Studies have shown that children who read for pleasure tend to do better across all subjects at school; for instance, reading for enjoyment has been reported as more important for children's educational success than their family's socio-economic status (OECD, 2002). Now a new study says that children who read for pleasure will retain those benefits as adolescents, doing better in cognitive tests and with improved mental health.
The study - by the universities of Cambridge and Warwick in the UK and Fudan University in China - included more than 10,000 young adolescents in the US. The findings were published in Psychological Medicine this week. Co-author Professor Barbara Sahakian from the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Cambridge said, "We found significant evidence that reading is linked to important developmental factors in children, improving their cognition, mental health, and brain structure, which are cornerstones for future learning and well-being."
As brains develop during childhood and adolescence, it is important to encourage behaviours that support cognitive development and promote good brain health but, until now, it was unclear what impact - if any - reading from an early age would have on children's brain development, cognition and mental health later in life.
Researchers investigated data comparing young people who began reading for pleasure at an early age (between two and nine years old) against those who began doing so later or not at all. Around 48% of the participants studied did not read for pleasure, or only began doing so later in their childhood. The rest had spent between three and ten years reading for pleasure. The analyses also controlled for factors including socio-economic status.
'Strong link between reading for pleasure at an early age and a positive performance in adolescence in cognitive tests'
The team found a strong link between reading for pleasure at an early age and a positive performance in adolescence in cognitive tests measuring factors such as verbal learning, memory and speech development, as well as school academic achievement. Young adolescents who had read as children also had better mental wellbeing with fewer signs of stress and depression, better attention levels and fewer behavioural problems such as aggression.
Children who began reading for pleasure earlier also tended to spend less screen time - for example watching TV or using their smartphone or tablet - during the week and at weekends in their adolescence, and also tended to sleep longer.
Brain scans from the adolescent cohort also showed that those participants who had taken to reading for pleasure at an early age showed moderately larger total brain areas and volumes, including in particular brain regions that play critical roles in cognitive functions. Other brain regions that were different among this group were those that have been previously shown to relate to improved mental health, behaviour and attention.
RfP is "linked to important developmental factors in children, improving their cognition, mental health, and brain structure"
Sahakian added, "Reading isn't just a pleasurable experience - it's widely accepted that it inspires thinking and creativity, increases empathy and reduces stress. But on top of this, we found significant evidence that it's linked to important developmental factors in children, improving their cognition, mental health, and brain structure, which are cornerstones for future learning and well-being."
The study found that 12 hours a week was the optimal amount of reading, and that this was linked to improved brain structure. Beyond this, there appeared to be no additional benefits.
Professor Jianfeng Feng from Fudan University in Shanghai, China, and the University of Warwick, UK, said, "We encourage parents to do their best to awaken the joy of reading in their children at an early age. Done right, this will not only give them pleasure and enjoyment, but will also help their development and encourage long-term reading habits, which may also prove beneficial into adult life."