How Reading Books Can Save the World…Literally!

On Sunday 26th May I gave the Keynote Speech to the ASLA Mini-Conference in Hobart, Tasmania, to over 60 dedicated librarians and library technicians. The theme of the conference was “Get Passionate about Reading” – which anybody who knows me knows is a subject about which I am very passionate indeed – especially in relation to primary school-aged children! After my talk, many of the lovely attendees asked me for a copy of the talk, to show and discuss back at their schools. So here is a summary of my text with all the relevant links – and if you like what I say, please send the link to my blog to as many people you wish! And please do post a comment if you feel strongly about what I say, either way!



First, the bad news…

  • Authoritarianism is on the Rise

Fascism: A Warning, by Madeline Albright, former US Secretary of State, New York Times 13/4/18: Last year 71 countries suffered declines in political rights and civil liberties including the United States, with only 35 seeing improvements. 2017 saw the retreat of the US as both a champion and exemplar of democracy. Cites Vladimir Putin, Hugo Chavez, Recep Erdogan, Kim Jong-un – and now Trump – and we could add Duterte in the Philippines.

  • Violent extremism is on the rise;;

  • Intolerance is on the rise

– including in Western democracies – eg UK, US, France and even New Zealand

  • Bullying is on the rise

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  • Fake News is ubiquitous

A BuzzFeed News analysis found that top fake election news stories generated more total engagement on Facebook than top election stories from 19 major news outlets combined:

And we aren’t immune in Australia: The Anne Aly case:


  • Conspiracy theories are increasingly believed


(Psychology Today 24 Aug 2015: More than 50% of Americans believe in at least one. Mere exposure to a conspiracy theory about global warming made randomly selected participants in the tudy:

  1. Less likely to think there is widespread agreement to climate change
  2. Less likely to sign an online public petition to stop global warming
  3. Less willing to donate or volunteer for a charity in the next 6 months)

With serious consequences – associated with aggression; right wing extremism; racist attitudes to minority groups; political violence

Vox 19 March 2018


  • Stress levels are rising world-wide:

In the world generally

“Data from the Center for Disease Control show sharp increases in stress-related disorders and diseases over the past few decades, and the Brookings Institution’s Hamilton Project found that the physical stress load we carry is sharply higher over a similar time period “

And in schools

“Teachers and educational leaders in particular feel the stress coming from all directions – teachers are stressed, students are stressed, staff is stressed, and parents are stressed”. 

Psychology Today 15 Aug 2017

  •  Suicide levels are rising in the US and Australia

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And among teens: Teen mental health crisis : Sky-rocketing rates of suicide and depression among young people since 2011. Attributed to smartphones: cyberbullying, FOMO and sleep deprivation

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  • A Dramatic Rise in ADHD Diagnoses

22 March 2017: Rates of ADHD Diagnosis continue to increase substantially – United States: Between 1995 and 2008, the number of diagnoses increased by over 400% in adults; Between 1991 and 2009, rate increased by nearly 400% for boys and 600% for girls; And the trend is continuing:

  • Young children are addicted to digital devices:

Effects of digital addiction in kids: Daily Telegraph 24 October 2014 – Association of Teachers and Lecturers in the UK:

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Infants ‘unable to use toy building blocks‘ due to iPad addiction;

Children aged 3 or 4 can “swipe a screen” but have little or no dexterity in their fingers;

Older children unable to complete traditional pen and paper exams because their memory had been eroded by overexposure to screen-based technology;

Experts warn that the growth in use of digital devices is having a serious effect on children’s social and physical development;

Rising numbers of young people require therapy for compulsive behaviour after being exposed to the internet and digital devices from birth;

Pupils come into classrooms after spending most of the previous night playing computer games, with an attention span so limited that they may as well not be there;

“Brilliant computer skills” shown by many pupils are “outweighed by their deteriorating skills in pen and paper exams because they rely on instant support of the computer and are often unable to apply what they should have learned from their textbooks”;

Parents should crackdown on tablet computer use and turn off wi-fi at night to address the problem.

