How reading helps students deal with stress and uncertainty

Everyone has experienced the same unusual start to the school year. For students as well as teachers it’s important to adjust to the new normal as smoothly as possible. However, when students find themselves in stressful and uncertain situations, it can be hard for them...

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Everyone has experienced the same unusual start to the school year. For students as well as teachers it’s important to adjust to the new normal as smoothly as possible. However, when students find themselves in stressful and uncertain situations, it can be hard for them to stay focused in class.

So what can we do to help students through this process of adjustment?

First of all, you shouldn’t overlook just how effective reading fiction can be. There are lots of well known benefits to reading in terms of literacy and numeracy. But did you know that it can also help students to navigate stress, ambiguity and uncertainty more easily?

Let’s take a look at how this works.

What happens when we read?

Reading is a deceptively simple activity. We engage in it hundreds of times a day. However, when it comes to what our brains are actually doing when we read, things start getting more complex.

Different parts of our brain work together in order to make sense of the words on the page. The visual system is engaged in recognising the letters on the page. Then, the language region tells us what they mean. The act of reading involves other parts of the brain as well. The sensory cortex reacts when we read a metaphor involving texture. The motor cortex reacts when we read a sentence describing movement.

Keith Oatley, a professor of cognitive psychology, describes fiction as “a simulation that runs on the minds of readers”. It’s an immersive experience.

How reading reduces stress

Perhaps because of how hard your brain works when you’re reading, a 2009 study from the University of Sussex showed that reading fiction for just six minutes reduced stress levels by 68%. Reading was more effective than going for a walk. It also beats having a cup of tea or listening to music.

According to the author of the study, cognitive neuropsychologist Dr. David Lewis; “It really doesn’t matter what book you read. By losing yourself in a thoroughly engrossing book you can escape from the worries and stresses of the everyday world and spend a while exploring the domain of the author’s imagination. This is more than merely a distraction. It’s an active engaging of the imagination as the words on the printed page stimulate your creativity and cause you to enter what is essentially an altered state of consciousness.”

Moreover, another study from the University of Toronto found that participants who read fiction had a higher tolerance of ambiguity and uncertainty. In fact, immediately after reading, participants expressed greater tolerance of uncertainty and disorder compared to their peers who’d read non-fiction.

So how can we encourage our students to read more and build resilience in an uncertain and stressful time like the present?

Dedicated time to read in class

Have you heard of DEAR time? DEAR – Drop Everything And Read – is a movement that was started in the United States by children’s author Beverly Clearly.

Everyone dedicates half an hour of the school day to reading. They all drop what they’re doing and start reading for pleasure. That includes teachers, school management and auxiliary staff. Being a reading role model is important, after all!

Half an hour a day might seem like a lot to ask. After all, everyone missed a lot of school time in the spring. But time spent reading for pleasure every day will help your students to focus and concentrate in the rest of their class time. And that’s not to mention the way that their numeracy and literacy skills will improve. Who knows, they might even enjoy it!

The benefits of a school library

You have one very important resource within your school. We’re talking of course about the school library. A lot of research has been done on the important impact that libraries have when it comes to influencing academic outcomes.

What’s also noteworthy is the impact that school libraries can have on personal and interpersonal outcomes. A study conducted across Europe found that students who are regular users of school libraries display higher levels of resilience and self esteem than students who aren’t library users.

When it comes to library use, the school librarian has an important role to play. A good school librarian can really help engage students with reading.

So why not do some brainstorming with your school librarian? They’re sure to have lots of good ideas for getting students reading more fiction and feeling less stressed!

Learn more

For more tips on encouraging students to read, have a look at our blogpost on creating a reading culture in your school.

Also check out the power of reading aloud and gain an insight into developing literacy for international school students.

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