U.K. vocabulary study shows long-term benefits of reading for fun: Lower nursing home bills, not just better K-12 scores?

Dr. Alice Sullivan, researcher for the Institute of Educaton in the U.K.Calling for a national digital library endowment for the U.S., LibraryCity has often cited a major British study telling how “reading for pleasure puts children ahead in the classroom.”

Now comes an equally cogent follow-up from the same researchers at the Institute of Education at the University of London. It found that “Long-term vocabulary benefits from ‘reading for pleasure’ in childhood.” The summary is here, the full text here.

Researchers Alice Sullivan and Matt Brown studied “the vocabulary test scores of more than 9,400 British people at the ages of 10, 16 and 42,” says the institute’s summary. “Their statistical analysis showed that those who had regularly read for pleasure at 10 scored 67 per cent in the age 42 vocabulary test, whereas infrequent childhood readers scored only 51 per cent.” Even with socioeconomics factored in, a nine-point gap existed at age 42 between frequent and infrequent readers.

Matt-Brown“The long-term influence of reading for pleasure on vocabulary that we have identified may well be because the frequent childhood readers continued to read throughout their twenties and thirties,” Sullivan and Brown say. “In other words, they developed ‘good’ reading habits in childhood and adolescence that they have subsequently benefited from.”

Significantly, the study mentions past research suggesting that larger adult-vocabularies can help guard against general mental decline. Not bad. Long term, literacy-optimized libraries could give us more for our K-12 money and reduce nursing home costs along the way. To one extent or another, language skills can be to dementia what fluoride is to tooth decay.

Now, what does the Sullivan-Brown study itself mean in regard to Amazon-style booksellers and lenders vs. public and school libraries—and also in terms of the need for well-funded national digital library endowment in the U.K. and elsewhere, including the U.S? U.K. literacy study

The University of London researchers did not address those issues directly. But indirectly they most certainly did.

The summary of their study says they found that “what people chose to read as adults mattered as much as how often they read—in terms of the effect on vocabulary scores at 42. The greatest improvements between ages 16 and 42 were made by readers of ‘highbrow’ fiction.” Get it? Amazon and the like are terrific for genre fiction and bestsellers in general, as I see it, and librarians can and should use such content as student gateways to more literary books. And they should encourage young readers to buy as well as borrow books of all kinds. But at the same time, remember that Amazon focuses on profits, not social responsibility, even though it is hardly bereft of literary fiction.

School and public librarians, on the other hand, if doing their jobs, will gently nudge students and parents (their role models and conversational partners) toward more challenging books of the kind that might help reduce mental declines in old age.

Activities such as librarian-encouraged cell phone book clubs would be one way to accomplish this objective, and a national digital library endowment could not just finance good content but also the encouragement of its absorption and of mastery of e-book literacy. Most readers of e-books, in my opinion after more than two decades of e-library advocacy, still don’t know how to use their devices properly to get the most out of the book they read.

The study linked greater vocabulary gains from fiction than nonfiction, so should libraries and schools should play down factual books for recreational reading and other purposes? Actually no. Let’s not pit fiction and nonfiction against each other. We need more efforts to steer young people to good nonfiction titles; vocabulary isn’t the only consideration here, beyond the fact that nonfiction is far from devoid of benefits in this area. Comfort with meaty nonfiction can help students later on in school, work and life in general.

Prominent business people such as Jeff Bezos and Mark Cuban have told how much nonfiction books helped them in strategizing, and the same precepts would apply else even in small business. Besides, comprehension of a book or anything else relies on more than vocabulary; and nonfiction can provide the scaffolding that young readers need to appreciate fiction. Nonfiction, moreover, including popular-level books on hot topics such as sports, can lead people to read novels.

Still, the study’s observation on fiction vs. nonfiction, in regard to vocabulary development, should serve as a warning to those who diminish the usefulness of the former. Let’s also remember past research showing that literary fiction can help build empathy, and in fact, the reading of it can even reduce recidivism rates among criminals.

But how to interest students and others in good lit? Libraries and schools can start by having a wide selection of literary titles, to increase the chances of students finding novels that resonate with them. A national digital library endowment and the related digital library systems could expand the possibilities. Interestingly, Changing Lives Through Literature, a literature program aimed at offenders, supplies suggestions for both men’s and women’s programs. That’s the preference of the participants—and a good example for librarians, who so often favor female-oriented titles. A Wikipedia entry lists sample books such as Animal Farm (for males) and To Kill a Mockingbird (for women). If we want young people to develop as serious, empathetic readers—whether they’re juvenile or adult offenders, or law-abiders—then we need a multitude of books in line with the Laws of Library Science, not just introductory ones. Let libraries acquire titles for a wide variety of demographic groups.

Unfortunately, even as many libraries deemphasize paper books, they have a long way to go if we’re to realize the full potential of literary works in digital format. The issue isn’t just the kinds of titles offered (how prominently do public library-related sites typically feature even major literary novels in digital format, and how often are they available for checkout in many cities without a wait?). Sixty-four percent of U.S. school libraries loan out e-books, but their efforts are severely impeded by such factors as failure to teach e-book literacy, so students feel comfortable with e-books and can most benefit from them.

The issue is also the number of digital books in school libraries. School Library Journal reports that “the median number of ebooks per school remains low at 189 titles in comparison to 11,300 print books in a school collection.”

In both public libraries and school libraries, the budget for e-books undoubtedly will go up, and it only figures that with an endowment and national digital library systems, libraries could vastly expand their selections and enjoy more bargaining power with publishers. Right now, only about 12 percent of a typical U.S. public library budget goes for collection items of any kind, electronic or paper, compared to about a quarter of the budgets in 1942; and within that category books must compete with DVDs and plenty else.

If nothing else, the latest research from the U.K. reminds us again of the need for libraries to stay on mission, and not neglect books and literacy and related activities such as reference services.

Yes, I’m still keen, keen, keen on 3D printers and other “maker” offerings in appropriate public libraries—and on plenty else, particularly libraries as community hubs and connectors of people. The unfortunate elimination of art and music courses at some schools, to make way for standardized test, is a special reason for public libraries to encourage creativity in all forms, language-related or not.

Just the same, libraries must not shortchange the literacy basics in an urge to drive up traffic. I’m appalled by a U.K. clip about libraries without quiet areas for reading and homework for those wanting them. Libraries need both quiet and noise.

Meanwhile here are the main findings of the new British study, “Vocabulary from adolescence to middle age,” as directly quoted from it:

  • Childhood reading habits exerted a long-term influence on adult vocabulary development, even controlling for adult reading habits.
  • Both occupational social class at 42 and qualifications achieved by 42 were linked to vocabulary growth between 16 and 42. Holders of Russell Group degrees [link added] made the most progress.
  • The frequency of reading for pleasure was positively linked to progress in vocabulary. Those who read every day had an advantage of 4 percentage points compared to non-readers.
  • What people read mattered as much as how often they read, with the greatest gains for readers of high-brow fiction.
  • Readers of broadsheets made more progress in vocabulary than people who didn’t read newspapers, while tabloid readers actually made less progress than nonreaders of newspapers.
  • Finally, this paper builds on previous work which showed that reading for pleasure was linked to cognitive progress up to age 16, especially in vocabulary scores. We have now shown that reading for pleasure both in childhood and adulthood [has] a continued link to progress in vocabulary post-16.

Related: Reading Can Make You Smart: The more children read, the greater their vocabulary and the better their cognitive skills, by Anne Cunningham and Keith Stanovich.

(Big thanks to The Digital Reader for the pointer to the new U.K. study.)

Editor’s note – this article was re-published with permission from the Library City blog.

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