  • Sharp rise in “Autism” among the very young:

Le Figaro 18th May – explosion of problems with very young who are overexposed to screens

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– Epidemic of kindergarten children who spend at least 6 hours a day in front of screens who cannot speak, stack blocks, or hold pencils;

– 3 year olds with less than 10 words in their vocabulary

– Children who cannot answer to their own name and who stare into a void when spoken to;

– An increase from 1 in 33 children with serious developmental delays to 1 in 5 over the last 12 years;

– Children diagnosed as autistic, who revert to normal once their digital screens are removed;

– Parents whose addiction to their smartphones led to child-neglect;

– New campaign to approach the new President Macron to demand a large-scale prevention campaign.

  • Vocabulary is declining:

Young people are reading less and failing to build vocabulary amid a sea of text messaging and cyber chat, says literacy and child development specialist Professor Tom Nicholson.

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Study in Western Australia in 2014: Just one in five teens, or 19 per cent, spends some of their free time reading books every day, according to the research into the recreational reading habits of 520 students in Years 8 and 10 across 20 schools. In comparison, 67 per cent of all students said they spent more than two hours a day using social media, 36 per cent spent more than two hours playing sport and 37 per cent watched more than two hours of TV a day.

International PIRLS and TIMSS Reports published Mar and Dec 2017

PIRLS = Progress in International Reading Literacy Study

Every 5 years since 2001; 50 countries, Year 4 students; in Australia, 286 schools took part; 2016 results published Dec 2017; managed by ACER in Australia

TIMMS = Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study

Every 4 years since 1995; 60 countries, Year 4 7 Year 8 students; in Australia, 572 schools took part; 2015 results published Mar 2017; managed by ACER in Australia

Where Australia placed – PIRLS 2015- Literacy – 21st below Latvia and BulgariaScreen Shot 2018-06-08 at 4.02.38 PM

Where Australia placed – TIMSS 2015 – Mathematics – 28thbelow Kazakhstan and Serbia

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 Where Australia placed – TIMSS 2015 – Science – 25thbelow Kazakhstan and Serbia

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 It can’t be a question of wealth:

Top 28 Countries in Mathematics, TIMSS report 2016: GDP per capita in 2016
(data sourced from – Serbia has 1/5th of Australia’s GDP yet had better results.

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  • It can’t be a question of lack of access to digital technology –

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 OECD Report 2015 – in 2012 Australia had highest ratio of computers to primary school students in the WORLD ( – and this was BEFORE the Laptop for Every Child Campaign introduced by the Federal Government in 2012 (

  • School libraries are disappearing…

Between 2010 and 2013, the number of teacher-librarians in Australian primary schools dropped by more than 75%, from 5600 to just 1300. This was more likely to affect schools in lower socio-economic areas. ACER’s Staff in Australia’s Schools survey 2017

  • The Slippery Slope…

The teacher-librarian is deemed too expensive;

And is replaced by a library technician;

Whose hours are reduced from full-time to part-time;

So the library is opened only when the technician is present;

So the students get library access for just one session once a week;

The school uses all its limited funds to purchase laptops for the students;

And the library is closed altogether;

In the mistaken belief that with access to the internet, the library is now “unnecessary”…

And yet…

In 2012 – the Federal Government gave One Laptop Per Child Australia a boost of $11.7 million in the federal budget in the unproven belief that


“A child born today without access to technology in their formative years risks missing out on social and economic opportunities later in life.”

To which I say, what RUBBISH! Most people over the age of 50 are fluent with digital technology and picked it up “on the job”. Access to technology in their “formative years” in fact can severely damage children’s normal social, physical and mental development – see the evidence in this blogpost.

And to top it all off…

  • Temperatures are rising
  • Water supplies are shrinking
  • And the world’s 2nd biggest contributor to greenhouse gases decided to leave the Paris Climate Accord in June last year…

bi-graphicsparis agreement

BUT We CAN save the world … By Reading Books!

A Quick Diversion – Neuroscience!

 The Shallows: What the Internet is doing to our Brains by Nicholas Carr

Finalist for the 2011 Pulitzer Prize in General Nonfiction: “Nicholas Carr has written a Silent Spring for the literary mind.”―Michael Agger, Slate


Essential reading if you care about kids’ brains…and yours!

