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Study reveals new insights about reading in childhood

Experts applaud but clarify research showing the cognitive benefits of pleasure reading


Study reveals new insights about reading in childhood

Experts have long touted the benefits of early literacy for children’s development. Reading specialists say reading “early and often” promotes language comprehension and future academic success. A new large-scale study further connects reading at a young age with positive outcomes, but it also points to some limits to the benefits of early reading.

Researchers at the University of Cambridge and Fudan University in Shanghai analyzed the reading habits of more than 10,000 American children. Publishing their work June 28 in Psychological Medicine, the scientists found that kids who read—or were read to—for pleasure before age 10 tended to score better on cognitive assessments and experience better mental well-being in adolescence.

Reading specialists found the study’s results compelling, especially considering the large sample size. But they cautioned against making sweeping conclusions.

Of the study’s 10,243 participants, 48.2 percent never read for pleasure or had less than 2½ years of early pleasure reading. The remaining participants read for pleasure for three to 10 years of their childhood.

The researchers analyzed brain scans, clinical interviews, cognitive learning and memory tests, and mental assessments conducted when the participants were in early adolescence (ages 9 to 12). They found a significant positive correlation between early pleasure reading and cognitive performance, speech development, and academic achievement. But they saw no association between early pleasure reading and when participants spoke their first words.

The scientists reported that 12 hours of reading per week showed the most cognitive benefits for children in the study. Lead author Barbara Sahakian, professor of clinical neuropsychology at the University of Cambridge, told me in an email that the study showed a gradual decrease in cognition for kids who read more than 12 hours a week. She theorized the decline was due to spending too little time in other activities with cognitive benefits, such as playing sports and socializing.

Children in the study who participated in early pleasure reading were less likely to exhibit mental problems such as anxiety and depression. The scientists also noted a mild protective trend against development of attention deficit disorders for early pleasure readers.

Sahakian claimed that the study is the first to show the cognitive and mental benefits of early pleasure reading on a large scale. She also emphasized that the study controlled for other factors that could influence the connection between reading and cognitive benefits. “We found that the effects of reading for pleasure in early childhood were beneficial for adolescents regardless of family socioeconomic status, family income, and parental education,” she said.

John Gabrieli, a neuroscience researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, applauded the study for its analysis and exceptionally large data set. He cautioned, however, that the strong correlation between early reading for pleasure and long-term benefits doesn’t imply that early reading caused those benefits. “What’s really driving what?” he asked. It’s possible that children with higher cognitive ability are more inclined to read for pleasure, rather than the other way around, he argued.

Nadine Gaab, associate professor of education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, expressed similar concerns. In an email, she noted that only children with good reading skills can engage in pleasure reading, making reading education a prerequisite for success.

Susan Neuman, professor of childhood education and literacy development at New York University, highlighted the important role parents play in encouraging their children to read. She recommended that parents simply ask, “What are you interested in?” She also emphasized a gradual approach to reading. Rather than trying to read through an entire book, start out with just a page your child gravitates toward. Neuman recounted how she used to spend five minutes poring over a single page about trash trucks with her own son.

Gabrieli and Neuman suggested a multimedia approach to get less enthusiastic readers on board. Neuman provided the example of a young boy interested in baseball. Watching Willie Mays’ 1954 World Series over-the-shoulder catch may increase enthusiasm for reading about the baseball great. Gabrieli mentioned audiobooks as another alternative that maintains the same level of vocabulary building as reading a text equivalent.

Gabrieli and Neuman agreed that the book genre likely doesn’t matter, but both mentioned incorporating nonfiction into a child’s reading regimen. Gabrieli said reading history helps kids understand what’s going on in the world. Neuman explained that often children, particularly boys, want to know how something works: “If we think of some of the Richard Scarry books, where they're just pointing out labels and talking about how things work, that's what children want to do,” said Neuman. “They want to explore their world. They’re eager to learn.”

Heather Frank

Heather is a science correspondent for WORLD. She is a graduate of World Journalism Institute, the University of Maryland, and Carnegie Mellon University. She has worked in both food and chemical product development, and currently works as a research chemist. Heather resides with her family in Pittsburgh, Pa.

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