Assessment, Curriculum, Equity

The Power of Engaged Reading

How to boost our children’s life success? Instill a love of reading

Reading with pleasure, and especially reading fiction, is far more important than we have ever imagined.

If I were a father living in poverty, I would dedicate myself to encouraging my children to be engaged readers of relevant, age-appropriate fiction. If I were a school teacher, I would dedicate my professional development time to learn strategies to promote and develop engaged readers of meaningful and relevant novels, short stories and drama, no matter if I was a Grade 1 teacher or Grade 12 Physics teacher. It is the most important thing I could do for a child, especially a boy. 

A perplexing issue within this broad realization is the disturbing disconnect between boys and reading. It verges on a problem of epidemic proportions. Finding ways to develop engaged readers is important for every child, but particularly for boys. 

The state of Arizona forecasts the number of future prison cells needed based on Grade 4 state reading scores.[1] Perhaps we should examine what they know that we may not. Increasingly, new research across many countries is showing that the best predictor of future education achievement and life success is reading ability – or, more significantly, being an engaged reader. (The engaged reader, according to Guthrie, is “purposeful, intrinsically motivated, and socially interactive.”[2]) While most research has shown, for example, that family income is the best predictor of who goes to college, Ross Finnie and Richard Mueller at the University of Ottawa have shown that “the largest determinant of university participation, however, is the score on the reading portion of the PISA.”[3] Those reading scores proved to be by far the best predictor of post-secondary attendance, even pre-empting family income and parental education.

The connection between engaged reading and life success is, in a way, intuitive. But Timothy Bates and Stuart Ritchie, at Edinburgh University, have proven the connection between reading well and future job success empirically. They analyzed the relationship between early reading skills at seven and later socio-economic life, following more than 17,000 people in England, Scotland and Wales over 50 years from 1958. They showed that reading well at age seven was a key factor in determining whether people went on to get a high-income job. Reading level at age seven was linked to social class even 35 years on. “Children with higher reading and maths skills ended up having higher incomes, better housing and more professional roles in adulthood,”[4] the authors concluded.

By contrast, 79 of 100 people entering Canadian correctional facilities don’t have their high school diploma; 85 percent of them are functionally illiterate, and the vast majority are male.[5] 

In his study of 4th Graders, John Guthrie at the University of Maryland found that engaged readers from homes with few material advantages routinely outperformed less engaged readers from the most advantageous home environments. “Based on a massive sample, this finding suggests the stunning conclusion that engaged reading can overcome traditional barriers to reading achievement, including gender, parental education, and income.”[6] This is a remarkable finding as we continuously search for ways to narrow the gap between the achievement of the advantaged and the disadvantaged children in society. Literacy is the key to economic and social power, regardless of socio-economic class. As we consider the growing gender gap between boys and girls, it is even more important.

What about the boys?

The aggregate data masks a major problem that exists for boys. The gender gap is a central element in understanding the power of engaged reading. A recent Ontario Ministry of Education report on boys’ literacy[7] cites declining achievement and concludes that boys score lower than girls on all measures of literacy. There is a literacy gap between boys and girls from Grade 3 right through to Grade 12. Boys dominate behavioural and other special education classes and are twice as likely as girls to be diagnosed with an attention deficit or learning disability. They are more likely to be held back and to drop out. If they do graduate, they are less likely to attend college or university. If they do go to college, they get lower grades than female students and are less likely to graduate. Concomitant social factors are equally troubling. For example, suicidal behaviours are increasing in boys; boys are twice as likely to abuse alcohol[8] and have higher unemployment, crime, and incarceration rates.

I believe a major factor in this growing problem with boys is the exponential use of video games, especially violent ones. While playing video games may also have positive effects, Leonard Sax posits they are the major reason for boys’ declining reading scores, school achievement and increasing social problems. He argues in Boys Adrift, for example, that the evidence is unequivocal. The more time a child spends playing video games, the less likely he is to do well in school, at every level from elementary to college. But it is not just declining achievement, it is declining social behaviour as well. According to Sax, playing violent video games such as Doom or Grand Theft Auto “clearly and unambiguously causes young men to have a more violent self-image and to behave more violently”; playing violent video games leads directly “to aggressive behaviour, aggressive cognition, aggressive affect, and cardiovascular arousal, and to decreases in helping behaviour.” Boys who play these games, he argues, are more likely to engage in “serious, real-world types of aggression.”[9]

But engaged reading of fiction offers a powerful antidote to all these negative effects, particularly for boys. 

The fiction factor

If all reading is helpful, reading fiction offers added benefits – in fact, astounding benefits! It has long been argued that reading great literature improves us as human beings. Neuroscience is proving this claim to be truer than we ever imagined. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) studies show us that the same regions of the brain that are activated during a real event are activated while reading about it in a story. Reading a story produces a vivid replica of reality. Novels are not only a simulation of reality, but permit readers to enter viscerally into the thoughts, feelings, and problems of others.

Raymond Mar, at York University performed an analysis of 86 fMRI studies.[10] He found narratives in novels offer a unique opportunity to engage what is called “theory of mind.” He, along with Keith Oatley and others, reveal how we identify with the hopes, dreams and frustrations of the novel’s characters, speculate about their motives, and follow their relations, conflicts and activities with friends, lovers and family, the same areas of the brain are activated as when experiencing real-life issues. Literature allows not just learning about emotions, but experiencing them, It is a form of practice for real life. It is, both psychologically and practically, immensely beneficial.

