Over the course of recent years, scientific research has corroborated the idea that there is a relationship between the frequency of reading among young persons and their capacities or, put otherwise, their reading skills. In practical terms, this means it is those who read more who read better and that those who read better, read more.
Two very recent studies1,2 have analysed the reciprocity between these two variables (i.e., reading skills and the amount of reading for pleasure) and arrive at interesting conclusions. Everything would seem to indicate that the direction of this relationship may depend on the moment of developing reading by the children and the genre of reading under consideration. We shall find out below just what this means.
Avid readers are better readers
Earlier studies have shown that avid readers are better readers. Meta-analysis that spanned 99 studies3 observed correlations between the precursors of reading skills and the quantity of reading.
The relationship between these two factors emerges more clearly with the advance in the number of years of schooling, more tenuous at the beginning of learning and stronger when reaching the level of secondary school teaching. Furthermore, stronger associations have been described between reading for pleasure and for interest and the reading skills acquired – such as, and for example, fluency and comprehension of that read –, than between formal academic reading and these latter factors.
Therefore, the interest in reading leads us to read increasingly more that, in turn, improves our performance of this task. In fact, exposure to written material is necessary for acquiring the spelling knowledge essential for the rapid reading of words. Subsequently, quick and effortless reading releases cognitive resources to improve the level of comprehension. When we are no longer hindered by the need to decodify and become fluent readers, we become equally able to contemplate the meaning of that which we are reading.
Cause and effect
The existence of correlations among the precursors of reading skills and the quantity of reading carried out tells us little about the actual influence they may have on each other over the course of time. Indeed, thus far, there has only been analysis of the predictive role of the precursor and the skills on the quantity of reading but never the other way around.
Two recent studies1,2 have now explored the potential reciprocity between these two factors in an attempt to ascertain the causal determinant – thus, to establish which of the two variables promotes the other. Does the initial pleasure in reading promote the development of good reading skills? Or are good reading skills from an early phase the reason behind the pleasure in reading?
Does practice always make perfect?
The first of these studies1 accompanied 200 Finnish children throughout a decade – from the age of 5 to 15. Various of their pre-reading and reading skills were subject to evaluation. As pre-reading skills (evaluated at the age of 5), this spanned their knowledge of the letters and their phonological awareness, hence, their aware knowledge of certain units and properties of the language. As regards their reading skills, the level of fluency in the oral reading of the texts was tested (in school years 1, 2, 3 and 8) as was their understanding of written texts (in school years 2, 3 and 9). This process also extended to evaluating their “exposure to reading” – that the authors define as the quantity of reading for pleasure –, through a questionnaire targeting the parents (e.g., how often does your child independently look at / read books or magazines?). The relationship between the various skills and the quantity of reading for pleasure was analysed through recourse to the statistical modelling of trajectory analysis with a temporal interval.
The results demonstrate that, in the early years, the core reading skills (pre-reading and fluency in oral readings skills) play a causal role, with impacts both on comprehension and the quantity of reading for pleasure. This means that, in this phase of development, knowledge of the letters, phonological awareness and the initial levels of fluency in children are the fundamental predictors of the quantity of future reading for pleasure and the subsequent reading comprehension.
The initial reading fluency enables the prediction not only of the later reading fluency level but also the subsequent comprehension of reading and the quantity of later reading. Hence, children with good core reading skills are able to enter into a virtuous circle while children experiencing a deficit in their core reading skills may enter into a viscous circle.4 We are, therefore, once again facing that known as the Mateus effect. To counter such issues, there is clearly importance in timely interventions on those readers in difficulty at as early an age as possible in order to improve their core reading skills (such as fluency) and help them to develop positive reading habits (reading for pleasure).
In addition, as from the third year of schooling, the results portrayed an alteration in the relationship between reading abilities and the quantity of reading for pleasure. This latter factor emerges, in its own right, as a predictor of the subsequent growth of reading skills, particular those for reading comprehension.
This is the point in time when children should already have essentially attained an automatic capacity and, thus, independence in reading. There then comes a shift from learning to read to learning to learn. At this stage, children are ready to choose the contents that they wish to read in accordance with their tastes and interests; reading for the pleasure of reading. This motivation leads to differences between each individual in terms of their frequency and complexity of reading. As the study’s authors state in way of an example, “reading a book from the Harry Potter collection may provide over 250,000 words of reading practice and simultaneously improve the vocabulary and the comprehension of contextual information.”1
This study made recourse to the PISA results (from 2010 and 2013) to evaluate the level of reading comprehension at the age of 15, the final year of evaluation. And all of the measures evaluated at previous stages, from the 3rd year onwards, forecast the reading comprehension attained at the age of 15.
