Despite all my best efforts as an English teacher, the most important way for my middle schoolers to become stronger readers was probably just for them to sit and read. “Sustained silent reading” was in fact enshrined into the middle school English/Language Arts schedules in my district: it’s what the first 12 minutes out of every 72-minute period was for.
Getting students used to the act of reading silently and attentively for a stretch of time is important because it helps them develop it as a skill if they’re not used to doing it. For those that are, it helps solidify it as a habit. But there’s some emerging research in “literary neuroscience” showing what happens in your brain while you’re doing focused, close reading: it activates numerous corners of the mind that aren’t working when you’re reading with less focus.
Michigan State University literature professor Natalie Phillips teamed up with some neuroscientists to do fMRI scans on folks doing casual, distracted reading, and compared that with scans of subjects who were concentrating while reading long passages of a Jane Austen novel. The scientists warned her there would be some minor differences, but nothing remarkable. NPR reports on the findings:
But in a neuroscientific plot twist, Phillips said preliminary results showed otherwise: “What’s been taking us by surprise in our early data analysis is how much the whole brain — global activations across a number of different regions — seems to be transforming and shifting between the pleasure and the close reading.”
Phillips found that close reading activated unexpected areas: parts of the brain that are involved in movement and touch. It was as though readers were physically placing themselves within the story as they analyzed it.
So helping young readers–particularly reluctant young readers–learn the habit of focused reading is important. But here’s evidence of 1) how that focused reading activates parts of the brain that otherwise aren’t lit up during casual reading; 2) why that close reading is more of a cognitive workout than distracted or more sporadic reading; and 3) how that sustained reading should feel: it should engage corners of the mind that a reader normally associates with movement and touch. Perhaps even teaching kids how it should feel in your mind to read a book closely will help them build reading stamina and learn more as they read.