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Reading for fun improves childrens brains study confirms

Reading for fun improves children's brains, study confirms

Wednesday 18 September 2013

Photograph: RelaXimages/Corbis

A study of 17,000 people from birth indicates that reading for pleasure improves not just literacy, but maths ability too. And we will soon know whether the effects continue into adult life

It won't surprise anyone that bright children tend to read for pleasure more than their less skilled peers. But does reading for pleasure increase the rate of children's learning? This is the question Matt Brown and I set out to answer using the British Cohort Study, which follows the lives of more than 17,000 people born in a single week in 1970 in England, Scotland and Wales.

Every few years we interview the study participants to track different aspects of their lives, from education and employment to physical and mental health – an approach that lets us look at what influences an individual's development over a long period of time.

Of the 17,000 members, 6,000 took a range of cognitive tests at age 16. We compared children from the same social backgrounds who achieved similar tested abilities at ages five and 10, and discovered that those who frequently read books at age 10 and more than once a week when they were 16 had higher test results than those who read less. In other words, reading for pleasure was linked to greater intellectual progress, both in vocabulary, spelling and mathematics. In fact, the impact was around four times greater than that of having a parent with a post-secondary degree.

Reading clearly introduces young people to new words, so the link between reading for pleasure and vocabulary development is expected. But the link between reading for fun and progress in maths may be more surprising. I would suggest that reading also introduces young people to new ideas. Along with teaching them new vocabulary, it helps them understand and absorb new information and concepts at school. Independent reading may also promote a more self-sufficient approach to learning in general.

Some people are concerned that young people today read less in their spare time than previous generations. This is particularly worrying because our research suggests that it is likely to negatively affect their intellectual development. We also know that reading for pleasure tends to decline in secondary school. Our findings emphasise how important it is for schools and libraries to provide access to a wide range of books and help young people discover authors they will enjoy.

Another question we asked was whether the effects of reading for pleasure continue into adult life. We will soon be able to find out, thanks to the 1970 cohort members who were interviewed again in 2012, at the age of 42. We asked them once more about their reading habits, and about many other aspects of their lives.

The study will continue to follow them as they age, when we will be able to examine whether reading protects them against cognitive decline. Without the extraordinary generosity of these people, who by happenstance find themselves in our study, we couldn't research these and other vital questions.


  1. The Guardian:
    Reading for fun.


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