Given that the quantity of reading for pleasure – especially from year 3 onwards – positively influences the later reading skills, parents and teachers take on a fundamental role here. They are responsible for providing children with varied reading materials that help them adjust their respective interests while also monitoring the reading of the young and providing them with feedback.
The best readers read more fiction
The second of the aforementioned studies2 explored this subject from a different perspective, testing the impact of the different reading genres on the relationship between reading for pleasure and reading skills in a longitudinal approach. This accompanied 2,525 students, also Finnish, between the ages of 7 and 16.
It has been proposed that the genre of the content read may provide an important input into this relationship. In particular, reading fiction seems to be more strongly correlated with reading comprehension and good reading skills in general1 than are other genres – perhaps due to fiction reading providing a more intrinsic motivation.2 Fiction contrasts with the reading of magazines and cartoons, considered light in content, that takes place above all for social motives, such as sharing with peers and obtaining recognition. To these reading genres, there is also the digital reading, which includes the reading of emails or instantaneous messages, that has now changed the reading habits of children and adolescents.
As regards the simple relationship between reading for pleasure in general and reading skills, the results of this second study bear close resemblance to those described above.
The great relevance of this research is that not all reading for pleasure is able to foster better comprehension. Only the reading of books, effectively the reading of fiction, returns a significant influence on comprehension – to the contrary of lighter reading of magazines and cartoons.
This also reported that the reading of digital texts in a schooling year equivalent to the end of the 2nd cycle in the Portuguese teaching system generated a significant negative effect on later reading comprehension. These findings would thus suggest that a greater quantity of digital reading is a predictor of a lower subsequent level of reading comprehension.
In fact, earlier studies1 have already observed a negative correlation between the quantity of time spent on reading digital information (emails, blogs, forums) and the understanding of the reading of printed texts. Furthermore, as science has also already proposed,2 the proficient reading of printed texts is a strong facilitator of competent digital reading but not the contrary.
Conclusions and pedagogic implications
In summary, the data produced by these studies enable us to reach conclusions with some important pedagogic implications:
- The quantity of reading for pleasure and the reading skills reciprocally influence each other throughout development; even while, at the outset, reading skills wield a stronger influence than reading for pleasure;
- Mastering the reading skills, automatically, without any effort, seems to foster the development of reading and long lasting reading habits;
- Reading for pleasure, in the early years, fosters essential capacities for the development of reading comprehension – such as vocabulary, syntax and general knowledge;
- Timely intervention with students experiencing deficits in their pre-reading and early reading skills positively influences the quantity of later independent reading and text comprehension;
- Book reading habits should be encouraged from as early a stage as possible;
- Whoever does not have any interest in books in pre-school should benefit from interventions able to counter that lack of interest;
- The accumulation of reading hours, for pleasure, improves the reading of children;
- Students should prioritise the reading of books to the detriment of digital reading in order to foster better levels of reading comprehension.
[1.] van Bergen, E., Vasalampi, K., & Torppa, M. (2020). How Are Practice and Performance Related? Development of Reading From Age 5 to 15. Reading Research Quarterly. https://doi.org/10.1002/rrq.309
[2.] Torppa, M., Niemi, P., Vasalampi, K., Lerkkanen, M. K., Tolvanen, A., & Poikkeus, A. M. (2020). Leisure reading (but not any kind) and reading comprehension support each other—A longitudinal study across grades 1 and 9. Child Development, 91(3), 876-900. https://doi.org/10.1111/cdev.13241
[3.] Mol, S. E., & Bus, A. G. (2011). To read or not to read: A meta‐analysis of print exposure from infancy to early adulthood. Psychological Bulletin, 137, 267–296. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0021890
[4.] Stanovich, K. E. (1986). Matthew effects in reading: Some consequences of individual differences in the acquisition of literacy. Reading Research Quarterly, 21, 360–407. https://doi.org/10.1177/0022057409189001-204
[5.] Jerrim, J., & Moss, G. (2019). The link between fiction and teenagers’ reading skills: International evidence from the OECD PISA study. British Educational Research Journal, 45(1), 181-200. https://doi.org/10.1002/berj.3498
[6.] Spear-Swerling, L., Brucker, P. O., & Alfano, M. P. (2010). Relationships between sixth-graders’ reading comprehension and two different measures of print exposure. Reading and Writing, 23(1), 73-96. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11145-008-9152-8
[7.] Pfost, M., Dörfler, T., & Artelt, C. (2013). Students’ extracurricular reading behavior and the development of vocabulary and reading comprehension. Learning and Individual Differences, 26, 89–102. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.lindif.2013.04.008
[8.] Hahnel, C., Goldhammer, F., Kröhne, U., & Naumann, J. (2018). The role of reading skills in the evaluation of online information gathered from search engine environments. Computers in Human Behavior, 78, 223–234. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chb.2017.10.004