Reading for pleasure: As good as expected


Author: Juan F. Trillo, PhD in Linguistics and Philosophy (U. Autónoma de Madrid), PhD in Literary Studies (U. Complutense de Madrid).

Science often ends up confirming what we have always known —or at least suspected— through research whose results are in line with what intuition suggests. This is the case of reading in young people, whose beneficial effects have just been highlighted in a study published in Psychological Medicine. This is an issue that has been receiving attention from the scientific community for some time, so this work by Yun-Jun Sun et al. (2023) is a meta-analytic study that brings together previous research and draws conclusions from the whole. The results, although predictable, are no less important, since any scientific evidence that supports the promotion of early reading habits is always welcome.

Photo: Pixabay

The act of reading requires the prior learning of a series of rules that will allow the interpretation of written signs and whose skill is acquired over time, through continuous practice (Seymour, Aro, & Erskine, 2003), until it becomes something that is done naturally and without conscious effort. Since in children learning and play are closely linked (Palagi, Stanyon, & Demuru, 2015), it is easy to stimulate in them this habit through illustrated and interactive texts that turn reading into a fun, pleasurable act whose benefits will be perceived over the years. In fact, any activity involving the use of language eventually pays off, —even if passively, as is the case with audiobooks for children (Montag, Jones, & Smith, 2015).

The key lies in the well-known plasticity of the human brain during childhood, which positively influences the development of appropriate cognitive processes (Black et al., 2017; Klingberg, 2014; Shonkoff et al., 2012) that later, during adolescence and maturity, will translate, among other benefits, into greater resilience to stress (Beddington et al. 2008).

The researchers in this study made use of the extensive database accumulated by the ABCD project among U.S. adolescents aged 9 to 13 years, but since most of the participants were over the age of 10, they decided to use the term “young adolescents” to refer to them. It is interesting to note that ABCD Study ® is a large-scale research project that began collecting data in 2017 and aims to study and understand how the brain develops and changes during adolescence and how different factors affect this process. The participant pool consisted of more than 10,000 children, aged 9 to 10 years at the start of the study, from 21 different locations in the United States. Among the elements measured were brain, cognitive, social, emotional and physical development, as well as the study of genetic and environmental factors that may influence this development.

With respect to the element studied, reading for pleasure (RfP) in children and its effects in early adolescence, the information came not only from the participants themselves, but also from their parents who provided data on how many years their children had been reading for pleasure or how many hours per week they dedicated to RfP activity. On the other hand, the information obtained from ABCD was cross-checked with data available from the National Institute of Health (NIH) to establish the occurrence of psychopathological symptoms and cognitive dysfunctions. In addition, high-resolution neuroimages provided by ABCD, which had been obtained using 3T with 32-channel head coil and T1-weighted structural magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanners, were analyzed to determine the development of cortical (148) and subcortical (40) regions. The images showed a slight increase in total brain volume as well as intracranial volume associated with RfP higher levels in young adolescents.

Of the total number of participants in the study, 48.2% had never RfP or had started considerably later, while the rest showed high levels of RfP (for 3-10 years). As expected, in the second group an inverse correlation between RfP and screen time use was revealed; the more time children spent reading for pleasure, the less time they spent on electronic devices (cellphone, tablet, TV) and, interestingly, the more time they spent sleeping. In addition, in cognitive assessment tests they showed higher scores than among the general population of young adolescents, higher verbal learning ability, better short-term memory, better speech development and better academic results. On the other hand, there is a negative correlation between RfP and mental disorders in adolescence; the longer the time spent reading for pleasure, the lower the psychopathological symptoms. In addition, it is possible to find a whole series of beneficial effects associated with RfP: less aggressiveness, less tendency to break the rules, lower stress, as well as a lower rate of social problems and incidence of depressive episodes.

As for the optimal duration of RfP, from the available data it can be set at approximately 12 hours per week. While an increase in this amount did not translate into significant benefits, it was associated with an excessively sedentary behavior and a decrease in the time dedicated to other cognitively enriching occupations, such as sports and social activities in general. On the other hand, a reduction of the optimal 12 hours per week was associated with a progressive decline in cognitive performance. The overall conclusion points to the desirability of responsible encouragement by parents and educators for children to devote time to reading for pleasure. The result will be more creative, empathetic adults, with a lower level of stress and a better outlook on life wellbeing.

The researchers conclude their study by highlighting its strengths, such as the size of the population sample on which they have worked, the longitudinal design that has allowed them to study the evolution of the participants after two years, the availability of information on genetic inheritance and the environment and their influence on early RfP, and the use of the standard 2-sample MR analysis (Mendelian randomization) to draw conclusions. As for future studies along the same lines, they highlight the possibility of carrying out an observation of the effects of RfP in late adolescence and in young adults.

As we said at the beginning, the results confirm that the effects of reading for pleasure are as good as could be expected, and, for once, contradict the famous popular saying that “no pain, no gain“, because in this case it is just the opposite.


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