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Reading And Life Success

One of the least expected predictors of life success is one's reading ability in primary school. Reading with pleasure, and especially reading fiction, is far more important than we have ever imagined. Finding ways to develop engaged readers is important for every child, but particularly for boys.
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One of the least expected predictors of life success is one's reading ability in primary school. Reading with pleasure, and especially reading fiction, is far more important than we have ever imagined. Finding ways to develop engaged readers is important for every child, but particularly for boys.

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 John Guthrie, is "purposeful, intrinsically motivated, and socially interactive." Ross Finnie and Richard Mueller at the University of Ottawa have shown that "the largest determinant of university participation is the score on the reading portion of the PISA." Those reading scores proved to be by far the best predictor of post-secondary attendance, even pre-empting other socio-economic factors.

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," the authors concluded.

In his study of 4th Graders, John Guthrie at the University of Maryland found that even 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." Literacy is the key to economic and social power, regardless of socio-economic class. As we witness the growing gender gap between boys and girls, it is even more important.

The gender gap is a central element in understanding the power of engaged reading. 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. Boys are twice as likely to abuse alcohol and have higher unemployment, crime, suicide and incarceration rates.

One major factor in this growing problem with many boys is the exponential use of video games, especially violent ones. While playing video games may also have many positive benefits, Leonard Sax posits they are the major reason for boys' declining reading scores, school achievement and increasing social problems. Sax 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. In a recent study, 6-9 year old boys were given a video game consol for 4 months and were compared to a control group. The gamers did indeed spend less time on academic work and their reading scores suffered as well as experiencing more problems at school.

Yes, 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 some young men to have a more violent self-image and to behave more violently".

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

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.

Raymond Mar, at York University performed an analysis of 86 fMRI studies. He found that narratives in novels offer a unique opportunity to engage in what is called "theory of mind." He, along with Keith Oatley in Scientific American, 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. Literature allows not just learning about emotions, but experiencing them. It is a form of practice for real life.

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. Five-year-olds exposed to egalitarian material through narrative fiction showed increased empathic ability, whereas exposure to expository non-fiction was negatively associated with empathy. Oatley maintains that reading fiction can not only improve your social skills but my change your personalty, positively

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 socio-economic background. 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.

Let's get our kids reading!

Jerry Diakiw can be reached at

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