Want to be a lifelong reader? Start young, psychologists say . . . .

Historians have long referred to the advent of widespread reading in the Western world as the crucible of so much of contemporary culture.

In a September 19th article in “The Atlantic” magazine (shared by psychologist, Adam Grant, in a recent newsletter), journalist Joe Pinsker suggests that people only “become lifelong readers” if four criteria are met.

It isn’t enough to fill our homes with books, he says. Instead, we must integrate them into our daily lives:

(1) Kids need to see their parents or guardians reading regularly. (It remains true that “Children learn what they live.”)

(2) Parents or guardians and children should discuss books during meals or car rides.

(3) Families should visit libraries and bookstores together.

(4) Books should be given as gifts.

As Pinsker observes, reading has been linked to “good academic and professional outcomes,” when we have the motivation to do it regularly.
Statistics south of the border are sobering. The National Endowment of the Arts (NEA) found in a 2012 survey that 23 percent of American adults were “light” readers (reading 1-5 titles/year). Ten percent were “moderate” readers (reading 6-11 titles/year), 13 percent were “frequent” readers (reading 12 to 49 titles/year) and only five percent were “avid” readers (reading 50+ books/year).

In Canada, reading print books was the seventh most popular daily activity for respondents (at 16%), following shopping (35%), dining out (26%), and exercise (20%). Respondents were more likely to read weekly than daily. And in that weekly activity, 43% preferred print books, while 25% read ebooks and 15% listened to audiobooks (Booknetcanada.ca).

Seventy eight percent of Canadians said that they had read or listened to at least one book during the past 12 months. At least one local writer in my writers’ circle reports reading as many as 50+ books per year.

Although reading has historically been a mainstay of cultural transmission (e.g. in the 1830s onward, Victorian novelist Charles Dickens published his novels in serial format in newspapers that were devoured by readers). But in the late 20th century, reading was undermined by the advent of television and, subsequently, the internet.

Statistics also show that urban dwellers read more than country dwellers; that affluence corresponds to increased reading, as does race. For instance, in the US, white adults read more than African Americans, who read more than Asian, who read more than Hispanic people. But that pattern Pinsker rightly says may only reflect educational differences between races and classes.

More interesting still, Pinsker cites Daniel Willingham (psychology professor at the U of Virginia) in his book, Raising Kids Who Read, as observing that there are three variables that influence children’s capacities to become lifelong readers:

(1) A child needs to be a “fluent decoder,” smoothly passing from words on a page to images in his or her mind. Reading must involve wordplay, and early on, children must learn the sounds of speech (an awareness of which has caused some expectant parents to read to babies, in-utero).

(2) Children benefit from having received a “wide-ranging background knowledge about the world,” so that they already know fundamentals of culture and society as contexts for what they read. 

(3) Finally, children need to be motivated by developing a positive attitude toward reading and a positive self-image as a reader.

Correlated to reading for both Americans and Canadians alike is not only academic success but also emotional well-being.

So, what’s not to like about reading?

Whether it’s Harry Potter or Jacques Derrida, we all know intuitively that reading builds the foundation of our communities: consider the importance of the government-funded, program-rich, public library system in Canada. And yet it pales in comparison to the sophistication of European libraries.

The recent American college admissions’ scandal involving Hollywood actors (Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin, amongst others) demonstrates the anxiety some parents face when they realize that they have not instilled in their children a love of reading and therefore the capacity to perform well academically.

Reading widely throughout life is a fundamental practice of lifelong learning that holds us all in good stead, whatever our age and wherever we live.

And now it’s your turn: how often do you read? And would you consider yourself a “lifelong reader” and learner?  

Please weigh in; I’d be delighted to hear from you.