Read Your Way to Greater Empathy

November 28, 2015

Got empathy? Want a surefire way to cultivate it in your kids? Get them reading more real books. Not pop fiction, not mysteries or sci-fi, not even good-for-you primary sources. For activating and developing empathy, true literature is the way to go. So, fill some of those lazy vacation days with Hemingway or Morrison and you just may start the new year with a more empathic child.

In a recent post on the educational website Edutopia, writer and educator Elena Aguilar discussed how the “dearth of fiction” in most Common Core curricula has led to a decline in empathy among the nation’s students. The Common Core tends to emphasize non-fiction and primary source material, which in and of itself is not a bad thing, but it leaves very little time for students to read and engage with classic literature.

Children will have fewer opportunities to develop their empathy for others if their exposure to literature is reduced.

Research has proven that students need to read literature exposing them to different life experiences and worldviews in order to develop greater (and wider ranging) empathy. Aguilar recalls her own experience of reading a book about World War II, written from the perspective of a young German girl in Dresden. Through this reading, Aguilar first experienced a connection to, and a compassion for, “someone who had been ‘other.’”

This book, the girl's narration of the bombing of Dresden, opened me up to a realm of compassion that I’d never experienced—because it was compassion for those I had considered the enemy.

So many students today do not have the opportunity to read enough literature through standard curricula and assignments, and this is causing a crisis of empathy in our younger generation. Aguilar recognizes the intense demands on time for educators and encourages teachers to be strategic in incorporating literature into their classrooms. She suggests that teachers “guide students toward selections that depict the ‘other’ so that we’re intentionally cultivating their empathetic skills.”


On the Difference Between “Writerly” and “Readerly” Books

In their research paper published in Science, psychologists David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano “have proved that reading literary fiction enhances the ability to detect and understand other people’s emotions.” In helping us all to understand what to select when browsing at Amazon, iBooks, or our local bookseller, Kidd and Castano make a distinction between books that are “writerly” and books that are “readerly.”

For developing empathy, what we want books that are “writerly,” which means “you fill in the gaps of what you are reading and participate.” Filling in the gaps demands more of us as readers—it asks us to attempt to understand the characters and in this way leads to an expansion of empathy.

“Readerly” books, on the other hand, mostly serve to entertain. As readers we are basically along for the ride; nothing much is asked or expected of us. This doesn't mean that "readerly" books do not have value, but they are not what you want to reach for when seeking to cultivate empathy.


Although leisure time is at a premium for students and parents alike, vacation days present an ideal opportunity to make up for what may be missing during the school year. Fill some of those holiday hours with literature—all the better if the protagonist is someone quite unlike you—and you may just find your compassion quotient on the rise.

To learn more about how storytelling impacts empathy, and even changes our brain chemistry, check out this video that gets to the heart of what it means to be a social creature.



By Lauren Frazier

Tag: Exploring Education

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