The ability to read is a key skill usually developed during childhood. Being a fluent reader is vital for participation in modern society and the labour market. One of the ways parents, teachers and educators try to develop young people’s reading ability is by getting them to practise their skills (i.e. by getting them to sit down and read). But does it matter what young people choose to read for their cognitive development Does reading comics, newspapers and magazines bring the same benefits as reading books?
This is the question John Jerrim, Luis Alejandro Lopez-Agudo & Oscar D. Marcenaro-Gutierrez have put to test. They has just published the results of their study this week. The data they have used comes from an administrative census from the largest region within Spain (Andalusia). The cohort of children in the analysis were in fifth grade (the penultimate year of primary school) in 2008/9 and eighth grade (the second year of secondary school) in 2011/12. A total analytic sample of 45,160 pupils included within our analysis. Very interestingly, reading do not only improve your reading skills. (my emphasis):
Our results provide further evidence that it is not only whether young people read or not that matters – but also what they read. As per some previous research, we find little evidence that reading newspapers, comics and magazines have positive benefits for young people’s academic achievement.
In contrast, the association between reading books/novels and young people’s academic progress at school is quite strong. teenagers who read books every or almost every day continue to score around 0.22 standard deviations higher on Spanish Language tests than those who never or almost never read books. Our analysis also provides some evidence of spill-over effects, with frequently reading books (but not other text types) also associated with academic progress in mathematics.Jerrim, John, Luis Alejandro Lopez-Agudo, and Oscar D. Marcenaro-Gutierrez. 2020. ‘Does It Matter What Children Read? New Evidence Using Longitudinal Census Data from Spain’. Oxford Review of Education 0 (0): 1–19. https://doi.org/10.1080/03054985.2020.1723516.
Although they have controlled for “a rich array of potential confounders”, they stress that the research design remains correlational, with estimates not necessarily capturing cause and effect (reading actually improving your skills or the other way around).
However, another study published in May 2017, shows that only six months of literacy training can significantly alter even the mature brain:
Learning to read is known to result in a reorganization of the developing cerebral cortex. In this longitudinal resting-state functional magnetic resonance imaging study in illiterate adults, we show that only 6 months of literacy training can lead to neuroplastic changes in the mature brain. We observed that literacy-induced neuroplasticity is not confined to the cortex but increases the functional connectivity between the occipital lobe and subcortical areas in the midbrain and the thalamus. Individual rates of connectivity increase were significantly related to the individual decoding skill gains. These findings crucially complement current neurobiological concepts of normal and impaired literacy acquisition.Skeide, Michael A., Uttam Kumar, Ramesh K. Mishra, Viveka N. Tripathi, Anupam Guleria, Jay P. Singh, Frank Eisner, and Falk Huettig. 2017. ‘Learning to Read Alters Cortico-Subcortical Cross-Talk in the Visual System of Illiterates’. Science Advances 3 (5): e1602612. https://doi.org/10.1126/sciadv.1602612.
Even adult brains are amazingly flexible. Falk Huettig, senior investigator at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in The Netherlands and coauthor on the study, told Fatherly that learning to read in your thirties profoundly transforms brain networks that support the act of reading,
Our study suggests that reading experience is really important and that reading should be encouraged as much as possible and practiced as much as possible in both children and adults. In other words, the more both children and adults read the better.
Do you need to rewire your brain? Just read, but choose carefully what you read…
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