By Helen Norris (PhD student in the Institute of Education)

My PhD research explores the fiction reading experience of adolescents. Does it matter if they read fiction, and if they do, what they read?

Book language is qualitatively different from spoken language (Nation et al., 2022) and fiction language even differs between genres and authors (Johns & Jamieson, 2018). This matters because exposure to language changes the language we know (Nation et al., 2022). And that may have all sorts of consequences.

I am focusing on how experience with the language of fiction relates to our socio-emotional skills. I was inspired by an intriguing study by Schwering et al., (2021) with college students where fiction was found to be richer in emotion category labels (eg. anger, angry) than other written genres, and that fiction print exposure predicted performance in a standardised test of emotion recognition.

Why might exposure to fiction help with emotion recognition?

One possible explanation is Conceptual Act Theory (Barrett, 2014) which suggests that by acquiring a category label for a particular cluster of feelings, contexts and physiological responses we are able to attach those experiences to that category label. Emotion labels enable us to organise and understand our current and subsequent affective experiences.

We know that being able to use a label for a particular emotion can be beneficial for regulating and managing our emotional experiences (Torre & Lieberman, 2018). Being able to identify a particular emotion in ourselves or recognise it in others could benefit our socio-emotional interactions and emotional health.

I am interested in adolescents because this is an important period for the development of skilled reading and vocabulary (Ricketts et al., 2021) and cognition (Blakemore & Choudhury, 2006). It’s also a time of increase in the intensity of emotional experiences (Bailen et al., 2019). I’m measuring emotion recognition skill in the same way Schwering et al. (2021) did, using a standardised multimodal measure of emotion recognition.

Boys struggle more than girls with socio-emotional skills (Matthews et al., 2016) and read less (Jabbar & Warraich, 2023) so I was interested in whether there were noticeable differences in reading habits, fiction print exposure, reading choices and emotion recognition skill between genders.

But I also wanted to look in closer detail at what the young people are actually being exposed to in their fiction reading and at more a granular level, the emotion labels they encounter during their reading.

I asked 700 adolescents aged between 13 and 16 years for the last three fiction books they read in their leisure time plus the favourite fiction book ever. I also gathered the fiction titles they had been exposed to via their English Literature GCSE curriculum.

I’m using these titles to build a corpus or word bank of extracts that I can interrogate to look at the emotion labels they feature. I’m expecting to see quantitative and qualitative differences in exposure to these labels according to text characteristics such as choice (was the text a free choice or school set text?), genre, readability or difficulty of the text and reader characteristics of age, gender and language status.

Any benefit from fiction reading is likely to depend on an individual’s reading habits and reading skill: how fluently they read and how well they understand what they read, plus what they choose to read, how often and how much. My research seeks to capture the individual variation of exposure to emotion labels in fiction according to adolescent reader and text characteristics and to relate that exposure to socio-emotional skill.


Barrett, L. F. (2014). The conceptual act theory: A précis. Emotion review6(4), 292-297.

Bailen, N. H., Green, L. M., & Thompson, R. J. (2019). Understanding emotion in adolescents: A review of emotional frequency, intensity, instability, and clarity. Emotion Review11(1), 63-73.

Blakemore, S. J., & Choudhury, S. (2006). Development of the adolescent brain: implications for executive function and social cognition. Journal of child psychology and psychiatry47(3‐4), 296-312.

Jabbar, A., & Warraich, N. F. (2023). Gender differences in leisure reading habits: A systematic review of literature. Global Knowledge, Memory and Communication72(6/7), 572-592.

Johns, B. T., & Jamieson, R. K. (2018). A large‐scale analysis of variance in written language. Cognitive Science42(4), 1360-1374.

Mathews, B. L., Koehn, A. J., Abtahi, M. M., & Kerns, K. A. (2016). Emotional competence and anxiety in childhood and adolescence: A meta-analytic review. Clinical child and family psychology review19, 162-184.

Nation, K., Dawson, N. J., & Hsiao, Y. (2022). Book language and its implications for children’s language, literacy, and development. Current Directions in Psychological Science31(4), 375-380.

Ricketts, J., Lervåg, A., Dawson, N., Taylor, L. A., & Hulme, C. (2020). Reading and oral vocabulary development in early adolescence. Scientific Studies of Reading24(5), 380-396.

Schwering, S. C., Ghaffari-Nikou, N. M., Zhao, F., Niedenthal, P. M., & MacDonald, M. C. (2021). Exploring the relationship between fiction reading and emotion recognition. Affective Science2, 178-186.

Torre, J. B., & Lieberman, M. D. (2018). Putting feelings into words: Affect labeling as implicit emotion regulation. Emotion Review10(2), 116-124.