That experience is a prime example of how simple words can open up the realm of a fantasy world, leading you to imagine further, to learn all kinds of new stuff better, and to communicate more effectively with the rest of the world. Here, we will explore how our development from young to old goes hand in hand with reading and how reading builds up our cognitive skills in school and even when we get old.
I remember when I was young, I read a series of books called Wings of Fire, written by Tui T. Sutherland. The book series tells a tale about five “chosen” young adolescent dragons fighting to save the world from a war that has torn the different dragon races apart. It deals with prophecies and character growth, mixed with lots of action scenes as well. You can see the dragons’ inner conflicts as to whether they should follow their “destiny” or stick to their own desires. Now, some of those stories may seem silly or cringy to some people, and they are — even I find it silly that I once enjoyed that book series and that I still enjoy them even now. But it was that very series that opened up my mind to the one and only, my personal infinite world, my world of imagination. I’m being honest here, my imagination was, is, and will continue to be my main source of happiness, ranking well before my hobbies or my friends. It allows me to see things differently, very differently from what my friends can see and what I am used to seeing in the real world — it gives me fantastic sights and perceptions.
Now you must be wondering, just what does imagination do? Well, let me give you an example: A book in the library that has been sitting there for years without being touched? It’s actually a secret text that would grant me the power of an ancient hero, and I would have to go on a quest to save our world from destruction. Yes, to me, a book or story is just like that. It ignites my imagination, which will help me make an already fun experience even more enjoyable—it will make the experience seem grander, more purposeful, more fulfilling, and thus more exciting and thrilling. This magic power of imagination books or stories have offered me can also transform simple things, like playing a video game with your friend or exploring a huge theme park filled with rides. Furthermore, the imagination that we cultivate by reading novels and stories will also greatly increase our capacity to innovate. Martha C. Pennington and Robert P. Waxler state in their writing “Why Reading Books Still Matters: The Power of Literature in Digital Times,'' posted on the World Literacy Foundation website: “If imagination and magical thinking connected to reason spur discovery, innovation, and new understandings, it can be maintained that literature has a key role in both developing and engaging imaginative and magical thinking.” Agreeing with their ideas, the World Literacy Foundation declares that “imagination has many benefits. It encourages creativity, which brings about new ideas. It also takes a huge part in innovation.” Now, a great inventor called Thomas Edison once said, “To invent, you need a good imagination and a pile of junk.”
The act of reading stories and novels doesn’t just open our imagination, it is crucial to our development of language and literary skills. “Storybook reading is a wonderful way to introduce new vocabulary to young students,” shares the Head Start teacher Gareba Ali on the Northern Virginia Family Service website. “Children are also able to practice answering open-ended questions, solve problems and think about what they might do if they were in the story.” These benefits of reading apply not just to kids who are just starting to learn, but also to teenagers like you and me, who may think we don’t have to read much. Reading teaches us new words and perspectives. It helps strengthen our language skills and sharpens our sentence structure. These things are especially helpful when learning a new language; you don’t want to sound like somebody who uses Google Translate for everything you say. In their research conducted in 1988 in reading and school grades, Anderson, Fielding, and Wilson compared the amount students read with their scores on achievement tests. They found students who scored in the 90th percentile on a reading test spent five times as many minutes reading as children in the 50th percentile, and more than 200 times as many minutes per day reading books as children in the 10th percentile.
I know those who don’t spend much time reading must have other things to do, such as school work, physical activities or lessons — a lot of extracurricular activities added to the amount of homework we have — and all these things can lead to the scarcity of our time and thus worsen our anxiety. However, reading can help us relax and just let go as we sink into the story that we are reading. I don’t mean reading the news or checking social media, which still counts as reading. Not reading any news or social media can be bad — leaving us ignorant of what is going on around us — but it doesn’t prod us to think surreally, beyond the limits of the world surrounding us, and rather it keeps us contained in the real-world box. Take some time to read a fiction book or a fantasy novel to help yourself grow more in the creative area of your life.
