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Does Reading Matter?

Reading well is more important than ever.

Welcome! We're excited to be starting this blog about the psychology and teaching of reading!

Why a blog about reading for Psychology Today? Understanding how we read, how we learn to read, and what reading can do for us is more important than ever. Every decade, fewer adults in the U.S. are reading for pleasure. The Pew Research Center recently reported that nearly a quarter of adults had not read a single book, in electronic, paper, or even audio format, in the past year. American families are spending less than they used to on books, while at the same time, employers increasingly complain that American workers cannot read or write well enough to meet the demands of modern workplaces. In essence, we have a literacy problem.

Why does it matter if people read? Because reading is more than something students have to do at school, more than a just another leisure pastime such as watching TV. The more we study reading and readers, the more we learn about the lifelong cognitive and social benefits of reading.

People who read a lot generally:

  • Read better. Not too surprising perhaps, but being able to read better makes reading more pleasurable. If you read more, a positive, self-reinforcing cycle develops.
  • Gain useful knowledge. They can find out what a carburetor is, which chemicals are carcinogenic, what home mortgage interest rates are sensible, and which fruits have the most vitamin C.
  • Get smarter. Readers develop stronger vocabularies and a greater fund of general knowledge, which is reflected in actual gains in IQ scores. For example, the words assailant, farce, barrage, entrancing, and curator showed up in just a few articles in today's New York Times. These are words you rarely hear in everyday conversation, that you tend to learn through reading.
  • Develop better brains. Readers develop thicker cortexes (the part of your brain that handles higher order thinking), which provide extra cognitive reserves and better withstand neurological injuries and damage. Reading a lot may even help to slow the onset of dementia. In short, reading improves cognition throughout the lifespan.
  • Develop more empathy. Some of the newest research in the field suggests that people who read well-written fiction may come to understand and sympathize with other people more. This could be because good fiction takes us deeply into the experiences and thoughts of others, often people who aren't at all like us. It challenges our expectations and preconceptions, and encourages us to be less judgmental.
  • Have better and more productive lives. NGOs promoting literacy around the world have noticed changes that occur in adults when they learn to read. Learning to read as an adult leads to a host of good outcomes for themselves, their families, and their societies. They start to vote, help their children with homework, and communicate well with their children’s teachers. They have fewer children, and the children they have are healthier. Farmers now use written information to decide on which crops to grow and how best to grow them. When looking for jobs, they are able to obtain and keep more modern, better-paying jobs. As citizens, they are more thoughtful and evaluative, and they now base their opinions on real evidence rather than unfounded authority and superstition.

So, the benefits of reading are many, and they permeate our lives. In future entries, we'll be writing more about these benefits, about the issues surrounding reading in our societies and schools, and especially about what can be done to help children become lifelong, engaged and expert readers. We also look forward to your reactions, ideas and feedback, so please feel free to post your thoughts, examples, additions, disagreements, and suggestions for future topics in the comments below—we promise to read every one of them!

More from Paula J. Schwanenflugel, Ph.D., and Nancy Flanagan Knapp, Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today
More from Paula J. Schwanenflugel, Ph.D., and Nancy Flanagan Knapp, Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today