Benefits of Reading, Fiction and Empathy

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There is a reason I begin every school year by reading aloud Charlotte’s Web.  Besides being a terrific story that children love year after year, the underlying message goes far deeper than the friendship between Charlotte the spider and Wilbur the pig.  Charlotte risks her life for Wilbur; she acts upon her friendship.  That is important, especially for young children.

I read this book aloud in September and October, when children are navigating friendships.  Frankly, these are the months they are figuring out pretty much everything. Children want to know their place: where they fit into the class and how they will make friends.  Their world is family and school; therefore, I have an enormous job on my shoulders in those first few months of helping children find their way.  It all starts with kindness and friendship, and Charlotte’s Web leads the way.

As I read the book and the story line progresses, children are making friends at school.  By mid-October things get complicated in two ways: making friends now includes conflict, and Charlotte the spider has developed empathy for Wilbur.  Yes, empathy.

Empathy is identifying with the feelings or thoughts of others. It means that you care more about someone else than you care about yourself.  Charlotte did.  My students get this.   By the end of the book, we are debating if Charlotte should go to the fair.  She knows she is dying, the children know she is dying, yet her best friend Wilbur does not.

What will happen to Charlotte?

That is ‘The Moment‘, the seed of understanding empathy.  The children are worried.  They care.  It’s not about them.  And, it all started with literature based on fiction.  Children relate to other characters before they can understand themselves.  Where the Wild Things Are is a case in point.  A child can readily identify with Max, yet not with him (or her) self.  Therefore, reading fiction stories about others is the link to their own self-awareness.  When I read aloud good literature, I am doing the best teaching of all, opening doors and windows to every human feeling, and to the pathway of empathy.

The books I read aloud always have ‘moments’ where I have to stop.  Picture books like Library Lion, Captain Cat, The Lion and the Bird, and Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel bring the really important things to the forefront.  Chapter reading books go even deeper.  I will hang my hat on fiction and literature as the foundation to teach the most important things in life, beginning with empathy.

Children often return to my classroom, years later, even into adulthood.  They can’t pinpoint just why; they just want to be there, again.  For starters, I think it’s because of Charlotte’s Web.

Jennie

Garth Williams illustration, courtesy Harper & Row

About Jennie

I have been teaching preschool for over thirty years. This is my passion. I believe that children have a voice, and that is the catalyst to enhance or even change the learning experience. Emergent curriculum opens young minds. It's the little things that happen in the classroom that are most important and exciting. That's what I write about. I am highlighted in the the new edition of Jim Trelease's bestselling book, "The Read-Aloud Handbook" because of my reading to children. My class has designed quilts that hang as permanent displays at both the National Liberty Museum in Philadelphia, and the Fisher House at the Boston VA Hospital.
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37 Responses to Benefits of Reading, Fiction and Empathy

  1. It is the first book that made an impact on me, for sure!

  2. Sue Ranscht says:

    I hope the parents recognize just how important your reading aloud is. Do you ask them to read to their children, too? Do those “moments” become boisterous classroom discussions about what’s going on out on the playground, or do they tend to be shy about sharing that world?

    • jlfatgcs says:

      Thank you, Sue. Yes, I think (hope) most parents realize this. I keep telling them in many different ways. Those ‘moments’ are almost passionate, with eager children full of questions, wide-eyed. It’s not boisterous because they are so focused on what has happened in the chapter. It’s not at all shy for the same reason.

  3. So very true. There is so much to learn about our fellow human beings while reading for pleasure. I’ve listened to “Charlotte’s Web” on audio (read by the amazing E. B. White, himself)–very worthwhile! Love your picture book choices, too, especially “Library Lion.” Another one of my favorite is “Miss Rumphius”.

    • jlfatgcs says:

      Thank you, Marcia. You are so right. I have not listened to EB White recite his book. That must have been wonderful. I actually had a difficult time picking titles of picture books for this post. There are so many good ones that trigger all the right conversations and learning. I love Miss Rumphius, too. Barbara Cooney lived in Pepperell, the next town over from Groton. She used the town library as one of the illustrations. Small world. And, Library Lion is an absolute favorite.

  4. frenchc1955 says:

    Thank you for a wonderful post!

  5. frenchc1955 says:

    Reblogged this on charles french words reading and writing and commented:
    This is a wonderful post on the positive power of reading fiction and creating empathy in children by a talented teacher. I wanted to share it with my other readers.