The following is extracted from his book:

A short history of writing, reading…and the human brain:

Pre-historic man: The brain was wired for flight and fight…to shift its attention involuntarily to the slightest change in its environment.

The Oral Tradition: Thinking was governed and limited by the capacity of the human memory. Language was rhythmical and formulaic to assist memorization.

8,000 BC: The Beginning of Writing: Sumeria – Primitive clay tokens to keep count of livestock, other goods – required the development of extensive new neural pathways to connect the visual cortex with conceptual processing part of the brain.

Late 4,000 – 3,000 BC: Cuneiform and hieroglyphic systems: Required neural circuits which crisscrossed the cortex, linking areas of the brain relating not just to visual and conceptual parts, but also those related to hearing, spatial analysis and decision making.
It also required the memorization + interpretation of hundreds of symbols

750 BC: The Greek alphabet – the first complete phonetic alphabet in just 24 characters, and the basis for the Roman alphabet we use today…

Two great Chinese inventions:

@105AD, Cai Lun invented paper


By the 3rd century, enabled rapid spread of literacy in China; by the 7th century it reached the Arab world; by the 12th century, it reached Europe

@1041AD, Bi Sheng invented moveable type printing







But it was too expensive as it required many 1000s of characters; it was in Europe that it came into its own….

1445 – Gutenberg’s printing press







Books went from being expensive and rare to affordable and plentiful in the space of less than 50 years. The more books that were printed, the more people read. The more people read, the more books that were printed. And our brains adapted accordingly…

Reading fluency required complex changes in brain circuitry:

Rapid deciphering of text; ability to concentrate intently over a long period of time on a static object.

Reading and the Brain

  • We had to concentrate deeply +
  • We had to work out what the letters spelled +
  • We had to work out what the words meant +
  • We started making connections with other things we knew +
  • We made up your own minds about what the writer was saying +
  • Then we made up our own ideas!


Resulting in…

The first great flowering of printed literature…plays, poetry, philosophy, science….


Da Vinci (1452 – 1519)

Shakespeare (1564 – 1616)

Francis Bacon (1561 – 1626)

Descartes (1596 – 1650)

Milton (1606 – 1674 )

Moliere (1622 – 1673)

resulting in…

A Golden Age of Ideas and Progress – The Renaissance spread throughout Europe








The Reformation spread in earnest…






And the Age of Enlightenment began:

“Freedom to use one’s own intelligence” Immanuel Kant


Books were changing the world

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 The Linear, Literary Mind

For the last five centuries, ever since Gutenberg’s printing press made book reading a popular pursuit, the linear, literary mind had been at the centre of art, science, and society. As supple as it is subtle, it’s been the imaginative mind of the Renaissance, the rational mind of the Enlightenment, the inventive mind of the Industrial Revolution, even the subversive mind of Modernism. It may soon be yesterday’s mind”. Nicholas Carr, The Shallows

How the brain gets wired – Neuroplasticity


The cellular components of the brain are not rigid. They change with experience, circumstance and need. As particular circuits in our brain strengthen through repetition of a physical or mental activity, they begin to transform that activity into a habit. At the same time, brain circuits can weaken or dissolve with neglect. Which is why we do best what we practise the most.

Repeatedly reading books wires the brain for: 

  • Deep concentration
  • Interpretation of meaning
  • Sensory simulation of action and sensation (imagination)
  • Making associations
  • Drawing inferences and analogies
  • Developing new ideas

Repeatedly using digital technology wires the brain for:

  • Instant gratification
  • Cursory reading
  • Hurried and distracted thinking
  • Superficial learning ie cut and paste

It “unwires” the brain for:

  • Long term memory (information overload and velocity)
  • Independent thought (automated information sorters establish and reinforce a consensus; they “do the thinking for us”)
  • Empathy and compassion (higher emotions engage inherently slow neural processes)
  • Focus and concentration


I love my computer and I couldn’t now do without the Internet!

  • Instant access to massive amounts of information
  • Powerful search and filtering tools
  • Ease of access to an unlimited audience
  • More connections to more ideas and more people than ever possible before

But today many of us are clinically addicted to our digital screens.;

These are the latest stats I can find on screen usage in the US.

