The role of affect & emotional attachment in reading

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“Vygotsky’s view of consciousness included two subcomponents, intellect and affect, which he regarded as inseparable (Wertsch, 1985). Social constructivist research on literacy includes attention to the motivational and emotional dimensions of literacy, as well as cognitive and strategic ones.” (Au, 1998, pg 300)

“As every teacher knows, emotional engagement is the tipping point between leaping into the reading life ... An enormously important influence on the development of comprehension in childhood is what happens after we remember, predict, and infer: we feel, we identify, and in the the process we understand more fully and can’t wait to turn the page. The child ... often needs heartfelt encouragement from teachers, tutors and parents to make a stab at more difficult reading material.” (Wolf, 2008, p 132)

“Without an affective investment and commitment, our words become unintelligible and empty; with that commitment words begin to show other manners of signification beyond the realm of literal meaning and correspondence.” (Krebs, 2010, pg 138)

“Imagine the following scene. A small child sits in rapt attention on the lap of a beloved adult, listening to words that move like water, words that tell of fairies, dragon, and giants in faraway places never before imagined. The young child’s brain prepares to read far earlier than one might ever suspect, and makes use of almost all the raw material of early childhood, every perception, concept and word.” (Wolf, 2008, p 81)

“Decade after decade of research shows that the amount of time a child spends listening to parents and other loved ones read is a good predictor of the level of reading attained years later. Why? Consider more carefully the scene we just described: a very young child is sitting, looking at colourful pictures, listening to ancient tales and new stories, learning gradually that the lines on the page make letters, letters make words, words make stories, and stories can be read over and over again.” (Wolf, 2008, p 82)

“As soon as an infant can sit on a caregiver’s lap, the child can learn to associate the act of reading with the sense of being loved. In a zany, endearing scene in the movie Three Men and a Baby, Tom Selleck reads the results of dog races to his infant charge. Everyone yells at him for corrupting the baby, but he is right on target. You can read an eight-month-old racing results, stock prices, or Dostoyevsky, although an illustrated version would be even better.” (Wolf, 2008, p 82)

“What has Margaret Wise Brown’s Goodnight Moon captured the imagination of millions of children who beg their parents to read it night after night? Is it the use of pictures of beloved items in a room - the night lamp, the mitten, the bowl of mush, the rocking chair: things that belong to the world of childhood? Is it the sense of discovery as children learn to find the tiny mouse that hides in a different place on every page? Is it the reader’s voice, which seems to get softer and softer until the book’s last page? All these reasons and more provide an ideal beginning for a long process that some researchers call emergent or early literacy.” (Wolf, 2008, p 82 - 83)

“The association between hearing written language and feeling loved provides the best foundation for this long process, and no cognitive scientist or educational researcher could have designed a better one.” (Wolf, 2008, p 83) 

“The next step in the process involves a growing understanding of pictures, as the child becomes able to recognise the visual images illustrating a few books ... Underlying this development is a visual system that is fully functional by six months, an attention system that has a long road ahead to maturation, and a conceptual system that grows by leaps and bounds each day.” (Wolf, 2008, p 83)

“This child already understands that particular pictures go with particular stories and that stories convey feelings that go with the words - feelings that range from sadness to fear to happiness. Through stories and books she is beginning to learn a repertoire of emotions. Stories and books are a safe place for her to begin to try these emotions on for herself, and are therefore a potentially powerful contributor to her development ... Learning about the feelings of others is not simple for three- to five-year olds.” (Wolf, 2008, p 85 - 86)

“Parents should be encouraged to help children name letters whenever they appear ready, and the same principle applies to “reading” what is called environmental print -- familiar words and signs in the child’s environment such as a stop sign, a box of cereal, the child’s name, and the names of siblings and friends ... Gradually, each child in most literate cultures begin to acquire a repertoire of frequently seen letters and words before ever learning to write these letters.” (Wolf, 2008, p 93 - 94)

“Rather, children move very gradually from an awareness of what makes up a word in a sentence to syllables inside a word (e.g., “sun-ny”), until finally each individual phoneme inside a word can be segmented (e.g. “s”, “u”, “n”) A child’s awareness of discrete sounds and phonemes in a word is both a critical component and an outgrowth of learning to write and learning to read.” (Wolf, 2008, p 98 - 99)

“At the most basic level, the children learn first to perceive words more analytically in the most effortless way possible - through attending to alliteration and rhyme and learning to categorise sounds on that basis.” (Wolf, 2008, p 100)

“Writing and listening to poetry, for example, sharpen a child’s developing ability to hear (and ultimately to segment) the smallest sounds in words, the phonemes. Such first attempts to write reflect a sequence in a child’s growing knowledge about the connection between oral and written language. First, letters are written (or drawn) in imitation. To be sure, there is often more scribbled ‘art’ than concept here. Next, letters begin to show off children’s evolving concept of print, particularly the letters in their own names. Gradually, the other letters capture how children think words are spelled.” (Wolf, 2008, p 97)

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Raymond Mar of York University explains the connection between reading and empathy. For more go to

References  (back to top)

  • Au, K. H. (1998). Social constructivism and the school literacy learning of students of diverse backgrounds. Journal of Literacy Research30 (2), 297-319.
  • Krebs, V. (2010). The bodily root: seeing aspects and inner experience. In W. Day and V. Krebs (Eds), Seeing Wittgenstein anew. (pp. 120 - 139). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Wertsch, J. V. (1985). Vygostky and the social formation of mind. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Wolf, M. (2008). Proust and the squid: the story and science of the reading brain. Cambridge: Icon Books.