ability specific to humans. Skilled reading relies upon the integration of multiple brain regions, and recruitment of and communication among these regions likely strengthen over time. Functional imaging studies have identified left hemisphere frontal, temporal and parietal regions that are activated during reading tasks, and cross sectional studies have reported variations in brain structure in similar areas in children as a function of reading skills. However, the ways in which developmental changes in brain structure relate to reading acquisition in children remain largely unknown. Given the negative individual and societal implications associated with illiteracy in both children and adults, furthering our understanding of these changes as they relate to typical brain development is necessary, and may be useful for the development of targeted reading interventions.”
“Learning to read is a protracted developmental process supported by the parallel development of multiple cognitive and linguistic skills, including fluency, accuracy, and phonological awareness. These skills begin to emerge prior to the onset of fluent reading and are refined as one continues to learn, such that learning to read is likely a facilitator and an outcome of other developmental processes, including brain maturation.”1
That’s the history and science covered so let’s take a look at the practical side of reading. The following top ten I have taken from a website called the Health Fitness Revolution2:
- Stimulates the mind – Studies have shown that if you are constantly stimulating your mind, you slow the progress of mental diseases can even prevent them. Keeping your brain active and engaged prevents it from losing its power by sharpening its logical ability. The brain, though an organ, operates very much like a muscle – you have to exercise it to keep it healthy and strong.
- Acquire knowledge – Everything you read fills your head with new bits of information, and you never know when it might come in handy. The more knowledge you have, the better-equipped you are and the more able you become to tackle challenges. Even if you ever were to lose everything you physically possess, your brain has an unlimited capacity for storing and using knowledge you’ve acquired all your life. Use it!
- Expands your vocabulary – The more you read, the more words you are exposed to. These words will inevitably make their way into your everyday vocabulary and being articulate and well-spoken is bonus point in many professions. Knowing that you communicate to your employers and your peer with confidence can be an enormous boost to your self-esteem and can aid you as you advance the career ladder. Studies have shown that those who are well-read, well-spoken and knowledgeable on a variety of topics tend to get promotions more quickly and more often than those with smaller vocabularies and lack of awareness of literature, scientific breakthroughs and global events.
- Sharpens writing skills – This goes hand-in-hand with the expansion of your vocabulary: exposure to published, well-written work has a positive effect on one’s own writing. Observing the various styles of other authors, journalists, poets and writers will eventually be reflected in your own writing style. This is the same way for many artists – as musicians influence one another and painters use techniques established by previous masters, so do writers learn how to craft prose, poetry and news by reading the works of others.
- Hones critical and analytical skills – Have you ever read an amazing mystery novel and solved the mystery yourself before finishing the book? If so, you were able to put your critical thinking skills to work by taking note of all the details provided and sorting them out to determine “whodunnit”. That same ability to analyze details comes in handy when it comes to critiquing the plot, determining whether it was a well-written piece, if the characters were properly developed, if the storyline ran smoothly, etc. Should you ever have an opportunity to discuss the book with others, you’ll be able to state your opinions clearly, as you’ve taken the time to really consider all the aspects involved. Even in real life, critical thinking skills are essential. Being able to solve problems given certain elements are a part of daily life – from finishing a project for work to figuring out how to navigate difficult relationships, possessing critical thinking skills are necessary in all walks of life.
- Improves memory – When you read a book, you have to remember an assortment of characters, their backgrounds, ambitions, histories, and nuances, as well as the various arcs and sub-plots that weave their way through every story. Amazingly enough, every new memory you create forges new synapses (brain pathways) and strengthens existing ones, which assists in short-term memory recall.
- Boosts concentration – In our internet-crazed world, attention is drawn in a million different directions at once as we attempt to juggle several tasks at once. Studies have shown that in a single 5-minute span, the average person will divide their time between working on a task, checking email, chatting with a couple of people (via online chat and/or in person), keeping an eye on social media and monitoring their smartphone. This type of behavior in which we are constantly distracted causes stress levels to rise and lowers our productivity. While reading a book, however, all of your attention is focused on the story—causing the rest of the world to fall away as you immerse yourself in every fine detail seen from the point of view of another. Try reading for 15-20 minutes before work and you’ll be surprised at how much more focused you are once you get to the office.
- A fun source of entertainment – There’s a reading genre for every literate person on the planet, and whether your tastes lie in classical literature, poetry, fashion magazines, biographies, religious texts, young adult books, self-help guides, street lit or romance novels, there’s something out there to capture your curiosity and imagination. Whether you choose to nourish your inner escapist or feed your brain with new knowledge, step away from the computer for a little while, crack open a book and feel free to replenish your soul for a little while.
- Feeds your imagination – The story of a book will absorb your mind so let your imagination fly. While you are reading, you are building images, faces, places, colors, settings and stimulating your creative juices. You connect all these creations and making changes while you keep reading as your worldview expands. Allowing your mind to explore a new literary world opens the door of new ideas, subjects and situations that can get you thinking on trying new experiences.
- Reduces stress – No matter how much stress you are going through at work, in your personal life or anywhere else, reading a good story can help you take your mind off these difficult situations. A nice novel can help distract you, while an interesting article can slip your mind out of your problems of that present moment. All allow you to relax and release any tension, especially if you’re reading a subject you are personally interested in.
I hope you can see that learning to read isn’t just about learning to read. I would also like to point out that those who would benefit most from reading this blog probably can’t at this stage. For those who are trying to influence others to read I also hope that I have now provided you with more than enough reasons to no longer answer “Why?” with “Because you should learn”.
- Houston SM, Lebel C, Katzir T, et al. Reading skill and structural brain development. Neuroreport. 2014;25(5):347-352. doi:10.1097/WNR.0000000000000121
- https://www.healthfitnessrevolution.com/top-10-health-benefits-reading/. Accessed 01/08/2020.