Joy Kirr is a middle school teacher, author, and speaker. Her 7th grade ELA (English Language Arts) classes are working to improve their lives through student-directed learning - without marks throughout the year. This is a log of their learning experiences... Want to have her speak with your staff or facilitate a workshop? Here is Joy's PORTFOLIO.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Does Reading Actually Change the Brain?

This is a short close-reading activity we tried in our 7th grade ELA classes…

We had just finished reading a difficult article (“Demystifying the Adolescent Brain”) that we used in conjunction with Phineas Gage: A Gruesome but True Story About Brain Science. We had finished writing our polished piece, as well. It was time for a change. To transition back to fiction for a bit, we found this article, “Does Reading Actually Change the Brain?” and decided to use it for a quick activity.

We had four steps to this activity. Here were the instructions for each step:
1. Read silently. Jot down at least two questions you have after reading this selection.

2. Read aloud - Jot down any more questions you may have while your teacher reads this aloud.

3. Choose one - Choose one of your questions to put on the sticky notes. You will be asking this question to your group.

4. In groups - Person whose first initial of his/her last name closest to Z goes first. That person puts his/her sticky note on the sheet of paper, as he/she is asking it of the group. While the group helps him/her with an answer, he/she writes down notes that reflect the group’s answers/discussion. Continue going around the group discussing questions.

Before you peek at what the students came up with, try this yourself. It makes a difference if you actually try what you ask of your students. Go on… this post will wait.

Questions students created - check out how there were only a few literal questions, mostly inferential questions, and some critical thinking questions thrown in for good measure (and quality discussions):

Are the results different for a less interesting book?
Why did they read in the evening?
Does gender matter?
Why do your favorite novels affect more of your brain?
Why does reading a novel “change” your brain?
What does “shadow activity” mean?
Does the genre/type of the book affect how much or how little your brain changes?
How does the brain “connect” to the story?
What is a protagonist?
How long does this brain activity last? Is it possible to tell?
How old are the patients?
In fMRI scans, can they actually read your mind?
Would a different story have a different effect on your brain?
Do all books do that?
Would a picture book have the same effect?
Why does reading define a person?
Does how long it takes you to read the book matter?
How does this affect your life?
Why didn’t the neural changes have immediate reactions?
Does this happen with every book or only the ones you’re interested in?
Can a novel about negativity make someone negative?
Does it matter if it is a short story or novel?
Why did they only use 21 students?

What I loved about this activity… It was one period long (40 min). I did not teach - students taught and learned from each other. Students were engaged in talking about what THEY wanted to know from the text. Students had to go back to the text again and again to find answers or prove their theories. When they were finished, I could see who didn’t seem to understand the basics, and who could have gone further with this material in some fashion. The article was engaging, and non threatening, as they had one time reading it independently, and another with me reading it aloud.

How I might modify this activity… I could have had the question with the most discussion and disagreement from each group up on the board, voted on one as a class, and held a fishbowl discussion. I might try to teach them how to take discussion notes first, as I noticed that some notes were verbatim what they said, and some were one-word responses. Some were a bit immature, as well, but that taught me that I needed to make the rounds to more groups!

This close-reading activity was inspired by a day of professional development given by my district. Yes, indeed - some district-initiated PD is worth it, and for that I am grateful!


  1. This is great. I'm not sure though. Which was the fiction article they read? And, what was the PD you guys had that sparked this idea.

  2. Both articles we read were nonfiction, and the full text for each is linked in the first paragraph. We've been having PD based on the Common Core since 2011, so all of them were the catalyst for this idea, I suppose...