The Purpose of Reading: Seeking the Why

Even children read narratives to better understand the human experience.

Posted Nov 26, 2013

I was recently at the annual conference of the International Dyslexia Association (IDA), which was a truly excellent conference. Presenters talked about many of the important things that parents and teachers can do to support children’s reading development, and there was a palpable feeling of enthusiasm in the conference center. Everyone there cared deeply about helping children become successful readers. And conferences like this one are so important because the wide array of skills that children do need to cultivate to become successful readers can be daunting, not just to children but also to their caregivers.

Parents and elementary school teachers help children develop several of the skills they need to learn to read. These skills include vocabulary development, the ability to hear and play with the sounds in words, and the ability to recognize letters in print. Many of the conversations I had at the IDA conference focused on the knowledge and training that adults need to foster these skills and appropriately respond to the errors that children make when learning to read.

But children also need skills that help them read to learn, which is the topic I will discuss today. We focus on these skills less when talking about the reading time that happens in elementary school, but these skills are just as important as those prerequisite skills that help children learn to read. In order to read to learn, a child needs to have some general knowledge about the topics or situations discussed in books, the ability to make inferences and predictions about what is going to happen and why, and the persistence and curiosity to go on reading even when passages are long or words are unfamiliar.

I was thinking about and talking about this idea of reading to learn frequently during the conference. And when I got back to my hotel room at the end of one of the long days there, I was feeling too exhausted to do anything except turn on the television. As I idly checked which movies were available, I saw that You’re Next, a movie whose trailer I had managed to watch in the theater by covering my eyes with my hands and cowering, was playing. This movie had terrified me when I first heard about it; the trailer featured a family gathering in a bucolic setting being disrupted by sadistic murderers in animal masks who invaded the family’s home and terrorized them all. I was sure that I would never see the movie; it was just too scary.

But as I sat alone in an empty hotel room, I starting obsessing about what happened in the movie, and why that family was targeted for such mayhem. I needed to know. The need to know, to have answers, to understand why something happened, is a very human need. It is one of the reasons that we seek out stories, whether they are written or performed. Almost three hundred years ago, Hume referred to causality as the “cement of the universe”[1] – we remember and understand events better when they are presented in a linear order, and when cause-and-effect seems obvious. Without that order, life appears random, fragmented, and out of control.

And without knowing the end of You’re Next, without knowing the moral of the story and how I could stay safe myself, I was restless and concerned. So, using the wonders of modern technology, I went to Wikipedia and read the plot summary of the movie. And immediately, my worries disappeared. Knowledge is power, and comprehending a story gives us, at least, a veneer of control over the world around us.  

The fact that this new knowledge comforted me so much made me think back on my career as a reader. At a young age, I became interested in reading books about the dark side of human nature and the challenges that people had to endure. I remember my older sister laughing at me on a beach vacation, during which I – as a fifth or sixth grader – had decided to read Eric by Doris Lund, a memoir written by a mother whose teenage son died of leukemia. A few years earlier, I had gone through a phase of reading books detailing the events of the Holocaust…The Diary of Anne Frank, Number the Stars by Lois Lowry, and many more. In retrospect, and as I was training to become a school psychologist, I often wondered what drew me to books like these. Of course, it is pretty apparent that these books helped inform me about situations that were originally beyond my comprehension but that I wanted to understand better. 

Even for (and perhaps especially for) children, the world is an uncertain place. Bad things happen, sometimes close to home and sometimes in far away places. People get sick, sometimes close to home and sometimes in far away places. But we all seek comfort from knowing that people endure difficult times, and stories and memoirs are often testaments to the capacity that humans have for persevering and remaining hopeful. Nora Ephron once wrote, “Be the heroine of your life, not the victim,”[2] and this wonderful advice is not always easy to follow. One of the reasons we read narratives about other people is to have that experience – to learn from a protagonist who is the hero or heroine of a story, despite the struggles he or she faces. 

We read to learn about many topics, but fundamentally, we read narratives to better understand the human experience. This may sound like a sophisticated, adult idea, but my own reading materials from childhood suggest that this is not the case. Books like Number the Stars win the Newberry Medal because of how powerfully they convey important information to children. Some of the most popular children’s book series – like Harry Potter – focus on children who do face incredible challenges, feel alone sometimes, and manage to cope with what life hands them. Even books for very young children often focus on the typical challenges that children face, from preparing for the first day of school, to preparing for a new sibling. It is comforting for people of all ages to better understand how situations transpire and how they are resolved. We are always seeking the why.

Reading to learn allows us to answer so many questions about ourselves and the world around us. Acquiring this capacity is one of the main goals of our formal education system. And yet, there are so many obstacles that children face along the way. We were talking about some of these obstacles at IDA; all of the many prerequisite skills that children need to develop as they learn to read and all of the strategies that parents and teachers need to be sure to use. And this topic seems to be in the zeitgeist these days; The New York Times has included excellent coverage, in the past few weeks, of the many challenges that families and young children face along the road to reading acquisition.[3] The purpose of this blog is to talk about all things reading; the many things that need to be in place for children to learn to read, as well as the benefits that come about when children read to learn. Thank you for accompanying me on this journey!


[1] Hume, D. (1955). An inquiry concerning human understanding (1955 ed.). Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill. (Originally published in 1748).


[3] see and

About the Authors

Anne Cunningham, Ph.D., is Professor of Cognition and Development at University of California Berkeley Graduate School of Education.

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