What Reading Does for the Mind - Paper Summary


Authors: Cunningham and Stanovich

Link to paper

tl;dr - Reading volume of children is a large predictor of vocabulary growth and general knowledge, even after controlling for factors like IQ, GPA, and reading comprehension.


Vocabulary Size and Reading Volume

The relative rarity of the words in children’s books is greater than that in all of adult conversations. The words used in children’s books are considerably rarer than those in the speech on prime-time adult television. The categories of adult reading matter contain words that are two or three times rarer than those heard on television.

These relative differences in word rarity have direct implications for vocabulary development. If most vocabulary is acquired outside of formal teaching, then the only opportunities to acquire new words occur when an individual is exposed to a word in written or oral language that is outside his/her current vocabulary. This will happen vastly more often while reading than while talking or watching television.

Assurances by some educators that “What they read and write may make people smarter, but so will any activity that engages the mind, including interesting conversation” are overstated, at least when applied to the domain of vocabulary learning.

General Knowledge and Reading Volume

[In a study on general knowledge] the more avid readers in our study - regardless of their general abilities [IQ, GPA, reading comprehension] - were more likely to know who their United States senators were, more likely to know how many teaspoons are equivalent to one tablespoon, how the prime lending rate affects loans etc. One would be hard pressed to deny that at least some of this knowledge is relevant to living in the United States in the late 20th century.

69.3 percent of our sample thought that there were more Jewish people in the world than Moslems. This level of inaccuracy is startling given that approximately 40 percent of our sample of 268 students were attending one of the most selective public institutions of higher education in the US (UC Berkeley).

We looked at the performance on this question as a function of students level of reading volume and television watching. Reading volume was associated with higher scores on the question, but television exposure was associated with lower scores. Scores among the group high in reading volume and low in television exposure were highest, and the lowest scores were achieved by those high in television exposure and low in reading volume

Similarly, we have analyzed a variety of other misconceptions - including knowledge of World War II, the world’s languages, and the components of the federal budget - and all of them replicate the pattern shown for this question. The cognitive anatomy of misinformation appears to be one of too little exposure to print (or reading) and over-reliance on television for information about the world.

[These results were replicated in studies on college students and seniors]

Early Reading Skills and Later Reading Volume

We examined the contribution of three standardized measures of first grade reading ability (decoding, word recognition, and comprehension) and observed that all three measures predicted eleventh-grade reading volume even after eleventh-grade reading comprehension ability had been partialed out! In contrast, we observed that first grade intelligence measures do not uniquely predict eleventh-grade reading volume in the same way

We can thus elicit two crucial messages from our research findings. First, it is difficult to overstate the importance of getting children off to an early successful start in reading. We must ensure that students’ decoding and word recognition abilities are progressing solidly. Those who read well are likely to read more, thus set-ting an upward spiral into motion. Second, we should provide all children, regardless of their achievement levels, with as many reading experiences as possible. Indeed, this becomes doubly imperative for precisely those children whose verbal abilities are most in need of bolstering, for it is the very act of reading that can build those capacities.