Does reading for pleasure boost reading ability?

The relationship between reading for pleasure and reading ability is a complex one, but a new study sheds some light on the topic, according to Jessie Ricketts

reading for pleasure

That reading for pleasure and reading instruction are tightly intertwined is something most teachers intuitively understand. But a recent study has found that the relationship is more changeable than many may have thought.

The academic Minna Torppa and colleagues have discovered that the way reading ability and leisure reading are related changes as children get older and move into adolescence.

The researchers were interested in finding out whether reading ability influences leisure reading or leisure reading influences reading ability, or whether it goes both ways.

Reading for pleasure

They followed 2,525 Finnish children from age 7 to 16, measuring reading fluency and reading comprehension ability and asking questions about leisure reading (eg how often do you read novels/magazines/digital texts like emails?).

For younger children, up to age 10, parents reported on leisure reading whereas at older ages the children and young people reported on their own leisure reading amount.

It turned out – as many teachers might expect – that slower readers and poorer comprehenders read less than more fluent readers and more able comprehenders. The research team then conducted further analyses to try to understand this association.

Chicken or egg?

They provide evidence that during the first few years of reading instruction, reading fluency and comprehension influence the amount of leisure reading that children do. In effect: the better readers tend to read more in their own time.

But after this point, the relationship between ability and leisure reading becomes reciprocal. Reading comprehension ability continues to influence the amount of leisure reading to some extent. In addition, the amount of leisure reading, and particular book reading, influences reading comprehension ability.

What does this mean for teachers?

More reading, please

The authors argue that parents and teachers should prioritise the teaching of reading skills and reading interest – and that book reading may be particularly important for fostering reading ability.

Why?

In part this might be about motivation: perhaps children are more intrinsically motivated by books and fiction than other kinds of reading (eg magazines, digital). See Sarah McGeown’s excellent work on motivation and reading as reported in Tes.

Another explanation for the importance of book reading might be the language that we encounter in books. Indeed "book language" is quite different from the language that we encounter through listening and conversation. For instance, it tends to include a much wider range of vocabulary. For more about this, see Kate Nation’s article for Tes.

More work needed

This study is the first of its kind and is an unusually large longitudinal study, both in terms of the number of children involved, and the number of times that data was collected. As the article notes, there are some limitations with the study, as with any study.

At the moment, I am working with Laura Shapiro and colleagues at Aston University on the Reading and Vocabulary Project and we are investigating these same questions using longitudinal research in the UK (tracking children from the Aston Literacy Project) and an intervention study. Keep your eye on this blog and on our website for answers as they emerge.

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