Do you need to rewire your brain? Just read, but choose carefully

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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Featured Image: Needpix

8 comments

  1. we find little evidence that reading newspapers, comics and magazines have positive benefits for young people’s academic achievement.

    This is, admittedly, only anecdotal but: pure hogwash! I learnt to read by perusing DC comics (mainly Superman). At first, I looked at the pictures, but later, I read the text that went along with them. (Unfortunately, my mother believed as this researcher did: she threw away a king’s ransom in original DC comics because she didn’t believe that they were doing me any good…).

    • Now we have this debate with videogames… what’s interesting is we do not really know anything (or very little) about this familiar, potentially very influencial things we do

  2. Even if the results are to be expected, the article is worth reading. It is relevant to note the authors are very conscious of the limitations of their study. Particularly I think what they show in table 7 (comparison between boys and girls) is interesting. That may indicate there are other aspects that should be consider in more detail such as the city where they live, the climate, the number of brothers, the total time devoted to reading…Just assuming they will cancel out may be dangerous.
    One of the problems of studies like this is that they show some correlations but, as the authors indicate, it does not mean causation.

    • Yes. The article is good. It’s clear, they explain well the results and do not try to oversell. The limitation (correlation causation) is also clear, and I guess we are all curious about what comes first, but the second article is also interesing, because they show that there is a clear influence of reading… The reason I chose this theme is because it is related to this crazy idea I have that, eventually, in a not so distant future, writing might disappear as a general purpose technology… https://pacojariego.me/2019/06/16/this-is-the-era-of-images-writing-is-doomed/

  3. Yes the article is interesting, but it is to be expected. I presume all important changes (reading, learning a language, surely also riding a bicycle) make (significant) changes in the brain. Perhaps it would be good to ascertain whether those changes are, at least to some degree, hereditary. Apparently, not. At least, not in a measurable way.

    I would be surprised if writing disappears in the coming future. What you say in your post (namely the power of images) is true, but I find it difficult to imagine a technological society without some form of writing. Of course, the alphabet -the symbols- may change, simplify, focus… (it is changing already,…since the ancient Egyptians we assist to changes in the writing symbols,.. sometimes slowly, sometimes faster)

    • > Reading, learning a language, surely also riding a bicycle make (significant) changes in the brain. I bet they do

      As soon as it is possible to store and search voice as easily as text, writing will be only for specialized languages. That’s my bet. Writing is a tech only 5000 years old. It takes a lot of effort to master,…Pure speculation, of course. But if I had to bet…

  4. …you may be right. After all, it is not difficult to imagine a society with a large number of unskilled people with limited analysis capacities. Huxley (“Brave New World”) though it was more stable.

    My bet is, however, in the other direction. History seems to confirm it: e.g. large empires in the XIX Century (Russia, Austro Hungarian, Ottoman) discovered -too late- that it was better to have educated people to assure stability and military/economic success; China and Japan moved in that direction with significant success. In addition, new technological advances require more skilled people -in spite of what AI doomers says.

    I do not think just advanced search capacities over speech and even over images, can compensate the symbolic possibilities of a written form. After all, written characters is a symbolic representation that goes beyond speech transcription. Names and symbols are an essential element of how we manipulate concepts.

    You should know it. Physics would not be the same without the symbols invented to represent vectors, tensors, differential analysis,…Just to name an example among many. Can you explain even the laws of Newton without symbols?

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