Teenagers and reading

Why do books like The Hunger Games appeal so strongly to teens? And does it really matter whether they're reading a novel or a newspaper? Recently, Chris Leslie of Scottish Book Trust heard children's author Nicola Morgan address these points in a keynote speech at the National Literacy Network conference.

A bit of controversy is always nice at an educational conference. It’s what educators want to hear. Surprising though it may be, I’ve found that where education is concerned, the most controversial statements often tend to be rooted in common sense. At the recent National Literacy Network Conference in March, children’s author Nicola Morgan delivered the keynote address, and made several pertinent and insightful points which got everybody talking.

Nicola arrived in the wake of her success at the Scottish Children’s Book Awards, winning in the 12-16 category for her innovative and memorable teen novel Wasted.

As an English teacher, I often advised parents that when it came to their child’s reading habits, “It doesn’t matter what they’re reading, so long as they are reading.” I can still understand the principles behind this advice, but Nicola effected a revision in my mind by highlighting and explaining research that suggests it could be more beneficial for children’s development to read fiction than non-fiction.

She got the audience’s attention with that point for sure, and what she had to say next made perfect sense (as well as having sound basis in research). Fiction develops our capacity to empathise, to imagine ourselves in someone else’s shoes. It allows us to see first-hand the perspective of an individual dealing with conflicts, whether the conflict they are dealing with is recognisable to us or not. The long-standing research of Keith Oatley and Raymond Marr, to which Nicola referred, postulates that only story can do this, and therefore that fiction is crucial for developing empathy.

Nicola spoke of the different effects of a novel about social issues and a discursive essay about the same issues. In an experiment, some students read a chapter of a novel about an Algerian woman’s struggles, while others read a discursive essay about women’s rights in Algeria. Those who read the fiction showed increased empathy and decreased tolerance for the situation compared to those who read the essay. Similar but broader differences were found in another experiment using a Chekhov story. Young children learn about the feelings of others through stories, and the suggestion, backed up by brain-scanning, is that when we project ourselves into the narrative, the comprehension is greater and more personal. We experience the feelings as our own.

Of course, narrative non-fiction seems like a logical meeting point for real life stories and literary depth, and Nicola pointed this out as well.

The power of fiction to draw our empathy is further enhanced by the fact that it has the freedom to depict all kinds of characters in a wide range of situations. Nicola drew on her research into the teenage brain to highlight the benefits for teenagers, who experience highly charged emotions, of reading fiction featuring characters in emotionally charged situations. Exploration of these emotions through fiction is enriching for young people who need to deal with their feelings.

Nicola wrapped up with a story about her recent conversation with her hairdresser, who had been inspired to read books by her school librarian. Having never felt like a reader before, the girl was led to a love of reading by her librarian’s constant encouragement and recommendations. It was a clear reminder of the value of a librarian’s professional expertise, and of the importance of finding the right book for the right person. 

Find out more about Nicola Morgan at her website! 

We have teaching resources available for Nicola's novel Wasted.

Allan Burnett is a great example of an author who writes excellent narrative non-fiction - check out his book Robert Burns and all That!