What a Pleasure! Making Reading Enjoyable
Laura Varlas: What role does the brain play in cultivating a love of reading, and how might teachers use this to cultivate a joy of reading in their students?
Judy Willis: When dopamine is high enough because there is pleasure, it also circulates. As it's circulating, it's going everywhere, but when it goes to the prefrontal cortex—the memory part of the brain, the hippocampus—it tells those neurons, those neurotransmitters, to release the acetylcholine, which is the strong memory and focus neurotransmitter. So you get pleasure happening—learning with pleasure incorporated into it with fun and laughter. And I'll tell you the magic list of what neurochemicals, what activities release dopamine. But once you have high dopamine, you have pleasure; you have the release of acetylcholine, which increases memory and focus.
And then, there is the dopamine pleasure circuit. I love this one. The brain has to remember what was pleasurable, from reading to eating. If something was pleasurable and they're told in class—for example, let's use vocabulary—if the brain learned that vocabulary lessons were pleasurable (because there was a funny teacher goofy-acting out), they see the lesson listed on the board, and the dopamine, in anticipation of something it thinks will cause pleasure ... just thinking about the vocabulary lesson, because it was fun, will, in anticipation, release dopamine.
So now the brain is primed. It's feeling pleasure. The dopamine is already circulating. The focus goes up in the prefrontal cortex, the memory is ready, the acetylcholine is up—and that's even before you start the lesson.
So here's what's cool. The things that neuroscientists have studied, that increase dopamine levels in the brain are the funnest things to do and, to think about it, they work. Being read to—one of the highest releases of dopamine. How cool is that? You want to get kids to want to read? You read to them; the dopamine goes up. The next time there's a reading opportunity, the dopamine is released in advance.
And teachers will know that, about being read to. If the class is out of control, if they're not in the mood for working, if they're sort of tired, whatever, I say to most teachers, "What do you do when they're losing it?" And they say, "Oh, I read them a book. They always like that." So it's intuitive, and now we know why.
So what else causes the releases of dopamine so that we can get the brain working at its best? Pleasure, feeling good, and remembering. Other things that statistically work: positive relationship with peers. So, cooperative learning that's well-planned, a pair-share activity that already has a good classroom community. Also, increasing dopamine—humor. It works. It makes dopamine go up. It’s not a waste of time; it's positive memory. Other things would be color, movement, music, and—I love this one—optimism and doing a good deed. It's not touchy-feely; it's now neuroscience.
Source: ASCD Talks with an Author: Judy Willis, 2008, Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.