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Dr Sanne van der Kleij    
University of Birmingham
Early Career Fellowship

Understanding the benefits of fiction for skilled reading and social cognition

Reading is an essential practical skill, Sanne van der Kleij explores the idea that narrative fiction is a crucible for interaction between social ability, motivation, language and literacy

Child reading a book
Photo by Andrew Branch from StockSnap.

Being good at reading is clearly necessary for education and employment; developing ‘a love of reading’ also has broader benefits for flourishing in our highly literate society. In fact, reading for pleasure is known to be associated with subsequent reading and language development. The strongest driver for this association appears to be the time spent reading narrative fiction, more than any other type of reading materials, such as non-fiction, newspapers or school books. However, it is very difficult to motivate children and adolescents to read in their own time. Although there has been much speculation about why children hardly read for pleasure outside of school (e.g. the increasing popularity of social media and gaming), we know surprisingly very little about the positive underlying mechanisms that motivate children to read. 

This project focuses on two aspects of narrative fiction: first, why reading narrative fiction, opposed to other reading materials, is such an important driver of reading and language development and second, how it motivates readers. An independent literature provides good reasons to hypothesise that the social content of narrative fiction may be particularly important in children’s reading. Narrative fiction is rich in social meaning and makes high demands on a readers’ ‘mindreading’ to keep track of characters’ thoughts and feelings. Readers mentally represent and process the mental states of the characters in the story, which may lead to closer reading than texts that require less engagement with mental states, such as non-fiction. Influential theories suggest that engagement in narrative practice is essential for mindreading and indeed current evidence suggests that better mindreading may be a consequence of greater fiction reading. Other evidence that mindreading is intrinsically motivating for many people suggests that mindreading may be a cause of greater fiction reading. 

I will investigate the roles of social motivation in increasing engagement and motivating children to read narrative fiction and the roles of social content in driving the beneficial effects of this engagement. Understanding these relationships will advance each of these fields and can yield new targets for future interventions to foster motivation for reading.

Thumbnail photograph by Burst from StockSnap.

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