A study commissioned by the National Reading Campaign in Canada and released this week says that giving people choice and control over what they read as well as in related social interactions are key factors in instilling a love of reading.

The report’s author, Sharon Murphy, associate professor of education at York University in Toronto, drew from hundreds of studies and commentaries mostly written in the past 10 years. Her focus, which reflects the interests of the NRC, was on ways to build a nation of people who love to read, as opposed to literacy strategies to ensure that the population can read.

The report, “Towards Sustaining and Encouraging Reading in Canadian Society,” also supports theories that there are, according to a statement by Murphy, “many long-term societal benefits associated with being a nation of avid readers, including increased civic engagement, empathy for others, and improved cognitive and academic development.”

The Canadian campaign’s emphasis on the importance of cultivating the joy of reading may be part of a trend, Murphy told PW. “It seems like there is a movement globally now focused on this,” she said, mentioning as an example a Web site devoted to the topic that is being developed for the European Union.

While the NRC aims to encourage reading throughout the society and among people of all ages, children are a particularly important group because, Murphy said, a common finding from the research she reviewed was that reading patterns are established in early childhood. The concern for encouraging boys to read was also almost universal. She noted that reading patterns among parents may be related. Mothers are primarily the ones reading to children, she said, and “if it is not the fathers, the boys aren’t seeing the fathers read, so... gender identification could be a factor.”

There are also important questions about the way reading is approached in the educational system. Research shows that rates of reading for pleasure decline as children progress through the school system, Murphy said. Some of that may be due to overly narrow definitions of reading in the available research that don’t include many nonfiction sources such as newspaper and magazine articles and online material, she said. But one of the key findings in her report was that as reading increases as an “academic obligation, even students who report that they enjoy reading frequently don’t read texts other than those assigned to them.”

Giving students more choice about what they read is one possible remedy, Murphy said. “If you have more choice, you’ll be more motivated because you are going to read what you are interested in reading. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle. If you are less motivated and you are forced to read, you’ll get further entrenched in this cycle of being even more unmotivated.”

Another key finding was that although reading seems to be a solitary activity, people enjoy talking about what they are reading and benefit from such discussions. According to the report, “teens, in particular, identify the importance of working in groups as a key component to fostering literacy.”

Murphy cited the example of the work of York University graduate student Beverly McRae, who tested the effects of holding classroom discussion of books in “comfy” spaces with soft chairs and allowing fourth-grade students to have snacks to create a pleasurable atmosphere. She did audio recordings of the traditional classroom discussions and the test discussions. “Before they went into [the informal, ‘comfy’ areas] there were a couple of people who were very dominant in the group. There was a kid who wasn’t reading well and the other kids would kind of laugh at him and it got to the point where he started to laugh at himself, almost self-deprecating,” said Murphy. But in the “comfy” space, the same kids discussed the books more deeply, were not mean to each other, and the boy who disparaged himself became one of the leaders in the group.

“This report confirms that readers derive direct social benefits through social interaction linked to reading, which is a major part of the National Reading Campaign’s work,” said NRC vice-chair Rick Wilks in a statement. “It confirms our understanding of the individual and societal importance of reading, but perhaps more importantly, it confirms that getting people talking about their reading is the best way of encouraging others to read.”

The report also supported theories that the reading campaign is promoting about the societal benefits of building a nation of avid readers: “Reading for pleasure leads to greater self-understanding, the fostering of social relations, greater well-being, improved cognitive and academic development, and a higher disposition to participate in civic society,” according to a summary of the report’s findings.

The NRC, which incorporated as a nonprofit organization in 2012 and is working to develop a national reading plan for Canada, will use the report to identify areas in need of further research. The campaign’s research committee is currently developing project proposals to study who reads, and what they read, in Canada. There will be particular focuses on the reading habits of boys, and teen and adult males; reading in multicultural communities; and the way schools encourage or discourage reading for pleasure.

In fall 2012 the campaign launched a three-year commitment to word-of-mouth reading encouragement under the banner “What did you read today?” That effort continues in 2013 with a rollout of national advertising and ongoing social media initiatives. More information and copies of the full report are available here.