Empathy- the new frontier in literacy?

Miranda Love Literacy Blog (1)
March 18th, 2019

Miranda McKearney OBE is one of the four founders of EmpathyLab, the empathy, literature and social action programme which aims to make a difference to thousands of children’s lives by building empathy skills through reading and storytelling. In the countdown to Love Literacy, Miranda talks to us about new research developments, which gives insight into reading for pleasure and the influence it has on building empathy skills. She also provides tips on how to prepare for Empathy Day on 11th June 2019.


I still remember the goosebumps moment, when in 2015 UCL published gold-plated research about the impact of reading for pleasure on children’s life chances.


And now, I’m having a similar goosebumps time – watching a growing body of research about empathy from neuroscientists, psychologists and sociologists. They say we are not born with a fixed quantity of empathy – our brains are elastic and 98% of us can improve our empathy skills with practice, and that stories and book characters are an important empathy-building tool.


Researchers are finding that reading fiction makes the brain simulate cognitive and affective responses to the real world. As we read, our brains are kind of tricked into thinking we’re genuinely part of the story, and the empathic emotions we feel for characters develops the same sort of sensitivity towards real people in real life, enabling us to experience other people’s thoughts and feelings. Researchers say fiction is a “simulation of social worlds,” and helps us practice our social skills.


I suggest that the implications of this are profound for teachers and librarians – because the research lays the foundations for connecting normal literacy work to the development of empathy skills. Imagine if empathy education could be built into literacy teaching in classrooms every day.


The benefits to society of raising a generation of children with strong empathy skills are hard to overstate. Empathy is a beacon of hope in a divided world, a mitigating force at a time when we have never seemed so divided, with hate crimes at their highest level since records began.


Empathy is also a crucial life skill that young people need to thrive. Sussex University’s Professor Robin Banerjee runs the Centre for Children’s Relationships and Social Skills – he says: ‘if you’re interested in children’s resilience and wellbeing there’s good evidence you should be prioritising empathy’. Psychologists Louise Bomber and Dan Hughes argue that empathy is the factor in school readiness. Because you can’t have good relationships without empathy, and without good relationships, children will not feel safe enough to learn. If this subject interests you, Chapter 8 of Bomber and Hughes’ book, Settling Children to Learn is a must-read.


Practical approaches

This emerging body of research has been the lightning rod for the founding of EmpathyLab, the first organisation to build children’s empathy, literacy and social activism through a systematic use of high quality literature. Our mission is to empower the rising generation to drive a new empathy movement, building a more caring world. We do this by creating new story-based tools which develop strong empathy skills and help young people put these into action.

Since coming into being in 2015, we have tested lots of different approaches. Some worked, some didn’t, and we now have a tested portfolio of practical tools which include:


– A new national Empathy Day, this year on 11th June

– A carefully curated annual Read for Empathy collection of books for children and young people

– A schools’ programme, with training and resources


Get ready for Empathy Day, 11 June  

A great first step is to join in with Empathy Day, the day to step out of our bubble and make new connections with each other. The calls to action are Read: because stories and book characters build our real-life empathy; Connect: make new connections with people, inspired by sharing stories; Do: put empathy into action, in your home and your community.

If you only have a minute, these are our recommended actions:


– Tweet about #EmpathyDay to swell the national empathy conversation

– Share how a book character made you feel in the huge #ReadForEmpathy campaign

– Use our Read For Empathy Guides to choose a book for a young person (empathylab.uk)

– Save our Read Connect Do suggestions for another day – Empathy Day can be any day!


First step outcomes for schools

Eventually, EmpathyLab hopes to roll out an intensive, year round schools programme. We’re very encouraged by the backing we’ve just received from the innovation foundation NESTA – we are one of ten organisations awarded a Future Ready Fund grant to develop social and emotional skills.

Meanwhile, we are encouraging schools to achieve these first step outcomes by joining in with Empathy Day:


– All children learn what empathy is

– They all have an empathy experience through literature

– The day is different, imaginative and enjoyable, so they associate learning about empathy with feeling good

– They see how reading can develop empathy, and want to explore further


If you feel inspired to get more involved and want to access the wide range of Empathy Day resources, subscribe to updates on www.empathylab.uk. These will point you in the right direction for resources appropriate for your setting.

Barack Obama famously said, “Empathy is a quality of character that can change the world”. We agree. If you do too, please join us in driving a new book-based empathy movement.


Want to join in?

Subscribe to our newsletter and resources to receive the latest updates  www.empathylab.uk

– Fill the airwaves with talk of empathy: join in the massive #EmpathyDay #ReadForEmpathy campaign

– Get 26% off the 2019 Read For Empathy collections www.peters.co.uk/empathy2019

– Free Early Years and Schools Starter toolkit

– In-depth Premium Pack teaching package £60 (£45 for smaller schools)



READ: it builds real-life empathy CONNECT: Join the Empathy Conversation DO: Put empathy into action
Find and share empathy-boosting books – use  #ReadforEmpathy Snap up tickets for The Empathy Conversation, Waterstone’s Piccadilly, 7pm Make an Empathy Resolution – special cards available in March
Use our Read For Empathy Guides for young people Use #EmpathyDay to share which social issues need more empathy Teachers: sign up; use our training, booklists, Empathy Day packs
Check out your library’s empathy books and activities Meet someone different in libraries’ Empathy Conversation events Librarians: sign up; pilot Empathy Conversation events
Follow the special author blog tour; listen to their podcasts Make a giant workplace Empathy Wall – share ideas for changing things Buy a whole empathy book collection for 26% off


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