Reading improves teenagers’ vocab, whatever their background, say researchers

22 November 2017

Teenagers who read in their spare time know 26 per cent more words than those who never read, according to researchers at the Centre for Longitudinal Studies (CLS).

The research team, based at the UCL Institute of Education, found that teenagers who read often, and those who had access to plenty of books,were more likely to develop a better vocabulary than their peers.

Analysing the scores of nearly 11,000 14-year-olds in a word exercise, 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. And teenagers from book-loving homes knew 42 per cent more words than their peers who had grown up with few books.

Even taking into account other factors, like parents’ qualifications and profession, and cognitive tests taken by the teenagers when they were aged 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 teenagers, who were all born in the UK and whose lives have been tracked since birth, through CLS’s Millennium Cohort Study, completed a vocabulary exercise when they were 14. They were given 20 different words and five possible synonyms for each, and were asked to match each one to its correct synonym.Their parents also took the test, so the researchers could explore the extent to which parents’ English language skills are passed on to their children.

The research team examined the results, alongside other information about the teenagers’ backgrounds, home life and leisure activities, collected over the past 14 years.

The researchers discovered that if parents did well in the assessment, their children tended to also perform better. For example, if a mother scored in the top 25 per cent, the teenager got an average of 8 words correct, compared to an average of 6 words for those whose mothers scored in the bottom 25% per cent.

While there were large differences in parents’ vocabulary scores, according to ethnic group and education, there was much less variation in their children’s scores.

For example, Bangladeshi parents understood an average of 4 to 5 words out of 20, compared to the overall average for parents of 10 to 11 words. But their UK-born children actually gained higher scores than their parents, and just below the teenage average of 7 words out of 20.

Mothers with a postgraduate degree on average got more than double the number of words right compared to mothers who had no qualifications (15 out of 20 compared to 7 out of 20). Among the teenagers, the differences, by parental education, were smaller; those whose mothers had a postgraduate degree scored an average of 9 out of 20, while those whose mothers had no qualifications still scored 6 out of 20.

Lead author, Dr Alice Sullivan said:  “Although these results show stark socio-economic differences in parents’ vocabulary, the fact that they are much smaller for teenagers than for parents gives grounds for optimism that family background is not destiny. The link between reading for pleasure and better vocabularies suggests that if young people are encouraged to discover a love for books, it could alter the course of their lives, regardless of their background.”

The findings from this study add to evidence previously published by CLS on the positive impact of reading for pleasure on children’s development.

Read the full paper

The intergenerational transmission of vocabulary’ by Alice Sullivan, Vanessa Moulton and Emla Fitzsimons, is the latest CLS working paper.

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Notes to editors

1.    The Millennium Cohort Study is following 19,517 young people born across the UK in 2000-01, building a uniquely detailed portrait of the children of the new century. The last survey of parents and children took place in 2015-16.

2.    The Millennium Cohort Study is managed by CLS at the UCL Institute of Education and is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and a consortium of government departments.

3.    The benefits of reading for pleasure when young have been widely reported by CLS in earlier research, based on data from the 1970 British Cohort Study, another of CLS’s cohort studies:

4.    The UCL Institute of Education is a world-leading centre for research and teaching in education and social science, ranked number one for education worldwide in the 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017 QS World University Rankings. It was awarded the Queen’s Anniversary Prize in 2016. In 2014, the IOE secured ‘outstanding’ grades from Ofsted on every criterion for its initial teacher training, across primary, secondary and further education programmes. In the most recent Research Excellence Framework assessment of university research, the IOE was top for ‘research power’ (GPA multiplied by the size of the entry) in education. Founded in 1902, the Institute currently has more than 8,000 students and 800 staff.  In December 2014 it became a single-faculty school of UCL, called the UCL Institute of Education. For more information, see

5.    UCL was founded in 1826. It was the first English university established after Oxford and Cambridge, the first to open up university education to those previously excluded from it, and the first to provide systematic teaching of law, architecture and medicine. It is among the world’s top universities, as reflected by performance in a range of international rankings and tables. UCL currently has over 39,000 students from 150 countries and over 12,500 staff. Its annual income is more than £1 billion. For more information, see, follow @uclnews, and watch

6.    The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is the UK’s largest funder of research on the social and economic questions facing us today. It supports the development and training of the UK’s future social scientists and also funds major studies that provide the infrastructure for research. ESRC-funded research informs policymakers and practitioners and helps make businesses, voluntary bodies and other organisations more effective. The ESRC also works collaboratively with six other UK research councils and Innovate UK to fund cross-disciplinary research and innovation addressing major societal challenges. The ESRC is an independent organisation, established by Royal Charter in 1965, and funded mainly by the Government. For more information, see

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