Close the gap with breakfast and a book


Research shows that reading for pleasure boosts cognitive development. Combine this with a solid breakfast and we can really help pupils to achieve. Karen Sullivan offers some practical ideas.

Over my last few columns, we’ve been looking at the attainment gap. While there is a weight of evidence suggesting that the early years are critical in this respect, there is an equal number of studies showing that the gap can be bridged well into adolescence, when cognitive abilities continue to develop.

There are a few very simple things that can make a massive difference to cognitive development – and one of these is reading for pleasure. According to research from the Institute of Education, children who read for pleasure make more progress in maths, vocabulary and spelling between the ages of 10 and 16 than those who rarely read.

The researchers compared children from the same social backgrounds who had achieved the same test scores as each other at ages five and 10. They discovered that those who read books often at age 10 and more than once a week at age 16 gained higher results in all three tests at age 16 than those who read less regularly.

Best of all (and perhaps most surprisingly), reading for pleasure was found to be more important for children’s cognitive development between ages 10 and 16 than their parents’ level of education. 

Researchers concluded that “the combined effect on children’s progress of reading books often, going to the library regularly and reading newspapers at 16 was four times greater than the advantage children gained from having a parent with a degree”. This is significant. It is also interesting that maths was positively affected too.

While you cannot force an adolescent to read, you can certainly open up the world of literature and help students to find books that resonate. One way to do this is to invite authors from a variety of genres into the school to talk about their work.

It should be noted that the subject or genre does not have an impact on improved cognition. Developing a strong reading ability enables students to absorb and understand new information and, according to researchers, affects their attainment in all subjects. So bring in crime, thrillers, sport, biographies, comedies, romance, classics, children’s literature, literary fiction – books about music, history, art, artists, geology and photography. Anything goes. Ask students to list three books they’d be willing to read or three subjects they’d be willing to read about.

Make them available in electronic or print form, through the library or as downloads onto tablets or computers. The word “pleasure” should be considered carefully. Let reading take the place of regular homework a couple of nights and don’t insist upon book reports. Encourage discussion about what everyone is reading. Get a book recommendation list going in the classroom or on the school website. Ask kids to review the books with their critics’ hats on. All of this will go a long way towards encouraging a passion for books, with its ensuing results.

Another surprising way to encourage both better behaviour and attainment is to ensure that kids are getting breakfast – 22 studies have found that eating a good-quality breakfast every day has a positive effect on academic performance. The research is compelling. For example, breakfast-skipping was associated with lower average annual school grades in a sample of 605 Dutch adolescents. This association was evident in both sexes and independent of age. 

An increasing number of schools are offering breakfast clubs at little or no cost to families, and you can improve attendance at these clubs by linking them to activities that will interest students – computer sessions, reading groups, sports, art, photography, music, etc, can all be preceded by a quick, nourishing breakfast. 

It doesn’t take a lot to work towards bridging the gap. Breakfast and a book will get things started.

  • Karen Sullivan is a best-selling author, psychologist and childcare expert. Email



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