Reading for fun linked to cognitive performance and mental wellbeing in children

Children who read for pleasure tend to perform better at cognitive tests and have better mental health according to a study by psychologists from the UK and China.

Publishing in Psychological Medicine, the researchers analysed data – including interviews, cognitive tests, mental and behavioural assessments and brain scans – from 10,243 participants in the Adolescent Brain and Cognitive Developmentcohort, a large long-term US study of brain development and child health. 

The researchers analysed data for children aged 9-11 (2016-2018) and then follow up data collected at ages 11-13 (2017-2020).

In interviews, parents or caregivers were asked when their child began reading for pleasure and how many hours a week they spent reading. 

Around half (48%) of the children had little experience of reading for pleasure or began later in childhood. The remaining half had spent between three and ten years reading for pleasure.

The paper reports a strong correlation between reading for pleasure at an early age and positive performance in adolescence on cognitive tests and school academic achievement.

The findings come amid declining levels of reading for pleasure among children and young adolescents in Australia and the US.

Recent data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics shows children’s reading for pleasure dropped from 79% in 2018 to 72% in 2022. 

In the US, nearly a third of 13 year olds say they never read for fun according to survey data from the National Center for Education Statistics

Professor Anne Castles is a cognitive scientist who researches reading and is based at the Australian Centre for the Advancement of Literacy at the Australian Catholic University.

She says “reading for pleasure is an emergent property of being able to read”.

When children build up fluency in the “basics of recognising words, they can free up their cognitive capacity to think about the meaning of what they’re reading, and for it to spark their imagination – that’s when reading becomes fun”. 

But she says there’s a significant and worrying number of Australian children in year seven who don’t have basic reading skills.

“The most recent PISA report, a big international comparison run by the OECD, they were estimating that 40% of Australian 15-year-olds did not have functional literacy,” she says.

Castles co-authored a study published in Reading Research Quarterly investigating the links between reading and emotional health which finds poor reading ability at around age 7 is correlated with later anxiety, depression and reading self-concept.

“The ability to read independently equals – usually – pleasure in reading. And the more you have pleasure in reading the more motivated you are to read some more, and you get this beautiful virtuous circle”

“If you’re not a good reader and that affects your self-esteem and your confidence around reading. And well, surprise, surprise you’re not going to read very much.”

Anna Burkey from the Australian Publishers Association is the lead for national reading survey Australia Reads.

That survey shows around three quarters of the population had read or listened to a book in the last 18 months. With the majority reading approximately one book every 15 weeks (or around 3 – 4 books a year).

Most people surveyed say they read “for pleasure and enjoyment”, or to “relax and unwind”.

But Burkey says reading for pleasure relies on two factors: firstly, having the ability to read; and then in addition, choosing to read.

“If they were already established readers when they were in primary school, they’re more likely to continue reading,” she says.

When it comes to choosing to read, she says research suggests access to books is important, along with feeling ok to pick up a book, role-modelling by others.

“Reading can be both a solitary activity and a social activity,” Burkey says. “The social component is important. That goes to that kind of validation, seeing other people doing it, seeing your peers talk about books, is incredibly important.”

“I think the more that we can do to empower young people to read, to give them access to books, [and] to as a society, visibly value books, the more that we will have a literate, empathetic, next generation.”

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