Reading & Literacy

What It Takes for Kids to Get Lost in a Good Story, and Why It Matters

By Elizabeth Heubeck — March 29, 2024 4 min read
An elementary student reads on his own in class.
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These days, it seems that everyone with a stake in children’s literacy is clamoring for research findings on explicit, measurable, foundational skills that will boost students’ literacy rates.

In February, for instance, an Education Week article on a recent study on the “optimal amount of time” for teachers to spend instructing students on phonemic awareness generated wide readership. The researchers pegged 10.2 hours as the optimal number. Spending more instructional time on phonemic awareness instruction, they found, resulted in “diminished returns.”

That focus on reading mechanics is understandable, given abysmal reading proficiency levels on national assessments. Just 33 percent of 4th grade students performed at or above the NAEP proficient level on that reading assessment in 2022. But amid the abundant research dedicated to figuring out how best to teach kids the basics of reading, some educational researchers are examining a more amorphous, next-level concept: What gets students to read—to the degree that they reach a state of complete absorption? The concept, known as story world absorption, refers to the mental state of a reader immersed in a story.

“There is something remarkable that occurs when we retreat into the world of a book. The line between reality and fiction becomes blurred, the characters feel like real people, and after we finish the story, we continue to think about it, as if we lived its events firsthand, as if the narrative was a part of us,” said MG Prezioso, a doctoral candidate at Harvard University who co-authored a 2023 study examining story world absorption among 9- to 11-year-olds.

This state of absorption has weightier implications than its dreamlike description suggests, explains Prezioso, whose study shed light on which students are more likely to experience story absorption, what elements of a story contribute to that state, and how educators might harness this information to nurture reading engagement and comprehension in their own students.

Which kids get absorbed in reading

To answer these questions, Prezioso and co-author Paul L. Harris, a professor of education at Harvard, adapted for younger readers the Story World Absorption Scale—a self-report instrument that measures readers’ attention, emotional engagement, mental imagery, and level of transportation (as in being transported to the story realm)—while reading. Interviews with study subjects provided additional information on absorption.

Researchers aimed to learn from study participants (66 proficient readers ages 9 to 11) how they experience story absorption and what types of texts and text features they find most absorbing. The study did not include 9- to 11-year-olds with reading delays, a factor that can negatively affect reading motivation and comprehension.

At the onset of the study, researchers asked children to report on their reading habits outside of school, predicting this would impact how readily the young subjects became absorbed in their reading. Their findings surprised them.

“Although 9-year-old frequent readers reported greater overall absorption than 9-year-old occasional readers, 10- and 11-year-old readers reported similar levels of absorption, regardless of their reading frequency,” said Prezioso. “We expected levels of absorption would increase as reading frequency increased, but that was not the case for 10- and 11-year-olds.”

How absorption feels to children and what propels it

Some of the descriptors that study participants identified during their absorptive reading experiences included: “Light, dreamy, otherworldliness,” and an “overwhelming need to keep reading.”

Some participants elaborate on these feelings via one-on-one interviews. “Usually, when I’m into a book, I never think about anything else… like, oh, no, the test is on Thursday or something, I just hear the characters’ voices and I’m in the room with them. I never really think about anything else,” one of the participants said.

Researchers also sought to learn what elements within a text pulled children into a state of absorption. Participants reported preferring fiction over informational text—unless the nonfiction was presented in a narrative format, for instance, a story about characters aboard the Titanic. Mysteries and fast-paced plots proved to be engaging genres. As for characters, children said they preferred misfits or underdogs, as well as those to whom they could somehow personally relate.

One girl in the study shared the language that moved her while reading a book from the popular children’s series, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. “She referenced the metaphor used in the book, referring to Nazis as being like monsters,” Prezioso said. “These kids are appreciating the value of figurative language.”

Not every 10- or 11-year-old will express appreciation for sophisticated elements in literature such as figurative language. But evidence that young readers can become deeply engrossed in stories, regardless of their reading habits, has exciting implications.

Prezioso plans to continue studying how reading absorption interfaces with reading engagement, a known predictor of reading achievement. She’s particularly interested in whether absorption could be used to support literacy goals such as improved reading comprehension and, ultimately, to narrow reading achievement gaps. For educators who’ve come to rely heavily on basic literacy skills to support enhanced reading achievement, this might seem like a novel approach. But Prezioso suggests there’s room for both.

“Maybe there is a way to balance things,” Prezioso said, “So that the love of reading doesn’t get lost in the skill-building.”

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