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Using Books as an Empathy Resource

You gave us empathy book recommendations. Now we're giving you the questions to ask children while reading them.

By Start Empathy

November 1, 2013

It is one thing to read a book. It is another thing to comprehend a book. It is quite another thing to understand its characters.

Researchers have found that people who read fiction develop empathy when they are emotionally transported into the story. This is a fantastic opportunity for parents, peers and educators to help children explore the complexity of characters’ actions and emotions. How we read books with children affects their perceptions of social interactions, feelings and events. So the more we help children explore the emotions and perspectives of story characters, the better we equip them with the real-world capacity to understand the actions and feelings of other people.

How do we as adults help children get the most out of reading?

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It comes down to asking the right questions so children can reflect on a character’s motives and feelings while relating it all to their own lives. Our Empathy Road Map includes some of our favorite questions to ask children while reading:

  • How would you feel if you were [person/character]?
  • How do you think [person/character] might be feeling? How do you know?
  • Can you think of a time you felt the same way?
  • What led him/her to make that choice?
  • What would you have done differently in that situation?
  • Which character in the story do you relate to most and why?

These types of questions provide children with a channel through which they can express and understand their own emotions and those of other people. Additionally, it provides children with a vocabulary to better communicate how they’re feeling. Each story provides a foundation for a variety of questions adults can ask; those listed above are a few basic ones that can be expanded, leading to meaningful dialogue with children.

Within the past few months, Start Empathy has collected suggestions from our Facebook and Twitter follows about which books they think best exemplify empathy. We wish to provide not only book recommendations but also a useful approach for navigating children through stories. We thank all of our social media followers for their insights.

Here’s an example of questions adults can ask children when reading Charlotte’s Web:

  • How would you feel if you were Wilbur and were sold and moved to Homer’s farm? (Ch.3)
  • How do you think Lurvy felt when he saw the words “Some Pig” woven on Charlotte’s web? How do you know? (Ch.11)
  • When Wilbur met Charlotte, he did not like her very much because she drank blood from insects. Can you think of a time when you were uneasy the first time you met someone? (Ch. 5)
  • Wilbur tried to spin his own web the way Charlotte did. Why do you think Wilbur wanted to do this? (Ch.9)
  • If you were Wilbur and you found out your friend was going to die or was not feeling well, what would you do? (Ch. 21)
  • Which character in the story do you relate to most—Fern, Wilbur, Templeton or Charlotte—and why?