Tips & Advice

Building a World of Empathy Through the Simple Yet Profound Act of Reading Aloud

by Pam Allyn

Photo credit: LitWorld

“Empathy is as important as literacy. When we read with a child, we are doing so much more than teaching him to read or instilling in her a love of language. We are doing something that I believe is just as powerful, and it is something that we are losing as a culture: by reading with a child, we are teaching that child to be human.”–Anna Dewdney

Anna Dewdney, the passionately adored author of so many beautiful books for children, taught us through her example that the power of the read-aloud cannot be underestimated. It is profound, powerful, and life changing.

Her last wish was that instead of honoring her with a funeral, people find a child to read aloud to in her memory. Her message resonates so deeply with all of us at LitWorld. This year we dedicate World Read Aloud Day, our signature holiday for the power of reading aloud, to Anna Dewdney. Worldwide, the voices of all who read will sing with the memory of her beautiful last call to action.

The transformational power of the connectedness between child, book, and the reader to build a world of empathy was the impetus behind the creation of World Read Aloud Day. We founded this holiday in 2010 in response to the children who show us that they feel the profound connections of empathy to literacy and want more of it.

We dream of a compassionate, equitable world for children everywhere. The simple act of reading aloud is so deeply profound, so we knew that the read-aloud was just magical enough to get such a big job done. The read-aloud does so much more than help us expand our vocabulary, language skills, and reading confidence. More, and what Anna was speaking to and modeling in her own beautiful life and work, is that the read-aloud forges a pathway for a child to build an empathetic life. By reading together, and talking together about characters and ideas, and themes, we create a sense of community and belonging with each turn of the page.

Stories transport us to worlds beyond our own, and the shared experience of reading with another person creates a sense of self-awareness and an awareness of others. Anna said: “The child learns to feel the world more deeply.” Yes, and the child also learns to feel not so alone. The children who read with me the first pages of Charlotte’s Web who live in a very difficult and challenging part of Nairobi, Kenya, understood very well Fern’s love for Wilbur and her desire to protect him. They also shared with me how reading about Wilbur and Charlotte’s friendship made them feel so powerfully how friendship can sustain them in the darkest times. The book, the talk, and the children’s own voices create a web of understanding that radiates out to others. The children who read together, who hear a read-aloud, can take that empathy-igniting moment and bring it with them throughout all their days.

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A 2013 study at Harvard University found that reading fiction has a positive correlation with emotional intelligence. Students in the study who “immersed themselves in the mental life of fictional characters” exhibited an increased ability to recognize perspectives and desires outside of their own. Anna Dewdney understood this in writing about her gentle llama and all the depth of feeling in those profoundly tender stories. She understood that the child who hears such stories will recognize the world of others in new ways and find comfort themselves.

Since its inception, World Read Aloud Day has become a widespread, grassroots movement for inspiring all people to use the read-aloud not only as a tool for enjoyment but as a tool for societal change. We are never truly alone when we read together.

Join with us in Anna’s honor and spirit and for all the children everywhere who so love the warmth and benefits of the read-aloud to foster empathy and understanding, peace and joy. She said: “Read a story. Have fun. Read in character and use funny voices … laugh and cry. Be human, loving, and strong, and that will allow the children in your care to be human, loving, and strong.” Yes, Anna, we will!

Renew your own commitment to a more equitable future for all the world’s children with the simple act of reading together on February 16th with LitWorld. Find out how you can participate at litworld.org/wrad, and let’s make this the best WRAD ever, together.

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