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Fact or fiction? Novels come top for reading skills

17 October 2018

Young people who read fiction have significantly stronger reading skills than their peers who do not, according to new findings from UCL Institute of Education (IOE).

Teenager reading a book on a sofa

Researchers analysed data from more than 250,000 teenagers aged 15, across 35 industrialised countries who had taken part in the Programme of International Student Assessment (PISA). The findings are published in a working paper today (17 October 2018).

The research shows that teenagers who read more fiction (novels, narratives and stories) over magazines, comics, non-fiction and newspapers, have reading skills more than six months ahead of their peers who almost never read fiction books. They also tend to read more on average per week than other groups – but the benefit of reading fiction applies regardless of total time spent reading.

Across the 35 countries, of those who read fiction books regularly, defined as several times per week, 45% read for at least an hour per day. This compares to just 3% of those 15-year-olds who said they almost never read fiction books. 

Professor John Jerrim, the paper’s lead author, said: “From looking at the data, we find sizeable evidence of a ‘fiction effect’ which shows that young people who read this type of text score more highly on reading tests. In contrast, the same does not hold true for the four other text types.

“We also found that young people who report reading newspapers and magazines more frequently are not the same young people who say they read fiction a lot. Interestingly, the one notable exception is that there does seem to be a reasonable degree of association between children who say they frequently read fiction and non-fiction books.”

Teenagers were asked how often they read magazines, comics, fiction, non-fiction and newspapers for pleasure. Reading test scores were then compared with which type of texts were read most frequently.

The research team used data from 2009 PISA database as this is the most recent occasion when reading was a subject of focus. Participants were also asked additional questions about their reading habits in a background questionnaire.

Professor Jerrim explained: “Reading fiction requires us to digest large amounts of long and continuous text which could explain why it helps us develop not just our readings skills, but switch off from other distractions.”

The researchers found that girls reported reading fiction and magazines much more often than boys. Across the 35 countries, 45% of girls say that they read fiction books at least several times a month. The same is true for only 27% of boys. Additionally, only 12% of 15-year-old girls say they never or almost never read fiction, compared to 27% of boys.

On the other hand, boys are more likely than girls to read comic books and newspapers. Across developed countries, 27% of boys say that they read comics at least several times a month. The same is true for only 18% of girls. For newspapers, 56% of boys read several times a month compared to 49% of girls. There was no gender gap in the reading of non-fiction books.

With regards to socioeconomic status, young people from the most advantaged backgrounds read more than their disadvantaged peers. The difference was particularly big with respect to fiction and non-fiction.

Professor Jerrim added: “Encouraging young people to read fiction, particularly boys from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds, who are less likely to read this kind of text, may be particularly beneficial for their reading skills. 

“We believe that this paper has made an important contribution to the literature about the link between reading for pleasure and children’s academic achievement. It highlights the importance of research that considers not just the frequency at which children read, but that we capture what children are reading.”

Media contact

Rowan Walker, UCL Media Relations 
T: +44 (0) 20 3108 8515 / +44 (0) 7769 141006
E: rowan.walker@ucl.ac.uk

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