  • By 2008 – the average American over the age of 14 was spending less than two and a half hours a week reading printed works. Bureau of Labor Statistics, American Time Use Survey 2004-2008
  • By 2012 – the figure for 15 to 54 year olds had halved to 2 hours per week – including weekends. The figure for the same age range for hours spent watching TV alone was 16.6 hours. Bureau of Labor Statistics, American Time Use Survey 2012
  • By 2017: A recent national survey conducted by Common Sense Media, found that parents spend an average of nine hours and 22 minutes every day in front of various screens—including smartphones, tablets, computers and televisions. Of those, nearly eight hours are for personal use, not work. (The survey included people from a wide range of socioeconomic classes and fields, who may or may not use computers at their job all day.)


Here are the latest stats I can find for Australia (20 Sept 2016):

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“The increasing saturation of screens in public spaces, schools and homes was labelled the primary reason of why the number of hours was rising.”


American Association of Pediatrics 2018

Today’s kids are spending an average of 7 hours a day on entertainment media including TVs, computers, phones and other electronic devices

Studies show that excessive media use can lead to attention problems, school difficulties, sleep and eating disorders and obesity

AAP recommends that parents establish screen-free zones at home, including bedrooms, and that TVs are turned off during dinner

Children and teens should spend no more than 1 or 2 hours per day on entertainment media, and that should be high quality content

Kids must spend more time on outdoor play, reading, hobbies and using their imagination in free play

TV and other entertainment media should be avoided for infants and children under age 2

Young people learn best by interacting with people, not screens



Some fascinating recent studies:

See also:;


To return to saving the world…

 Reading books gives us:

  •  The wiring for original thought
  • The wiring for imagination
  • The wiring for empathy
  • The words with which to express themselves
  • An extensive general knowledge


Reading = Deep Focus and Concentration

Reading requires the ability to focus for a long time on a static object. It improves memory, concentration and stress.

Real Books vs. E-Books

Real Books

Provide topography so reader can form a mental map, which aids memory

Eye tracking software shows they’re read line-for-line

Readers “remember and know” when tested for memory of content

Text is completely static so information easily absorbed by inner brain

1% incidence of distraction when reading from a real book

E-Books and Text on Screens

Inhibits mapping – only dimension is length + pages disappear

Lack of size, shape and weight, causes “haptic dissonance”

Are read in an “F” shape leading to less absorption of content and decreasing ability to focus on long texts thereafter

E-readers only “remember” but don’t “know” when tested

Is more physically and mentally taxing

Pixels interfere with the inner brain preventing absorption of content

90% incidence of distraction


Reading = Vivid Imagination

The Imaginative Mind

Imagination is more important than knowledge. For while knowledge defines all we currently know and understand, imagination points to all we might yet discover and create.” Albert Einstein

Neuroscientists mapping the brain have discovered that reading fiction taps into the same brain networks as real life experience. When you are engaged in reading a fictional story your brain is literally living vicariously through the characters at a neurobiological level.

 Reading Fiction creates Empathy

Fiction readers possess stronger empathy than both non-readers and non-fiction readers

Your brain automatically puts you in the character’s shoes

You learn life lessons as you experience the characters’ journeys

Raymond Mar, Psychologist, York University, Canada, cited in Psychology Today

Reading books = a more empathetic society

Historically, highly literate societies, especially societies that produced psychologically rich literature, function more empathically and less violently than less literate societies. Reading Fiction and reading minds: the role of simulation in the default network by Diana Tamir et al; Social cognitive and Affective Neuroscience Feb 2016

Readers = more empathetic individuals

“Individual readers … demonstrate greater civic engagement, including higher levels of volunteering, donating and voting, than non-readers (Katz, 2006 cited in

Which may explain the lack of empathy in Donald Trump, who famously doesn’t read books…


Reading = Extensive Vocabulary

Children’s books contain almost DOUBLE the number of rare words per thousand words than adult conversation! Hayes and Ahrens 1988 cited in


Why Vocabulary Matters

A person’s vocabulary level is the best single predictor of occupational success


Johnson O’Connor cited in


Reading = MASSIVE General Knowledge

 Confucius: “You cannot open a book without learning something”

Recent educational trends…

In the internet age, specific content learning is no longer necessary. Instead, students should learn critical thinking and problem-solving skills and can look up anything else they need to know.”

