Reading, in particular the reading by young people, is an issue that is permanently in the spotlight. And understandably so, not least because we all recognise that in a society of written culture like ours, the ability to read is an essential skill for the realisation of the individual and for the development of the collective. For this reason, parents, teachers, political decision-makers, in short, most citizens, are always attentive to what can be done to develop in young people this art of reading, which is beneficial both for the future and the present, namely, in school success, as practical experience indicates.
Studies carried out by different scientific domains challenge to a greater understanding of the field of reading and the search for evidence to guide on how to potentiate and withdraw from this activity greater advantage. The association between young people's reading frequency and improved school performance has been repeatedly demonstrated in the academic bibliography (with a strong role attributed to motivation). However, the association between reading different types of texts and reading skills has been less explored. In this sense, the contribution of John Jerrim and Gemma Moss, who in a 2019 article compare the 2009 PISA results on reading and reading frequencies of different types of text by young people, becomes relevant.
The authors concluded that reading fiction books (novels, narratives, short stories) gives young people significantly stronger reading skills than reading other texts.
Let us see how they conducted this quanti-qualitative study. Jerrim and Moss tried to understand and verify whether there is a relationship between the reading performance of 15-year-olds, as manifested in the 2009 PISA reading scores, and the frequency with which these young people claim to read different types of texts. In addition to the results on reading, PISA brings the answers to a "Student Questionnaire". In one of the sections of this questionnaire on reading activities, one of the items includes the question "How often do you read these materials just because you feel like it? The materials mentioned are: magazines; comics; fiction books (novels, narratives, short stories); non-fiction books; and newspapers. The answer is given through a 5-point Likert scale: "1 - Never or almost never; 2 - A few times a year; 3 - About once a month; 4 - Several times a month; 5 - Several times a week".
Looking for explanations for the virtuality of reading fiction texts, Jerrim and Moss, based on previous studies, point out that such advantage lies in complementary factors.
One of them is the potential time, because such texts need continued attention, notoriously more demanding than that which presupposes the reading of a newspaper or magazine. Another factor is that long narrative texts expose the reader to new vocabulary, to more elaborate syntactic constructions, requiring a greater capacity for apprehension and a greater development of reading ability, in order to be able to deal with textual complexity. Furthermore, the interest in fiction reading, associated with the length of the text, encourages a "deep reading", that is, a significant reflection on what is read, overcoming the gathering of information gathered in short texts, which ultimately promotes the ability to concentrate. The authors also emphasise the fact that young people become more emotionally involved when reading narrative fictions, so that they become more attractive and promote "social improvement", even favouring the sharing of texts read on social networks.
It remained to be seen, however, whether the reading of fiction increases the reading skills of young people. Thus, Jerrim and Moss used the 2009 PISA database on over 250,000 students from 35 industrialised OECD countries (Portugal included) and explored this association. In a first step, they took schools as a primary sample, ensuring proportionality between school population and respondents; in a second step, they randomly selected about 30 young people in each school. Some PISA participants are assigned to complete only reading assignments, while others complete a mix of reading, math, and science items. Based on the responses of the young people to the PISA test questions and the above-mentioned "Student Questionnaire," the researchers drew up an estimate of latent reading, science, and math capability using the item-parameter binomial. As only a part of the students could have answered the total of the PISA sections, they built a complex formed by five plausible values for each student in each area. The elements thus collected were the main co-variables of the study.
By establishing a series of controls (demographic; pre-school attendance and repetition situations; math test score; existence of tutoring classes and the student's relationship with the school), the authors of the study sought to identify effects related both to the prior acquisition of reading and to the intervention of parents in encouraging reading, which, they reiterate, do not compromise the inference on the relationship between volitional and frequent reading of fiction texts and PISA results.
Jerrim and Moss found that the highest reading scores on PISA have a strong relationship with total reading time and the frequency with which young people read fiction books. According to the data in the table below, reading this type of text, if done "A few times a year", has a positive influence on PISA test results of 9%; if done "Several times a week", this positive influence becomes 26.2% (the standard error being 2.5 and 3.4, respectively). By contrast, as can be seen in the table, the link with reading magazines, comics, non-fiction books, and newspapers is relatively weak.
There is, therefore, a fictional effect of relevant importance for the development of young people's reading skills. This evidence is observed in Portugal and in almost all the other 34 OECD countries considered.
Jerrim and Moss also warn that the fragile probabilities of fiction reading by young people from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds should be taken into account, and recommend greater attention to young people's volitional reading, suggesting that schools have quality time for reading practice.
Jerrim, J., e Moss, G., «The link between fiction and teenagers’ reading skills: International evidence from the OECD PISA study», British Educational Research Journal, vol. 45, nº 1, Fevereiro 2019, pp. 181-200.