What happens if we pause in the reading we have been talking about here? When I was in middle school, I had to take the MAP test, a test that measures our progress in school learning, twice every year. One summer I barely read anything at all, as I was preoccupied with summer camps and, for most of the time, I was too “busy” staying on my computer and talking to my friends on social media. When I took the next MAP test the following fall, you could see a significant drop in my scores. This means not reading imaginative works can negatively impact us, which in turn means the opposite is true as well — reading novels and stories can calm us down and keep us focused and our minds sharp. This experience made me realize that I was playing too much on the computer and social media and that doing so caused short-term happiness but a long-term negative effect on my grades and, most importantly, on my habits. Of course, I had to accept that if I want to succeed, I can’t just read fiction or fantasy; I have to read non-fiction and do reading for school work to teach me more real-world knowledge since my imagination can’t just “create” science or invent new things out of thin air.
Reading doesn’t just help us develop these skills; it also protects the precious skills that we have already gained. Most of us know that reading helps develop our cognitive skills, but many may not know that reading — especially imaginative works like novels and stories — also slows down our cognitive decline. Our cognitive skills don’t last forever, and they decline as we grow older. Reading books and writing are among the brain-stimulating activities shown to slow down cognitive decline in seniors. Fisher’s Center for Alzheimer’s Research Foundation has looked deeper into this matter, and their study has found that the rate of decline was reduced by 32 percent in people with frequent mental activity, such as reading, in late life. “This finding potentially addresses a question that all of us ask from time to time—can we do anything to slow down late-life cognitive decline,” write the authors of an editorial accompanying the study. “The results suggest yes,” they go on to say. “Read more books, write more, and do activities that keep your brain busy irrespective of your age.” This shows that the cognitive benefits of reading continue into mid-life and the senior years. So we’d better keep grabbing books if we want to remain nice and sharp over the years as our hair turns white.
Now, here we are at the end of our exploration into how books and stories help us in our growth and development. If I were to sum up the power of literature in one simple sentence, this is what I would say: it’s like your field of view turning from black and white, with an occasional dab of color, into rainbows and sparkles all across the sky. And as the extraordinary Dr. Seuss once said, “The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.” As I grow up, I want to be able to go where I want to go. And what about you?
“20 Dr. Seuss Quotes about Reading.” Imagine Forest Blog, 29 Nov. 2020, https://www.imagineforest.com/blog/dr-seuss-quotes-reading.
“Benefits & Importance of Reading to Children.” Child Abuse Prevention, Treatment & Welfare Services, The Children's Bureau, 10 Mar. 2021, https://www.all4kids.org/news/blog/the-importance-of-reading-to-your-children.
“Expanding Imaginations through the Power of Reading.” Northern Virginia Family Service, 19 Mar. 2018, https://www.nvfs.org/growing-imaginations-reading.
“Keep Reading to Keep Alzheimer's at Bay.” Fisher Center for Alzheimer's Research Foundation, 12 Nov. 2014, https://www.alzinfo.org/articles/reading-alzheimers-bay/.
Akinchina, Alexandra. “Reading Enhances Imagination.” World Literacy Foundation, 4 Aug. 2021, https://worldliteracyfoundation.org/reading-enhances-imagination.
Anderson, R. C., P. Wilson, and L. Fielding. “Growth in Reading and How Children Spend Their Time Outside of School.” The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign - Center for the Study of Reading, September 1986, https://www.ideals.illinois.edu/bitstream/handle/2142/18003/ctrstreadtechrepv01986i00389_opt.pdf.
Cullinan, Bernice. “Independent Reading and School Achievement .” School Library Media Research: Research Journal of the American Association of School Librarians, Nov. 2000, https://www.ala.org/aasl/sites/ala.org.aasl/files/content/aaslpubsandjournals/slr/vol3/SLMR_IndependentReading_V3.pdf.
Stanborough, Rebecca Joy. “Benefits of Reading Books: For Your Physical and Mental Health.” Healthline Media, 15 Oct. 2019, https://www.healthline.com/health/benefits-of-reading-books#takeaway.
Dylan Zhang is a 12-year-old boy born in Winston Salem, North Carolina. Now he is a seventh grader at Hong Kong International School. He plays violin and likes to play Ping Pong and badminton.
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