Books and belonging: the importance of diversifying reading materials in developing empathetic and enthusiastic learners.

Written by Beejal L, a first-class graduate from The University of Warwick and an outstanding lead practitioner of English in secondary schools across the UK. Beejal graduated from the Teach First Leadership Development Programme in 2017 and has been an AQA examiner.

A pertinent study by Penguin Books UK and The Runnymede Trust (2021) explains that ‘books create belonging’: they help us ‘see’ and ‘understand’ one another, ‘shining a light’ in this world.[1] Recent research in neuroscience echoes this suggesting that reading literary fiction helps develop ‘empathy’, ‘theory of mind’ and ‘critical thinking’.[2] For many, reading is a form of escapism: allowing us to transcend the realms of our own personal and human experience to access and explore a universal, supernatural and even metaphysical one. Therefore, having the ability and opportunity to ‘sample across a wider range of possible people’ invites us to learn and understand difference. This is of paramount importance as we build an inclusive, empathetic society for our children that celebrates and values diversity, allowing them to thrive and flourish in all walks of life.[3]

From 2020, schools and teachers around the world understandably raced to diversify reading materials and subject matter to reflect the rich diversity of the world we live in, helping to foster a sense of belonging and identity in the classroom. In the UK, part of this mission constituted a drive to teach about intertwined histories and the shared eclectic lived experiences of many among us.

Recently, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed instilling a love of reading in a homeschooling placement for a Year 5 pupil. Despite them being a very reluctant reader, they’ve had a fantastic experience studying ‘Coming to England’ by Baroness Floella Benjamin. Gaining access to eleven-year-old Floella created an exciting, tangible learning experience about the vibrant, musical and magical life in Trinidad. My pupil heard steel pan drumming for the first time, ate fresh fish-fry and we even incorporated textiles into our scheme of work to learn about the colourful aesthetics and cultural heritage of the Caribbean; something that was exported to Britain by the Windrush Generation. In this learning cycle, my student was able to address preconceived notions of push and pull factors for those emigrating to the UK, empathising with the experiences of many whilst being captivated by character and plot development. They were pleasantly surprised and encouraged to have reignited a spark and love for reading and learning. It goes without saying that progress and attainment grades this half term have soared and their reading/writing levels currently exceed expectations.

It is for this reason that my mantra, as a lead practitioner of English, is that pupils must develop a love for learning/reading so as to wholeheartedly invest into their educational experience. The more we continue to diversify this experience for pupils, offering them a broad and inspiring range of topics, subjects and reading materials, the greater success they will enjoy as readers. This is ever more the case today where social media and the internet strongly compete with traditional forms of leisure and relaxation!




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