26.1820, Review: Cog Sci; Ling & Lit: Nikolajeva (2014)

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LINGUIST List: Vol-26-1820. Mon Apr 06 2015. ISSN: 1069 - 4875.

Subject: 26.1820, Review: Cog Sci; Ling & Lit: Nikolajeva (2014)

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Date: Mon, 06 Apr 2015 14:10:14
From: Konrad Szczesniak [konrad.szczesniak at us.edu.pl]
Subject: Reading for Learning

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Book announced at http://linguistlist.org/issues/25/25-2851.html

AUTHOR: Maria  Nikolajeva
TITLE: Reading for Learning
SUBTITLE: Cognitive approaches to children's literature
SERIES TITLE: Children's Literature, Culture, and Cognition 3
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins
YEAR: 2014

REVIEWER: Konrad Szczesniak, University of Silesia

Review's Editor: Helen Aristar-Dry


Maria Nikolajeva’s book is predicated on the assumption that apart from being
an esthetic pleasure, reading fiction has, especially in the case of children,
a clearly didactic purpose. Throughout the book, the author repeats assertions
regarding the role of reading in children’s education, such as the claim that
“reading fiction is beneficial for our cognitive and affective development”
(p. 94). Guided by her conviction in the formative influence of reading,
Nikolajeva advocates for deep engagement with fiction from the earliest years.
As she puts it, “[r]eading fiction is the best investment parents and
educators can offer the new generation. Those in their twenties and older may
already be beyond repair.” (p. 226) The author draws a distinction between the
mere ability to read (literacy) and deep reading, or the habit of frequent
reading as “an intellectual and aesthetic activity” (p.1) The former does not
always translate into the latter, and it is only the latter that can guarantee
cognitive benefits. Nikolajeva’s study is a detailed exploration of how those
cognitive benefits are gained.

Each chapter focuses on a different aspect of a child’s cognitive development
affected by reading fiction. In Chapter 1, the author discusses the role of
fiction in building the child’s knowledge and experience of the world and
society, stressing that fiction as a source of that knowledge has the
advantage (over real life) in that it presents the world in a structured way,
where the reader is presented only or mostly with a distillation of relevant
facts. Chapter 2 focuses on the reasons why fictional narrative constructs
what the author refers to as “impossible”, “probable” and “improbable worlds”.
The author argues that far from being random, the choice of one of the three
worlds is dictated by the young readers’ cognitive ability to interpret
metaphor and difficulty they experience in extrapolating and generalizing. In
Chapter 3, the author talks about how children learn about other people, their
behavior and motivations. Chapter 4 deals with what Nikolajeva calls “creative
mind-reading”, that is, the challenge of reading subtle signals to infer
emotions and attributing. Chapters 3 and 4 thus explore what is known as 
theory of mind, the ability to attribute mental states to others and
understand their behavior and intentions. Chapter 5 picks up on the importance
of developing theory of mind, but here, in relation to self. The author looks
at how children acquire a better understanding and knowledge of their own
emotions, thoughts, and behavior. Chapter 6 focuses on handling hypothetical
situations that are counterfactual (and rather peculiar) variations of common
everyday experiences. Nikolajeva analyzes the theme of memory problems as it
is experimented on in three novels and hypothesizes on how this kind of
fiction may contribute to a child’s understanding of and ability to reflect on
what memory is. Chapters 7 and 8 deal with the development of ethical values,
the sense of right and wrong, and social justice. Chapter 7 focuses on issues
such as nature vs. nurture of ethics (is it possible for readers to become
better individuals through the experience of reading or is morality a
predisposition that develops unaided?).  And Chapter 8 reviews examples of
fiction presenting extreme moral dilemmas that few people are likely to be
exposed to in real life.


One of many strengths of Nikolajeva’s study is its breadth. In each Chapter,
she addresses a number of aspects of experiencing fiction and it is fairly
clear that her discussion is a result of careful reflections on the most
diverse aspects of the role of fiction in the development of children. For
example, in Chapter 3, she considers the application of literature in managing
emotions by bringing together insights from various domains including literary
criticism, evolutionary studies and psychology. Based on ideas from these
sources, she argues that people have an inherent interest in other human
beings and fiction provides a good source of information about others that
readers instinctively exploit, which is especially useful when vicariously
experiencing extreme scenarios involving mistakes and embarrassments without
the risk of incurring them personally (p. 77).

Throughout her book, she reviews a vast number of ideas coming from the
literature of cognitive criticism and philosophy, which makes “Reading for
Learning” a true compendium of the latest and most important ideas that
students interested in children’s literature should be familiar with. The
discussion of the relationship between fiction and learning is illustrated
with many examples from actual children’s novels, which are summarized and
analyzed in great detail. The selection includes both long-standing classics
and more recent titles that have received critical acclaim, which will be of
interest to K-12 teachers intending to attempt to apply Nikolajeva’s
reflections in practice. It is important to note that the author manages to
reconcile her advocacy of reading at the youngest age with the need for
reasonable objectivity, as she steers clear of facile alarmist generalizations
about the negative effects of the Internet and modern technologies on
children’s reading skills. She notes that according to recent research, there
is reason to believe that if there is an effect, it is probably more positive
than negative.

