George Lucas Educational Foundation
Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

How Reading Literature Cultivates Empathy

February 5, 2014
Image credit: Thinkstock

"Nearly a quarter of American adults did not read a single book in the past year." I was eating an apple when I read this this and I gasped and the apple piece got stuck and I ran around trying to find someone who Heimlich me and dislodge it. Although it came out, I'm still symbolically choking on this fact. It terrifies me.

Here's another thing that scares me: the dearth of fiction in the Common Core State Standards. As most of us know, the Common Core emphasizes nonfiction text. Students will be reading informational text, speeches, short articles, and so on. There are very few novels, poems, or plays included in the mandatory readings. I'm not devastated that in the Common Core era students won't be reading as much of the traditional cannon as they may have before. I am afraid, however, that children will have fewer opportunities to develop their empathy for others if their exposure to literature is reduced.

The Connection Between Fiction and Empathy

I remember the moment so vividly; even now, I get an achy feeling in my chest. I was ten years old, reading a book about World War II from the perspective of a German girl in Dresden. I was a voracious reader, particularly when it came to books about the Holocaust. My mother's family is Jewish and I yearned for an understanding of that time period. 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. Before reading this book, I'd have held that those Germans deserved it, that bombing. But after, I was shattered. "Us and Them," the blurry lines around innocence and perpetrator. That I could feel such compassion for the girl in the story and her family made me feel uncomfortable, unstable. It had been so much easier to be in a black and white, good versus evil world.

When I scan through my history as a reader, my attention is drawn to the dozens of books that I've read that opened me up to raw feelings of deep compassion for someone who had been "other." Who would I be without these stories? What would I be doing without those stories?

There's all kinds of research on this if you want more compelling and scientific arguments. See this article to start with, "Reading Literary Fiction Improves Empathy, Study Finds," or this research study.

Personally, I don't need to read these articles to know that this is true or to know that it's essential that children and adults read fiction from and about people who are different. How else will we develop compassion for African child soldiers? Or for the untouchables in India? Or for boys with Asperger syndrome? And the development of empathy, of the ability to feel someone else's emotions or experience, can lead us to take action. If we don't get the feelings in a visceral form, will we act to change the injustices in this world?

What Can Teachers Do?

One of the most challenging aspects of teaching is the number of decisions a teacher has to make. There are the 75,000 decisions we have to make in the classroom, as well as those we make outside of the classroom. The list is exhaustive and unless we develop a scaffold for decision-making, we can drown in these moments.

A scaffold for decision-making is this: a way of thinking through the decisions that allows us to sort, prioritize, sort, and arrive at a decision without being drained of mental and physical energy. For example, we might ask ourselves, what are the consequences if I don't respond to this issue, right now? Can it wait? Another criteria by which I assess an instructional decision is this, how will this activity help my students master today's learning objectives? Or, how will this lesson/activity help to build a kinder, more compassionate world? Will this action/statement/book contribute to cultivating empathy in another person?

As the Common Core rolls in, we'll have to make strategic decisions about when and how to integrate literature. I know that time for fiction will be limited, so we'll have to be even more strategic about incorporating a poem, short story, or novel here and there. We'll need to differentiate even more so that children can select literature to read -- and we might guide them towards literature that depicts the "other," so that we're intentionally cultivating their empathetic skills.

Reading fiction that helps us expand our empathy for others might just be as essential as learning to read manuals, or maybe even more so. I don't think the architects of the Common Core used this as a decision-making framework; I'm not sure it was one of their core values. But there's enough evidence in our world today that we need to intentionally cultivate empathy, and then there's evidence that people are reading less than they ever have; and so I'd suggest that within our decision-making spheres, we intentionally and strategically incorporate fiction into the nooks and crannies of our days.

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  • Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)
  • Literacy
  • English Language Arts

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