Long-term vocabulary benefits from ‘reading for pleasure’ in childhood

6 November 2014

Reading for pleasure during childhood has a substantial influence on a person’s vocabulary 30 years later.

Researchers at the Institute of Education (IOE) have reached this conclusion after studying the vocabulary test scores of more than 9,400 British people at the ages of 10, 16 and 42.

Their statistical analysis showed that those who had regularly read for pleasure at 10 scored 67 per cent in the age 42 vocabulary test, whereas infrequent childhood readers scored only 51 per cent.

Regular readers tended to come from more advantaged families and also had higher vocabulary scores at ages 10 and 16. But even after these factors were taken into account there was still a 9 percentage point gap in vocabulary scores at age 42 between those who were either frequent or infrequent readers in their youth. (See below for examples of the type of vocabulary questions asked.)

“The long-term influence of reading for pleasure on vocabulary that we have identified may well be because the frequent childhood readers continued to read throughout their twenties and thirties,” say the researchers, Alice Sullivan and Matt Brown. “In other words, they developed ‘good’ reading habits in childhood and adolescence that they have subsequently benefited from.”

The IOE 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 researchers found — again after taking into account social backgrounds and vocabulary scores in childhood — that those who read such novels scored 5 percentage points higher in the age 42 test than people who did not read literary fiction as adults. The vocabulary gains linked to reading factual books were smaller than those for fiction.

The researchers, who analysed data gathered by the 1970 British Cohort Study, also found that:

  • Readers of quality newspapers (including online versions) made more progress in vocabulary than people who did not read newspapers, while readers of popular tabloids actually made slightly less progress than those who never read newspapers.
  • Graduates of elite (Russell Group) universities appeared to have different reading preferences from graduates of other universities. For example, almost half (48%) of the Russell Group graduates surveyed said they liked to read ‘contemporary literary fiction’, compared to only 30 per cent of other graduates.
  • Overall, reading was a popular pastime at age 42.Just over one in four people (26%) said they read books for pleasure every day, and a further 13 per cent said they did so several times a week.

“A number of these findings are intriguing,” said Professor Sullivan. “It was interesting, for example, to find that readers of tabloid newspapers did less well in the age 42 vocabulary tests than those who didn’t take a newspaper. This is, however, in line with our previous work which showed that the presence of tabloid newspapers in the home during childhood was linked to poor cognitive attainment at age 16.”

It is, however, the different reading preferences of graduates of elite universities and less highly-ranked higher education institutions that were perhaps most surprising. “The differences in their choice of books were striking,” Professor Sullivan commented. “Their newspaper choices were also dissimilar. Well over half (56%) of the Russell Group graduates read only broadsheets, compared to 34 per cent of other graduates.”

The vocabulary scores of the two groups of graduates were quite different too – at both 16 and 42. Russell Group graduates scored 70 per cent at age 16 and 81 per cent at age 42. The scores of graduates of other universities were lower at both ages (63% at 16 and 73% at 42).

“It seems that broad educational categories can mask important differences,” Professor Sullivan said. “Reading highbrow fiction could be an expression of social status for some people, but it is also likely that highly able and educated people prefer intellectually stimulating material.”

The new research builds on previous work that Sullivan and Brown have done which showed that reading for pleasure was linked to intellectual development up to age 16, especially in vocabulary but also for mathematics. “We have now shown – for the first time, we believe — that reading for pleasure, both in childhood and adulthood, has a positive impact on the vocabulary of people in their early forties,” Professor Sullivan said.

Read the full paper

Vocabulary from adolescence to middle-age (PDF), by Alice Sullivan and Matt Brown, is the latest working paper to be published by the IOE’s Centre for Longitudinal Studies, which is an Economic and Social Research Council Resource Centre.

Further information:

David Budge
0207 911 5349
07881 415362

Meghan Rainsberry
020 7612 6530

Notes for editors:

  1. The 1970 British Cohort Study (BCS70) is following the lives of more than 17,000 people born in England, Scotland and Wales in a single week of 1970. Over the course of cohort members’ lives, the BCS70 has collected information on health, physical, educational and social development, and economic circumstances, among other factors. Since the birth survey in 1970, there have been eight surveys at ages 5, 10, 16, 26, 30, 34, 38 and 42. Professor Alice Sullivan is the director of the study.
  2. At age 16, vocabulary was assessed using a 75-item test where each item was a word followed by a list of five other words and the respondent was required to pick the one with the same meaning as the first word. The measure included at age 42 is a shortened 20-item version of the test used at 16 (see example test questions below).
  3. The paper self-completion questionnaire at age 42 asked the BCS70 respondents ‘How often do you read books in your spare time, not for work or study (including in electronic format)?’. They were then asked about the types of fiction – and factual books – they usually read. Each of these questions was followed by a list of genres taken from standard bookshop section classifications.
  4. In total, 594 of the BCS70 members surveyed at age 42 had a Russell Group degree (6% of the sample) and 1,874 had a non-Russell Group degree (20% of the sample).
  5. The Russell Group represents 24 leading UK universities which are committed to maintaining the very best research, an outstanding teaching and learning experience and unrivalled links with business and the public sector.
  6. The research reported in this press release included the University of Bath and the University of St Andrews in the ‘elite’ category as they have been as highly selective as Russell Group Institutions.
  7. The Institute of Education is a world-leading university specialising in education and the social sciences. Founded in 1902, the Institute currently has more than 7,000 students and 800 staff. In the 2014 QS World University Rankings, the Institute was ranked number one for education worldwide. It has been shortlisted in the ‘University of the Year’ category of the 2014 Times Higher Education (THE) awards. In January 2014, the Institute was recognised by Ofsted for its ‘outstanding’ initial teacher training across primary, secondary and further education. In the most recent Research Assessment Exercise two-thirds of the publications that the IOE submitted were judged to be internationally significant and over a third were judged to be ‘world leading’. www.ioe.ac.uk
  8. The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) funds research into the big social and economic questions facing us today. It also develops and trains the UK’s future social scientists. Its research informs public policies and helps make businesses, voluntary bodies and other organisations more effective. The ESRC is an independent organisation, established by Royal Charter in 1965, and funded mainly by the Government.

This is the type of vocabulary test given to members of the 1970 British Cohort Study:

Pair the word in the left-hand column with one of the five other words on the same line that has a very similar meaning

typical several common obvious ancient absurd
pellucid clear humane shallow credible opposed
cerebral vegetal textured fruitful brainy new
formidable industrial disillusioned powerful inequitable complex
turbulent frightening stormy steep deep trustworthy
ascertain erase hurt confess conquer discover
grotesque gargantuan monstrous flowery innocuous dance
devout chaste crazy committed impious lather
languid emotional clever carnal relaxed heretic
hirsute cunning erudite manly elegant hairy

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