In news that ought not to come as a surprise to anyone, the UK Institute of Education (IOE) has concluded that “Reading for pleasure puts children ahead in the classroom,” basing its findings on research from the 1970 British Cohort Study, which tracks “the lives of more than 17,000 people born in England, Scotland and Wales in a single week of 1970.” The research, “which is believed to be the first to examine the effect of reading for pleasure on cognitive development over time,” based on study of the behavior of some 6000 young readers from the Cohort Study, found that “children who read for pleasure made more progress in maths, vocabulary and spelling between the ages of 10 and 16 than those who rarely read.”

This will confirm an earlier report, Reading Street: Reading and School, from the educational trust Egmont UK, which reached similar conclusions based on a poll of UK teachers. And the data suggests that reading for pleasure could be a major instrument for transcending the UK’s notorious educational and social divides. “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,” the IOE report also found.

Being read to when young was found to be important in learning to enjoy reading, but knock-on effects went further than that. Even math skills benefited. “It may seem surprising that reading for pleasure would help to improve children’s maths scores,” said Dr. Alice Sullivan. one of the authors of the report. “But it is likely that strong reading ability will enable children to absorb and understand new information and affect their attainment in all subjects.”

The report’s authors also had little time for those who decried ereaders as detrimental to children’s reading enjoyment. ““There are concerns that young people’s reading for pleasure has declined,” Dr. Sullivan continued. “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.”

And the authors appealed for policy-makers to use all means to foster literacy in the UK: “Given the prevalence of adult illiteracy in Britain, with functional illiteracy estimated at 15 per cent, policies to increase adult literacy rates could significantly improve children’s learning outcomes.” However, current UK policies, including slashed library grants and angry protests against library closures, don’t give good grounds for hope.

The full report, ‘Social inequalities in cognitive scores at age 16: The role of reading’, is available here.


  1. As I understand the article, this study is based on data that is now at least 27 years old. (Kids born in 1970, aged 10 to 16 between 1980 and 1986, it is now 2013…) I guess that social scientists are going to be mining this mountain of data for generations to come.

    The result isn’t terribly surprising to me. Kids that like to read do better in school. Of course, kids that don’t like to read include those with ADD, dyslexia, and other conditions that would interfere with learning. Perhaps the study corrected for that as “The researchers… compared children from the same social backgrounds who had achieved the same test scores as each other both at ages 5 and 10.”

    The real problem, however, is how to get children to develop the reading habit.

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