Reading for Pleasure – received wisdom & common sense backed up by evidence in new IoE report

In a week that saw the announcement of arguably the highest quality Booker prize short-list for a good while, the results of a major piece of research into the effect of reading for pleasure were published today [11 September 2013]. The key finding is that regular access to books between the age of 10 and 16 actively boosts pupils’ vocabulary and spelling skills and, the report argues, reading even enhances their performance in maths.

The educational visionary and genius Dr Seuss, and his trusty Cat in the Hat, were onto this a while back. The Cat says:

I can read in red. I can read in blue.
I can read in pickle color too.
I can read in bed, and in purple, and in brown.
I can read in a circle and upside down.

I can read with my left eye.
I can read with my right.
I can read Mississippi with my eyes shut tight.

There are so many things you can learn about, but
You’ll miss the best things if you keep your eyes shut.
The more that you read, the more things you will know.
The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.

Dr Seuss: ‘I can read with my eyes shut’

Graeme Paton, Education Correspondent for The Daily Telegraph, reported: ‘In the first study of its kind, researchers found that children who receive bedtime stories from their parents as infants perform better than those who go without. But it emerged that reading for pleasure during secondary school had the biggest effect, with books judged to be more important to children’s development at an older age than the influence of their parents.
The study by academics at the Institute of Education […] found that reading had the strongest effect on vocabulary development but the impact on maths and spelling was “still significant”. The findings come amid continuing concerns that too many children are shunning books in favour of iPads, games consoles and television.

Research earlier this year found the relative difficulty of books read by pupils “declined steadily” as pupils got older, with large numbers of children ditching them altogether in secondary school.  Dr Alice Sullivan, co-author of […the] research, said: “There are concerns that young people’s reading for pleasure has declined. There could be various reasons for this, including more time spent in organised activities, more homework, and of course more time spent online. However, new technologies, such as e-readers, can offer easy access to books and newspapers and it is important that government policies support and encourage children’s reading, particularly in their teenage years.”

Researchers analysed the behaviour of around 6,000 children as part of a long-term study that tracks the lives of thousands of people born in 1970. It looked at how often they read during childhood and then compared reading habits to test results in maths, vocabulary and spelling at various stages. Children who were read to regularly by parents at the age of five performed better in all three tests at 16 than those who were left without a bedtime story. But it emerged that the greatest effect was felt between the age of 10 and 16. Children who read books regularly at 10 and more than once a week at 16 gained higher results in all three tests at the end of secondary education.

Reading was found to be more important for children’s cognitive development at secondary school than the influence of their parents. The combined effect of regular reading, visits to the library and ready access to newspapers at 16 was four times greater than the advantage children gained from having a well-educated parent with a university degree […]. Dr Sullivan added: “It may seem surprising that reading for pleasure would help to improve children’s maths scores. But it is likely that strong reading ability will enable children to absorb and understand new information and affect their attainment in all subjects.”’ * DT, 11.9.13

This long-range study backs up what common sense tells us. Indeed, one comment posted on the Telegraph website suggested that the findings of the report are about as surprising as the headline: “Shock news – water is wet”. If it’s that obvious that reading is good for you, why is it newsworthy? And why am I going on about it again? Well, the most important truths bear repeating. People who read are, quite simply, better educated. What we read reveals something about our character and personality. That we read, tells other people about how we value learning itself.

I shall read to my 4 year old daughter this evening. Winnie the Witch is her current favourite. I shall read to her not because I want her to do well at school, although that would be nice, of course. I shall read to her because it is a pleasure. Tonight I think we’ll give Winnie the Witch a break – and go with a bit of Dr Seuss.

3 thoughts on “Reading for Pleasure – received wisdom & common sense backed up by evidence in new IoE report

  1. Thanks for this, Leo.

    In August I spent 10 days in Trinidad and Tobago with the National College for Teaching and Leadership International Division, working with 40 primary school principals while 80 infant teachers (2 from each school) were trained in Jolly Phonics on the floor below us. This is part of a UNESCO-funded drive to improve literacy in T & T. While the infant teachers worked on the phonics programme, we did work on leadership with the principals (who had never had leadership training before) on how they could ‘lead for literacy’.

    What I hadn’t appreciated is the link between the high levels of illiteracy there (and many T & T parents can’t read to their children pre-school/in the evenings because of their own poor literacy skills) and levels of poverty/crime/drug abuse. The Chair of the UNESCO Education Committee pointed out at the beginning of the week that unless the cycle can be broken, the country ‘isn’t far from where Egypt and Syria are now’. It made me think about literacy as a life or death issue, in a way I hadn’t before.

    As an English teacher I’ve always promoted reading for pleasure. The T & T experience made me think about reading for survival.

    Thanks again for the post.

    • Dear Jill

      Thank you for your comment on my blog – new territory for me and I appreciated your interesting comments, particularly as you clearly know the territory very well indeed. Your work sounds fascinating – and important.

      Thanks once again!

      Best wishes


      • Thanks, Leo. Not sure whether we’ve ever met – I was a GSA head until Sept 2010 and GSA President in 2009, now discovering the joys of life beyond full-time headship! (Which I did love, by the way!)

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