  6. This is wonderful. Everything you have accomplished for children by opening so many different worlds for them is truely awe inspiring. My sister is a teacher for special needs children and my daughter is a speech language pathologist and both promote reading as one of the single most important things they can do for children. I am sending this post to them. Thank you, Karen 🙂

    • jlfatgcs says:

      Thank you, Karen. Your words are so kind and much appreciated. Reading aloud truly is the single most important thing I do in my classroom. I love it, and so do the children. I think every human experience and emotion can be expressed in good literature. My job (well, pleasure) is to read that with a voice that brings the words to life for the children, and then to stop and bring the children into that life with questions and discussions. It is wonderful.

  7. This is wonderful. Everything you have accomplished for children by opening so many different worlds for them is truely awe inspiring. My sister is a teacher for special needs children and my daughter is a speech language pathologist and both promote reading as one of the single most important things they can do for children. I am sending this post to them. Thank you so much, Karen 🙂

  8. miladyronel says:

    Great post. I believe my love of reading – and choosing to be a writer – stem from reading with mum long before I even knew how to hold a book. What you’re doing for your students is absolutely amazing. And definitely life-altering. Keep it up 🙂

  9. Good for you! It is a wonderful gift you are giving the children. Who knows, you may inspire the next big author. Charlotte’s Web has always been a favorite of mine. @sheilamgood at Cow Pasture Chronicles

  10. Lynn Kessler says:

    My girls and I have been reading this one. They are excited to read more every night, even though we know what happens (we have watched the movie, which follows the book closely). I think you have given voice to one of the important, intangible things that makes this book such a pleasure and wonder to read together!

  11. bahelberg1 says:

    It’s very difficult to imagine having lived life without the freedom of reading — and, for me, writing. My goodness, those two things have kept my life going, and to have the opportunity as a teacher to pass on those gifts to those who really want to have them in their lives must be very satisfying!

    • jlfatgcs says:

      Your words are like a golden arrow into my heart, and I don’t mean that in a corny or trite way. When I read aloud the world in my classroom comes alive. It is magical, and I can’t imagine life with reading, or writing about all that happens when I read. Many thanks!

  12. I read a study or two that scientifically established that reading changes how we think from the pov of others particularly in respect to empathy so you have that to back you up ☺

  13. reocochran says:

    Oh, yes! I am glad you incorporate the messages from, “Charlotte’s Web,” Jennie. My own children liked listening to the simple Disney story, “The Fox and the Hound,” while my brothers learned the animals at Pooh’s Corner helped Pooh get unstuck from a hole. Each teacher or parent needs to find something which resonates and shows compassion. As a 6th grade teacher I read the entire year, “The Yearling.” My Mom taught high school English, World Lit and Spanish. In English she taught, “The Pearl,” in Spanish, “Don Quixote” and in World Lit, “Things Fall Apart.” She had stacks of books she paid for to share with her students. My brothers and I learned about the good side of “Malcolm X” when we saw her stacks of books and read them over the summers. 🙂

    • jlfatgcs says:

      “Each teacher or parent needs to find something which resonates and shows compassion”. You are so right. Robin, that sums up teaching and learning. Thank you for your wonderful stories!

      • reocochran says:

        Oh, thank YOU, Jennie! ❤ I was just thinking about Ferdinand the Bull who preferred roses and was sensitive rather than being an angry bull. Such a tender story and I would have to read it again to see it is one which is still current. We definitely could use this in early childhood as a reference to how bullying is hurtful, or how to be comfortable not following aggressive friends. I will be heading to bed after I check out your recent posts. Hope you have a special Sunday! 🙂

  14. Nina says:

    I will definitely read this book with my daughter! =)

  15. I always loved Charlotte’s Web. Also Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books, Lassie Come Home, the Hobbit, and fairy tales. I read them all to my children, along with many others. It was a wonderful time together, and I’m glad you get to share it with your students. 🙂

    • jlfatgcs says:

      Thank you, Cathleen. The books you mention are excellent ones, of course. I am halfway through chapter reading Little House on the Prairie to my students. The sad part is that we won’t get to finish it before the school year ends. Love your story! -Jennie-

  16. Reblogged this on Notes from An Alien and commented:
    A quote from the author of today’s re-blog:

    “I will hang my hat on fiction and literature as the foundation to teach the most important things in life, beginning with empathy.”

  17. Pingback: Do you have a minute? Sorry for the Inconvenience. | ADD . . . and-so-much-more

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