The Benefits of Reading

Ever since you bring your baby home, people suggest that you read to it. Half of the education I was given when my daughter was born was focused on reading and as she  has gotten older, this obsession with reading has continued. In fact almost weekly, I hear about some new skill she should be doing that will 'help with reading'. So where on earth is this obsession with reading coming from?
Its not that I'm anti reading by the way. I, like most people, appreciate that the ability to read and comprehend text is important in our society. People who are illiterate struggle daily to complete tasks and have worse health, educational and socio-economic outcomes.
But as long as they can read, does it matter when they start or how skilled they are at it?

Well maybe
Reading ability has been linked to improved health, educational and socio-economic status. Some of this is logically linked to the basic skill of reading. The ability to comprehend text makes higher education easier to obtain and is a necessary skill for many higher paying jobs. However, there is a suggestion that reading has benefits above the obvious skill. In particular, some studies have suggested an improvement in cognitive abilities from improve reading skill and/or increased text exposure.  Studies of children up to the age of 12 have shown that those who read more or were exposed to more print media had greater verbal intelligence skills (comprehension, receptive and sight vocabulary) two years later 1 . This remained the case even when their original reading ability was accounted for. Another study, using twins, showed that improved reading skill was linked to increased general intelligence, including nonverbal intelligence 2.
This advantage is not shown to be linked to the age at which the child begins reading. The earliest a difference in reading skill has been established to be linked to a difference in intelligence is age 7 2.

How it could work
Reading may help other cognitive skills via  the development of other skills that are also helpful for general intelligence traits. Most obviously, the influence on verbal skills may be that increased exposure to printed words provides additional support for understanding how language works (including spelling and vocabulary acquisition) 3. Other non-verbal skills can also be developed via reading. For example, the process of thinking about others perspectives or imaging different worlds, times and scenarios may be useful in the development of abstract thinking.

Other possible explanations
There are other explanations that mean that reading may be less beneficial. Genetic features linked to increased intelligence may also increase reading ability. This includes not only genetic cognitive features but factors such as motivation or openness to experience that lead to improvements in reading and intelligence in a similar way 4. Since children with such traits tend to also choose and create more intellectually stimulating environments, the influence of these genetic factors is often difficult to untangle from environmental factors. A twin study where one twin had been exposed to an environmental factor increasing reading ability and the other had not showed an effect above that purely of genetics.
Similarly, environmental  factors such as quality parenting and teaching may also play a joint role in enhancing both reading and intelligence skills without reading being the causative factor. It is suggested that such environmental factors may be magnified across time causing a greater difference in ability than would otherwise be present 5.
It is also not clear which direction the relationship between reading and intelligence goes in. Enhanced general knowledge and cognitive ability could increase reading skills in the same way that increased reading skill could increase cognitive ability. Certainly other studies have shown the influence on prior knowledge on reading ability 6.

So what does all this mean
For children who have difficult in reading, this means that interventions to assist them may have benefits above that of reading skills. Since reading difficulties in children are quite responsive to intervention 7, this provides more incentive to parents and schools to assist these children in the acquisition of reading skills.
For children who are not having reading difficulties, the benefits are less clear. Personally, I would not consider the evidence to be so great that it is worth pushing for increased reading ability from a very young age. However many of the environmental factors that can increase reading ability would also be helpful to their cognitive and other abilities. Things such as a high quality teacher, academically focused peer group and exposure to a wide range of media are advantageous and pleasant things in childrens lives and should be generally emphasised above any advantage on reading.


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