Why Knowledge Matters:

E.D. Hirsch Jr, Why Knowledge Matters

 Strong readers have substantial background knowledge

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Strong background knowledge makes it easier to understand what you read and to learn new things

  • Without knowledge, how do we evaluate what is true – From what is false?
  • Without knowledge, how do we understand another’s culture?
  • Without knowledge, how do we avoid past mistakes?
  • Without knowledge, how do we persuade others to agree with us?
  • Without knowledge, how do we expand on what is already known?

“Background knowledge is one reason children who read the most bring the largest amount of information to the learning table and thus understand more of what the teacher or the textbook is teaching.”
Jim Trelease, The Read-Aloud Handbook


Reading = Exceptional Stress Relief

 Reading is the best way to relax and even six minutes can reduce stress levels by more than two thirds or 68%! Research by Mindlab International at University of Sussex 23 May 2018


Reading = Great Academic Results

 The PIRLS 2017 and TIMSS 2015 Reports – what made the difference?


  • Home environments that supported literacy learning
  • Children who had the most books in their homes also had the highest levels of achievement in literacy, mathematics and science
  • Students whose parents liked reading had higher reading achievement than those who somewhat liked or did not like reading
  • Early start in Literacy Learning
  • Including having parents who often engaged them in early literacy activities such as reading…(and) telling them stories
  • School well-resourced and academically oriented where instruction was not affected by reading resource shortages
  • Reading instruction was a high priority in school – 18 % of teaching time devoted specifically to reading instruction.
  • Well qualified teachers
  • Frequent access to libraries
  • Students had Positive Attitudes toward Reading

Naplan reading literacy results compared with average school library budget

softlink-graph-dataSoftlink Graph 25 September 2017 Curriculum and Leadership Journal 9/8/2013,36453.html?issueID=12777

 International studies:

To improve student achievement we must:


Australian studies:

NAPLAN study 2011: NAPLAN scores for reading and writing were generally higher when student to library staff ratios were lower (i.e. better) and the school had a teacher-librarian.,36453.html?issueID=12777

Study of Gold Coast schools 2013: findings show the significant advantage that a well-resourced school library run by a professionally qualified teacher-librarian can bring to a school,36453.html?issueID=12777


Screen-based learning is not the solution: OECD Report Sept 2015

Australia had the highest ratio of computer to student in primary schools in the WORLD in 2012 – even before the Laptop for Every Child program:

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Conclusions of the OECD report:

  • Students who use computers very frequently at school get worse results
  • Students who use computers moderately at school, such as once or twice a week, have “somewhat better learning outcomes” than students who use computers rarely
  • The results show “no appreciable improvements” in reading, mathematics or science in the countries that had invested heavily in information technology
  • High achieving school systems such as South Korea and Shanghai in China have lower levels of computer use in school
  • Singapore, with only a moderate use of technology in school, is top for digital skills

Do we really understand the implications?

“Around the country (US), school systems are buying millions of tablets and laptops for classroom use, promising easier textbook updates, lower costs, less back strain from heavy book bags, and more interactivity. But the potential downsides aren’t being consideredWords on Screen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World by Naomi Baron, Prof of Linguistics, American University, Washington cited in

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Jim Trelease: The Read-Aloud Handbook


The Panchatantra: written in 200BCE: The Book is the Elixir of Life, for its wisdom will revive the Dead Intelligence” Hindustani philosopher to Borzuya, Chief Minister to the king of Persia, 570AD

Carl Sagan “The health of our civilisation, the depth of our awareness about the underpinnings of our culture and our concern for the future can be all be tested by how well we support our libraries.’’

But some children are never taught to read at all … If you want to help, go online to


And find out what you can do to help! It’s a wonderful way to change the world into a better, safer place!

Sarah Brennan, Author/Publisher

Copyright 26 May 2017