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Child Development

The Benefits of Reading for Pleasure

The possible long-term benefits for children of reading for pleasure.

Key points

  • Possible benefits include improved cognitive performance, language development, and academic achievement.
  • Early reading for pleasure is also linked to fewer mental health problems, less screen time, and more sleep.
  • Findings suggest that reading for pleasure for an optimal of 12 hours per week may be beneficial.

A study published in the journal Psychological Medicine in June 2023 examined the possible benefits of reading for pleasure. This topic of research is very important since reading for pleasure seems to be declining among young people. The National Assessment of Educational Progress in the U.S. found that only 42% of 9-year-olds reported reading for pleasure in 2000 (while 53% reported reading for pleasure in 2012 and 1984). Only 17% of 13-year-olds in 2000 reported reading for pleasure (versus 27% in 2012 and 35% in 1984).

This large study included over 10,000 children aged 9 to 11 years in the United States. Parents were asked how many years the children had read for pleasure and how often the children read for pleasure. The researchers separated the participants into two groups: 1) children who had been reading for pleasure for at least three years and 2) participants who never read for pleasure or had been reading for pleasure for less than three years. It is important to note that children who never read for pleasure were grouped with children who may just have been later readers.

The researchers found that children who read for pleasure from a relatively younger age were more likely to show improved cognitive performance (higher IQ), language development, and academic achievement (grades and performance in school). They found that reading for pleasure was associated with fewer mental health problems, including being less likely to have attention problems, fewer symptoms of stress, and fewer behavioral problems. Reading for pleasure was also associated with less screen time and longer sleep duration.

Additionally, researchers found that reading for pleasure was associated with increased size of brain structures including some brain structures involved in cognition, language, and visual processing, Interestingly, they found that children with ADHD were more likely to read for pleasure later. However, early reading for pleasure was not associated with mental health concerns in children with ADHD but was still associated with measures of IQ.

The researchers also found that more hours spent reading for pleasure was associated with greater benefits (that is, higher IQ scores and larger brain structures) up until 12 hours per week. The researchers found no additional benefit for participants who read for pleasure beyond 12 hours per week, which may be because more than 12 hours per week would result in time away from other important activities such as social interaction, sleep, or physical activity. In other words, this finding suggests that 12 hours per week is the optimal number of hours spent reading for pleasure in order to enhance performance on IQ tests.

Limitations of the Study

The most important limitation to mention is that this study is a correlational study, meaning it only found an association between early reading for pleasure and positive outcomes as a teenager. Although the researchers attempted to control for variables such as socio-economic status, age, sex, and race/ethnicity, there could be many other factors that caused the positive outcomes. For example, parents who encourage reading for pleasure likely encourage other positive habits (such as less screen time and more sleep which were also found to be associated with reading for pleasure in this study) and it could be these general positive habits that cause the positive outcomes rather than reading for pleasure specifically.

The reading for pleasure measure was based on two questions of a parent report. Different parents may define “reading for pleasure” differently and may over- or under-estimate when and how frequently their child reads for pleasure.

The researchers combined children who never read for pleasure with children who had started reading for pleasure at a later age in one group so it is unclear whether it is early reading for pleasure or reading for pleasure at all that drove this association. In other words, we cannot conclude from this study that children who are later readers but end up reading for pleasure just as frequently as early readers don’t experience the same benefits. It is also important to mention that this study does not provide evidence for the advantages of learning to read at an earlier age.

Overall Translation

This study suggests that reading for pleasure is an important skill that is associated with many long-term benefits including increased IQ and improved psychological well-being. Although this is a correlational study and we cannot conclude that reading for pleasure actually causes these benefits, it does suggest that parents may want to encourage reading for pleasure. This is particularly important during the summer since research finds that reading may be just as beneficial as summer school in preventing summer learning loss.

How can parents encourage reading for pleasure?

  1. Allow children to choose books and reading material. Giving your child the freedom to choose their own books will help them to find ones that are of interest to them and encourage reading for pleasure. Regularly visit libraries for your children to pick out new books.
  2. Make it a part of your routine. Making time for reading in your everyday life will make it feel more natural and habitual. Schedule a specific time during the day when your child is expected to engage in reading.
  3. Praise and give attention for reading but be careful about material rewards. Research finds that offering rewards for reading (such as giving candy for reading a certain number of pages) increases reading but not necessarily motivation to read for pleasure in the future.
  4. Model reading for pleasure. Let your children see you reading for pleasure and tell them about the books you are reading. If you read on your phone or a tablet, make sure they know when you are reading.
  5. Read to your children to encourage a love of books. Even after your children learn to read independently, continue to read to them to foster a love of books.
More from Cara Goodwin, Ph.D.
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