It appears from this growing body of research that individuals who read fiction are better able to understand other people, empathize with them and see the world from their point of view. These researchers found a similar result in preschool-aged children: the more stories they had read to them, the keener their “theory of mind.” For example, five-year-olds exposed to egalitarian material showed more egalitarian responses on tests of stereotypes for women’s occupations that persisted over time. These results indicate an improved capacity to empathize with a marginalized group. Exposure to narrative fiction was positively associated with empathic ability, whereas exposure to expository non-fiction was negatively associated with empathy. Reading fiction not only leads readers to be more empathetic, but also leads to personal growth and improves us as individuals. Reading fiction, these researchers conclude, leads to self-understanding, a relevant key to improving ourselves. They call this effect the Self-Improvement Hypothesis, wherein “changes in selfhood can occur as a function of reading certain kinds of fiction.”[11]


The act of reading, particularly engaged reading as opposed to the mechanics of reading, is a powerful predictor of life success by any measure. It is the best predictor of who goes to university regardless of socioeconomic background and parental education. It is the best predictor of life income, career options, even life partner choices. And neuroscience is proving that reading fiction is one of the most powerful means of developing sympathetic individuals, with better social skills and higher levels of self esteem, resulting in increasing self improvement and prosocial behaviours.

The converse, especially for unengaged young male readers, especially many of those engaged in long hours playing video games, is higher unemployment and dependence on social welfare, antisocial behaviours and increased crime rates.

So, what’s not to like? Let’s get our kids reading!

Photo: Jerry Diakiw

First published in Education Canada, March 2014


EN BREF – L’art de la lecture, particulièrement la lecture qui engage l’esprit par opposition à la mécanique de lecture, est un puissant indicateur du succès futur, quels que soient les critères utilisés. Non seulement prédit-il mieux qui fréquentera l’université – sans égard au statut socioéconomique et à la scolarisation des parents – c’est aussi le meilleur prédicteur des revenus futurs, des possibilités professionnelles et même des choix de partenaire de vie. La neuroscience confirme actuellement que lire de la fiction constitue l’une des meilleures façons de développer des personnes sympathiques possédant de meilleures habiletés sociales et une bonne estime de soi. L’inverse, particulièrement pour les jeunes garçons que la lecture n’engage pas et qui passent des heures à jouer à des jeux vidéo, prend la forme de taux accrus de chômage, de dépendance aux programmes sociaux, de comportements antisociaux et de criminalité. Jamais n’a-t-on eu des preuves aussi éloquentes du pouvoir que recèle une lecture qui engage l’esprit pour nos jeunes et leurs perspectives d’avenir.

[1] Arizona Republic , September 15, 2004, cited in Educational CyberPlayGround® Internet Database. http://www.edu-cyberpg.com/Literacy/stats.asp

[2] J. T. Guthrie, “Teaching for Literacy Engagement,” Journal of Literacy Research 36 (2004): 1-30.

[3] R. Finnie and R. E. Mueller, “The Backgrounds of Canadian Youth and Access to Post-Secondary Education: New evidence from the youth in transition survey,” in Who Goes? Who Stays? What Matters? Accessing and persisting in post-secondary education in Canada, eds. R. Finnie, R. E. Mueller, A. Sweetman and A. Usher (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2008). 

[4] S. J. Ritchie and T. C. Bates, “Enduring Links from Childhood Mathematics and Reading Achievement to Adult Socioeconomic Status,” Psychological Science 247 (July 2013): 1301-1308. 

[5] Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, “Target Crime with Literacy: The link between low literacy and crime.” http://policeabc.ca/literacy-fact-sheets/Page-5.html

[6] Guthrie, “Teaching for Literacy Engagement,” 5.

[7] D. Booth, S. Elliot-Johns and Fiona Bruce, Centre for Literacy at Nipissing University, Boy’s Literacy Attainment: Research and related practice (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2012. http://www.edu.gov.on.ca/eng/research/boys_literacy.pdf

[8] K. Morris, “Increase in Teen Boys’ Suicidal Behaviour Linked with Alcohol Misuse,” The Lancet 352, No. 9126 (Aug. 8, 1998): 459

[9] L. Sax, Boys Adrift: The five factors driving the growing epidemic of unmotivated boys and underachieving young men (Philadelphia: Basic Books, 2007).

[10] R. A. Mar, M. Djikic, and K. Oatley, “Effects of Reading on Knowledge, Social Abilities, and Selfhood,” in Directions in Empirical Studies in Literature: In honor of Willie van Peer, eds. S. Zyngier, M. Bortolussi, A. Chesnokova, & J. Auracher (Amsterdam: Benjamins, 2008), 127-137.

[11] Mar et al., “Effects of Reading on Knowledge, Social Abilities and Selfhood.”

Meet the Expert(s)

Jerry Diakiw

Jerry Diakiw is a former superintendent with the York Region School Board and currently teaches social justice issues in schools and communities at York University in Toronto. He can be reached at jdiakiw@edu.yorku.ca.

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