Research identifies types of reading that can lead to higher vocabulary

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Research involving almost 10,000 people has discovered a connection between reading for pleasure as a child and vocabulary later in life.

It has found that reading “highbrow” fiction has the biggest impact on later vocabulary skills, and that reading fiction is more effective than factual books.

Also, young people who read quality newspapers made more progress, while tabloid newspaper readers actually made less progress than those who did not read newspapers at all.

The statistical analysis has been compiled by academics from London’s Institute of Education (IoE) and is based on the vocabulary test scores of 9,400 people aged 10, 16 and 42 from the 1970 British Cohort Study. The results show that people who had read for pleasure regularly at age 10 scored significantly higher in vocabulary tests (by 67 per cent to 51 per cent) at age 42 when compared to those who read infrequently.

The research found that the regular readers tended to come from more advantaged families and already had a higher vocabulary at ages 10 and 16.

However, even when these factors were taken into account, there was still a nine percentage point gap at age 42 between those who were frequent readers in their youth and those who read infrequently.

The research, carried out by Dr Alice Sullivan and Matt Brown, builds on their previous work, which showed links between reading for pleasure and intellectual development up to the age of 16, especially in vocabulary but also for mathematics. 

The latest paper also reveals a link between the type of books and literature being read by students and their vocabulary in later life, with the greatest improvements being shown by those who read “highbrow” fiction. The researchers also found:

  • The vocabulary gains linked to reading factual books were smaller than those for fiction.

  • Readers of quality newspapers (including online versions) made more progress in vocabulary than people who did not read newspapers.

  • Readers of popular tabloids made slightly less progress than those who never read newspapers.

Dr Sullivan said: “We have now shown – for the first time, we believe – that reading for pleasure, both in childhood and adulthood, has a positive impact on the vocabulary of people in their early 40s.”

Vocabulary from Adolescence to Middle-age has been published by the IoE’s Centre for Longitudinal Studies and can be downloaded from www.cls.ioe.ac.uk 


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