We all know that reading is good for kids and for adults, and that we should all read more often. One of the most obvious benefits of reading is that it helps improve language skills. A major overhaul research on recreational reading has confirmed that reading actually promotes better verbal skills, from preschoolers to university students. But, does it matter what we read?
We found that reading fiction was the strongest and most consistent predictor of language proficiency compared to reading nonfiction. This was true whether people reported their own reading habits or whether we used a more objective measure of lifetime reading (recognize the real names of authors among the fake ones). Importantly, after controlling for reading fiction, reading non-fiction did not predict language proficiency at all.
Measuring Meaningful Language Skills
To measure verbal abilities in three of these studies, we relied on items from the verbal section of the SAT, the standardized test used by many American universities to judge applicants. Thus, the measure of language skills employed in these studies is quite obviously linked to an important real outcome: admission to university.
Although it was somewhat surprising to find that reading fictional stories better predicts valuable language skills than reading nonfiction, repeated replication of this finding in multiple studies has increased our confidence in this result.
Motivations behind leisure reading
In a follow-up studya collaboration between my psychology lab at York University and a lab at Concordia University led by a professor of education Sandra Martin Changwe asked 200 people about their different motivations for taking up reading for leisure.
Those who said they read for their own enjoyment tended to have better language skills. Related to our previous finding, this association was partly explained by the amount of fiction they had read.
In fact, across several types of motivations, motivations related to reading fiction rather than non-fiction were consistently associated with better verbal abilities. In contrast, when a motivation was more strongly associated with reading nonfiction, it tended to be either unrelated to verbal ability or associated with poorer ability.
For example, people who were motivated to read to grow and learn focused on reading nonfiction, so this attitude was actually associated with poorer language skills.
Based on these five studies, the picture is pretty clear: it’s reading stories, not essays, that predicts valuable language skills in young adults. But why does reading fiction have this unique advantage over non-fiction? We don’t know exactly yet, but we can rule out an obvious possibility: that fiction uses SAT words more often than non-fiction.
For explore this possibility, we turned to several large text collections, containing about 680 million words in total. The words that appeared on the SAT were either less common in fiction compared to non-fiction, or the difference was so small it was negligible.
Fiction readers therefore do not perform better on SAT items simply because fiction contains more SAT words. This means that there must be something special about reading fiction that helps promote language skills. Perhaps the emotions evoked by stories help us remember new words, or perhaps our intrinsic interest in stories results in a greater focus on the text. Future research will hopefully uncover the reasons for this fascinating difference between reading fiction and non-fiction.
Long-term benefits of reading
Whatever the reasons, the fact that it is narrative fiction and not explanatory nonfiction that helps us develop strong language skills has important implications for education and policy.
When it comes to reading, this really is a case of the rich getting richer: Lots of past research established that those who read more tend to get better at reading, find it easier and more enjoyable, and read more as a result. This results in a causal loop in which leisure reading yields increasingly large benefits to readers in terms of language skills. Remarkably, this holds true all the way from preschool through college.
These improved language skills in turn translate into all sorts of important benefits, such as doing well in school, achieving a higher level of education, and doing better on the job.
In reality, a study of over 11,000 people found that children who read better at the age of seven had a higher degree of socio-economic success 35 years later! This held true even after controlling for important factors such as their socioeconomic status at birth, intelligence, and academic motivation. Leisure reading is important for the development of language skills, which in turn are linked to key socio-economic outcomes.
Implications for education and policy
Work from our lab, based on young adults, is beginning to clarify the association between reading and language abilities, emphasizing the importance of reading fiction and not just nonfiction.
This means that it is important to develop a love of fiction in children, to promote the healthy habit of reading stories for pleasure as early as possible.
The current trend of governments favor science over humanities in education runs directly counter to the available evidence. Given the benefits verbal skills provide for academic and career success, fostering a love of stories in children should be a priority for governments and educators.
Read the original article here.