It is widely considered important that children read regularly. A wide range of previous research has linked reading during childhood to improved language skills and higher levels of academic achievement more generally.
But does it matter what children choose to read? Does flicking through a magazine or reading a newspaper have the same benefits for young people as becoming engrossed in a novel? A lot less evidence currently exists on this.
The data we used was drawn from the OECD’s 2015 PISA study. This asked 15-year-olds how frequently they read the following different text types:
- fiction books
- non-fiction books
- comic books
Within our paper, we examined how the frequency with which young people read each of these different types of materials was linked to young people’s PISA scores. Critically, our analysis controlled for a wide array of potential confounders (such as gender, socio-economic status and school attended) to try and rule out alternative explanations for our results.
A summary of our key findings can be found in the chart below. It illustrates how PISA scores differ between children who read each text type regularly (i.e. almost every day) versus those who almost never read that type of text.
Teenagers who frequently read newspapers, magazines, comics and non-fiction books do not achieve significantly higher PISA reading scores than those who do not.
Yet the same is not true for young people who read fiction books or novels.
Specifically, teenagers who read fiction almost every day score around 26 points higher on the PISA reading test than those who never read such books. This difference in achievement is large – the equivalent of around 10 months of additional schooling according to the OECD.
Is this result simply due to children who read fiction books just reading for a greater amount of time in total? After all, dipping in and out of a magazine, comic or newspaper takes a lot less time than trying to slog through a novel like War and Peace.
Interestingly, our analysis provided no evidence that this was the case.
We continued to find just as strong a ‘fiction effect’ even after we controlled for young people’s total weekly reading time.
This finding has important implications.
Parents and teachers should not encourage teenagers to “just read something”, no matter what this is.
Rather, they should focus their efforts on encouraging young people to engage more with novels and other lengthy fictional texts that encourages deep reading for sustained periods of time.
This is likely to be particularly important for boys from lower socio-economic backgrounds – the group we find to be reading this type of text the least, and who also have comparatively poor reading skills.