Reading for pleasure and children’s cognitive development

Research using data from the 1970 British Cohort Study (BCS70) has revealed how reading for pleasure can help children excel not only in English but also in maths. This important work, led by Alice Sullivan here at CLS, has had a big influence on reading for pleasure programmes, policies and practice in the UK and beyond, benefitting millions of children worldwide.

In follow up research, Professor Sullivan has shown how good reading habits in childhood have a significant longer term impact on people’s vocabulary, with the benefits being evident even 30 years later.

Key findings

The research

Linking reading with higher test scores

Our researchers analysed information about the reading habits of more than 6,000 participants in the 1970 British Cohort Study, collected when they were aged 10 and 16, alongside the results of various cognitive assessments, completed at ages 5, 10, and 16.

Comparing participants from the same social backgrounds who had achieved the same test scores as each other at ages 5 and 10, they discovered that those who read books often at age 10 and more than once a week at age 16, made more progress in maths as well as vocabulary, between the ages of 10 and 16, than those who read rarely or never.

Reading for pleasure was found to be more important for children’s cognitive development between ages 10 and 16 than their parents’ level of education. The combined effect on children’s progress of reading books often, going to the library regularly, and reading newspapers at age 16 was four times greater than the advantage children gained from having a parent with a degree.

The analysis also found that children who were read to regularly by their parents at age 5 performed better in tests at age 16 than those who were not helped in this way.

Identifying long-term vocabulary benefits

The researchers followed up the same individuals at age 42, and found some significant long-term vocabulary benefits to reading for pleasure. Their statistical analysis showed that those who had regularly read for pleasure at age 10 scored 67 per cent in a vocabulary test at age 42, whereas infrequent childhood readers scored only 51 per cent.

The study also confirmed that what people chose to read as adults mattered as much as how often they read – in terms of the effect on vocabulary scores at 42. The greatest improvements between ages 16 and 42 were made by readers of ‘highbrow’ fiction. The research also showed educational patterns in people’s reading preferences. For example, graduates of elite (Russell Group) universities are more likely to read ‘highbrow’ books than graduates of other universities.

Improving teenagers’ vocab through reading, whatever their background

More recent research using Millennium Cohort Study data at age 14 has revealed further insights on the benefits of reading for pleasure. Analysing the scores of nearly 11,000 14-year-olds in a multiple choice vocabulary test, the researchers found that teenagers who read for pleasure every day understood 26 per cent more words than those who never read at all in their spare time.

Teenagers with access to lots of books at home knew 42 per cent more words than their peers who had grown up without this.

Even taking into account other factors, like parents’ qualifications and profession, and cognitive tests at age 5, teenagers who read for pleasure still got 12 per cent more words right, while those from book-rich homes scored 9 per cent more.

The impact

Encouraging reading for pleasure

The link between reading for pleasure and children’s maths and vocabulary scores was covered extensively in the media, including in articles in the Daily Telegraph, Sydney Morning Herald and Vancouver Sun and in interviews for BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme, BBC London and Al Jazeera.

The findings attracted a remarkable amount of interest from schools, libraries and literacy organisations around the world. They have been used to help protect library services, to persuade children of all ages to spend more time reading, and to encourage parents to support schools’ home reading initiatives.

The findings have been cited and used in campaigning and programme materials by a host of UK literacy organisations, including the Book Trust, Carnegie Trust, and the Reading Agency. The Book Trust, for example, have incorporated the findings into their shared reading campaign, Time to Read which, since 2016, has encouraged over 2.2 million UK children to read for fun.

Literacy associations in Canada, the US and Hong Kong have all referenced the research, and the findings have also been cited in at least nine books aimed at teachers, librarians and parents, including ‘Becoming and Outstanding Primary School Teacher’, a core text for primary teacher trainees and newly qualified teachers.

Selected coverage:

The Guardian – ‘Reading for fun improves children’s brains, study confirms’

Daily Telegraph – ‘Reading for pleasure ‘boosts pupils’ results in maths’

Vancouver Sun – ‘ Libraries are worthwhile public investment’

Sydney Morning Herald – ‘Reading gives kids an edge, study says’

Engaging policymakers

The findings have influenced the thinking of policymakers at home and abroad. Significantly, the research was cited in a 2015 Department for Education report, ‘Reading: the next steps’, underpinning recommendations for government funding to support book clubs, resources for reading, and instructing schools to promote library membership. Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, in South Australia, the findings have been used to support the Premier’s Reading Challenge, a long-running literacy initiative.

A round-up of policy outcomes can be seen in the Reading for Pleasure Research impact case study (March 2015).

Read the research

Sullivan, A., Moulton, V. and Fitzsimons, E. (2021).
The intergenerational transmission of language skill
The British Journal of Sociology
Read the full paper
Sullivan, A. and Brown, M. (2015).
Reading for pleasure and attainment in vocabulary and mathematics.
British Educational Research Journal, 41 (6), 971-991.
Read the full paper
Sullivan, A. and Brown, M. (2013).
Social inequalities in cognitive scores at age 16: The role of reading.
CLS Working Paper 2013/10. London: Centre for Longitudinal Studies.
Read the full paper
Sullivan, A. and Brown, M. (2015).
Vocabulary from adolescence to middle-age.
Longitudinal and Life Course Studies, 6(2), 173-189.
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Sullivan, A. and Brown, M. (2014).
Vocabulary from adolescence to middle-age.
CLS Working Paper 2014/7. London: Centre for Longitudinal Studies.
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Sullivan, A., Moulton, V. and Fitzsimons, E. (2017).
Briefing – What influences vocabulary
Centre for Longitudinal Studies: London
Read the full paper
Sullivan, A., Moulton, V. and Fitzsimons, E. (2017).
The intergenerational transmission of vocabulary.
CLS Working Paper 2017/14. London: Centre for Longitudinal Studies.
Read the full paper

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