Apart from its undeniable scholarly value, Nikolajeva’s book is also a truly
pleasant and engrossing read thanks to a great number of facts, anecdotes and
tidbits that the author includes. For example, we learn that “Socrates was
vehemently against writing since he believed that it affected one’s ability to
memorise.” (p. 225)

If there is one serious weakness that needs to be pointed out, it is that
Nikolajeva does not seem interested in offering any independent corroboration
of the ideas presented in her study. She ponders—but does not test
empirically—the nature of fiction and its influence on the development of
children. Most of the discussion is theoretical in nature; she limits herself
to reviewing factors that come into play in reading fiction at a young age and
offering her analysis of the influence of those factors. While it is of course
not a fatal flaw for a study to remain entirely deductive, it is at the very
least tempting to see how the predictions made in the book would play out if
put to the test. I am not calling for any advanced neurolinguistic research,
but claims about advanced readers’ ability to “understand a character’s fear
without being scared themselves” could be verified by means of simple multiple
choice tests and inexpensive video recording technology.

For example, in Chapter 7, the question of story endings is considered. The
author compares the relative advantages of happy and open endings, observing
that the latter have become more common in children’s literature today, most
likely because they provide “good training in ethical thought experiments.”
(p. 194) While it is obvious enough that open endings invite readers to ask
what they would do in a given situation, it is unclear whether young readers
do in fact reflect on such questions, what conclusions they reach and how they
benefit from such introspection. Nikolajeva’s discussion does not go beyond
largely speculative assertions like “non-mimetic modes have a stronger
potential for ethical considerations since they allow much more liberty for
the protagonist to be placed in situations normally impossible in real life,
the ‘what if’ situations employed in philosophical thought experiments.”
However, it seems that in this connection, the really interesting question is
whether or not this potential is actually exploited. Do children succeed in
making the right choices thanks to exposure to hypothetical scenarios in
fiction? Does that help develop their sense of moral agency and
responsibility? Nikolajeva does not ask, assuming that there surely must be
some benefits. 

To take another brief example, the author argues that “reading is
indispensable for our human existence” (p.225), “essential for our cognitive,
social and emotional development” and “for our survival” (p.226), claiming
rather grandiosely that these conclusions are confirmed by “all recent brain
research” (p. 226). Yet we are offered little by way of concrete examples of
what brain research suggests. To bolster her claims, Nikolajeva does
occasionally mention research on brain activity, but she does not really
explain its significance. For example, we are told that through engaging with
fiction, readers can simulate emotions and thus empathize with the characters’
experience, an ability we owe to mirror neurons (p.83). However, the
discussion of mirror neurons stops there. Nikolajeva does not attempt to
clarify, even in broad strokes, what mirror neurons are or what the mechanism
is by which emotions are simulated thanks to mirror neurons. As a result, we
are often forced to take on trust the author’s many declarations that she is
“convinced that aesthetic knowledge significantly amplifies any facts,
opinions or beliefs expressed in a text.” The weight of the author’s
observations is automatically reduced: we get an idea of how the various
considerations might affect novice readers, not how they most probably do
affect them. Thus, while her on-paper reasoning is compelling and much of it
downright eye-opening, one is left with a sense of incompleteness as it would
be doubly beneficial to see at least some of her predictions confirmed

On a more positive note, the wealth of questions the author considers in
theory leaves ample room for potential future research and can therefore be
used by young experimentally-minded scholars looking for suggestions for
research questions. To take just one example, Nikolajeva discusses the skill
of “advanced mind reading” which involves knowing the content of thought in
embedded sequences such as “the narrator wants us to know (first order) that
the girl knows (second) that her brother knows (third) what she feels
(fourth)” (p. 114), and she states that “my guess is that novice readers
typically do not go beyond the second order” (p.91) I think this is a question
that would safely lend itself to empirical scrutiny. This and dozens of other
issues that Nikolajeva ponders can make significant hypotheses whose
investigation will advance our understanding of children’s experience of


Assistant professor at the Institute of English, University of Silesia,
Poland. My research interests include language acquisition, cognitive
linguistics, especially the semantics of grammatical constructions within the
framework of Construction Grammar. I study constructions in English, Polish
and Portuguese. Published both academic papers and popular science articles.
Co-edited (with Andrzej Łyda) the volume ''Awareness in Action. The Role of
Consciousness in Language Acquisition''. My book ''The Meaning of
Constructions. The Cognitive Denial of the Lexicon-Syntax Division'' was
released in 2014.

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