Childhood reading boosts vocabulary


Children who read for pleasure at the age of 10 had far higher vocabulary scores by the age of 42, a study by the Institute of Education has shown.

The study suggests that children who read for pleasure carry the intellectual benefits with them far into adulthood.

Researchers at the Institute of Education (IOE) found that the most avid childhood readers scored far higher on vocabulary tests 30 years later.

The University of London’s Institute of Education compared vocabulary test scores and reading habits of 9,400 British people born in 1970. The researchers analysed data collected at the ages of 10, 16 and 42. As well as the tabloids finding, they said childhood reading for fun boosted vocabulary throughout life, while highbrow fiction helped adults further.

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.

The greatest improvements between ages 16 and 42 were made by readers of ‘highbrow’ fiction.

The researchers found 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.

Lead author Professor Alice Sullivan at the IOE, said: "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. In other words, they developed ‘good’ reading habits in childhood and adolescence that they have subsequently benefited from."

Main Findings:

  • 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.
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