READING CAN MAKE YOU SMARTER!
Anne Cunningham and Keith Stanovich
source : Principal 83 no 2 N/D 2003.
The more children read, the greater their vocabulary and the better their cognitive skills.
We've known for a while how children learn to read and the foundational milestones they must achieve to become fluent and accomplished readers. But now we are seeing that the amount of print children are exposed to has profound cognitive consequences, and that the act of reading itself serves to increase the achievement differences among children.
Research has shown that early success at reading is clearly one of the keys that unlocks a lifetime of reading habits. We now understand that children who crack the spelling-to-sound code early appear to enter something like a positive feedback loop, a reciprocal effect in which reading increases their ability to read.
This may explain the Matthew Effect seen so often in literacy development, a rich-get-richer and poor-get-poorer phenomenon that has early and efficient acquisition of reading skill yielding faster rates of growth not only in reading achievement but other cognitive skills as well (Stanovich 1986; Walberg & Tsai 1983). We believe that independent reading may help explain the widening achievement disparities between the educational haves and have-nots.
Support for our belief can be seen most easily in the field of vocabulary development. Research has shown that after decoding skills, a child's vocabulary is one of the most important factors in fluent and easy reading. Children with limited vocabularies stumble over unfamiliar words in trying to read a sentence and can't keep the thread of the idea—a sure formula for difficulty and dislike of reading.
While it is generally agreed that most children's vocabulary growth occurs indirectly through language exposure rather than direct instruction, we now realize it is reading volume, rather than oral language, that is the primary source of their differences in vocabularies. This has been shown through Hayes and Ahrens' (1988) research analyzing the frequency and complexity of words a person might encounter in different contexts.
Hayes and Ahrens analyzed three different categories of language: written language sampled from texts ranging in difficulty from scientific articles to preschool readers; words spoken on different types of television shows; and adult speech (Table 1).
They then analyzed the words according to a standard frequency count that tells how often an average person would hear or read a particular word (Carroll et al. 1971). So, for example, "the" is ranked number 1 in terms of frequent use (out of roughly 87,000 words) while a more specialized word like "amplifier" is ranked 16,000th.
For vocabulary growth to occur (especially after the middle grades) children must be exposed to words that are relatively rare, and it is print that provides many such word-learning opportunities. For example, Hayes and Ahrens found children's books to have 50 percent more rare words in them than adult prime-time television or the conversation of college graduates.
These relative differences have direct implications for children's vocabulary development. For if most vocabulary is acquired outside of formal teaching, then opportunities to acquire new words occur vastly more often while reading rather than listening.
So if we want children to improve their vocabulary and reading fluency, we must get them to log many hours on printed pages. But there is a huge difference in reading volume between avid and reluctant readers. Data from a study of out-of-school reading time by fifth graders show that a child at the 50th percentile read about five minutes a day, or a half-hour per week—more than six times as much as a child at the 20th percentile (Anderson et al. 1988). Table 2 illustrates the enormous differences in word exposure generated by children's different proclivities toward reading. For example, just two days' out-of-school reading for a child at the 90th percentile amounts to an entire year's reading for a child at the 10th percentile!
Reading Works for Everyone
It is one thing to speculate how differences in reading volume may have specific cognitive consequences. It is another to demonstrate that these effects are occurring. All of our studies have demonstrated that reading a lot is effective regardless of the level of a child's cognitive and reading ability. We do not have to wait for "prerequisite" abilities to be in place before encouraging students' free reading. Even the student with limited reading and comprehension skills will build vocabulary and thinking skills through reading.
Moreover, in our research we have observed the large and unique contribution independent, out-of-school reading makes toward reading ability, aspects of verbal intelligence, and general knowledge about the world (Cunningham & Stanovich 1990, 1991, 1997; Stanovich 1993, 2000; Stanovich & Cunningham 1992, 1993; Stanovich & West 1989). We have found that there are specific effects of reading volume that do not simply result from the higher cognitive abilities and skills of the more avid reader.
This is an encouraging message for principals to give teachers of low-achieving students. Since reading has such profound consequences, it is imperative that we do not deny reading experiences to precisely those students whose verbal abilities most need bolstering. If we want them to get a successful early start for reading ability, it is critical that we support their extensive engagement with print.
Table 2. Variation in Independent Reading by Fifth Graders
Minutes of Reading Per Day
Readers (%) Books All Reading
98 65.0 90.7
90 21.1 40.4
80 14.2 31.1
70 9.6 21.7
60 6.5 18.1
50 4.6 12.9
40 3.2 8.6
30 1.3 5.8
20 0.7 3.1
10 0.1 1.6
2 0.0 0.2
Adapted from Anderson, Wi1son, and Fielding (1988).
Anderson, R. C.; Wilson, P. T.; and Fielding, L. G. "Growth in Reading and How Children Spend Their Time Outside of School." Reading Research Quarterly' 23 (1988): 285-303.
Carroll, J. B.; Davies, P.; and Richman, B. Word Frequency Book. Boston: Houghton Miflin. 1971.
Cunningham, A. E. and Stanovich, K. E. "Assessing Print Exposure and Orthographic Processing Skill in Children: A Quick Measure of Reading Experience." Journal of Educational Psychology 82 (1990): 733-740.
Cunningham, A. E. and Stanovich, K. E. "Tracking the Unique Effects of Print Exposure in Children: Associations with Vocabulary, General Knowledge, and Spelling." Journal of Educational Psychology 83 (1991): 264-274.
Cunningham, A. E. and Stanovich. K. E. "Early Reading Acquisition and its Relation to Reading Experience and Ability 10 Years Later." Developmental Psychology 33,6 (1997); 934-945.
Hayes, D. P. "Speaking and Writing: Distinct Patterns of Word Choice." Journal of Memory and Language 27 (1988): 572-585.
Hayes, D. P. and Ahrens, M. "Vocabulary Simplification for Children: A Special Case of `Motherese'?" Journal of Child Language 15 (1988): 395-410.
Stanovich, K. E. Progress in Understanding Reading, New York: Guilford Press, 2000.
Stanovich, K. E. "Does Reading Make You Smarter? Literacy and the Development of Verbal Intelligence." In H. Reese (Ed.), Advances in Child Development and Behavior: 133-180. San Diego: Academic Press, 1993.
Stanovich, K. E. "Matthew Effects in Reading: Some Consequences of Individual Differences in the Acquisition of Literacy." Reading Research Quarterly 21 (1986): 360-407.
Stanovich, K. E. and Cunningham, A. E. "Studying the Consequences of Literacy Within a Literate Society: The Cognitive Correlates of Print Exposure." Memory & Cognition 20 (1992): 51-68.
Stanovich, K. E. and Cunningham, A. E. "Where Does Knowledge Corne From? Specific Associations Between Print Exposure and Information Acquisition." journal of Educational PsycholVgy 85 (1993): 211-229.
Stanovich, K. E. and West, R. F. "Ekposure to Print and Orthographic Processing." Reading Research Quarterly 24 (1989): 402-433.
Walberg, H.J. and Tsai, S. "Matthew Effects in Education." American Educational Research Journal 20 (1983): 359-373.
Anne Cunningham is professor of cognition and development at the University of California, Berkeley. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Keith Stanovich is professor of human development and applied psychology at the University of Toronto. His e-mail address is email@example.com.
The International Reading Association has a number of resources on reading and literacy, including an archival listing of published articles on vocabulary.
http://pqasb.pqarchivencom/reading/ (deleted link)
The Virginia Tech Division of Student Affairs provides brief guidelines for building vocabulary
SuperKids posts game-like strategies to help children build vocabularies.