Children’s leisure reading is linked to mental ability

Alice Sullivan and Matt Brown (2013) investigate the extent to which a young person’s social background affects ability in vocabulary, spelling and mathematics. Using data from a nationally-representative cohort of people born in Britain in 1970 who took tests at age 16, Sullivan & Brown explore:

  • how inequalities in performance due to social background vary across the three domains of vocabulary, spelling and mathematics; and
  • to what extent these inequalities are accounted for by family material and cultural resources, as well as by children’s own reading.

The longitudinal analysis examines whether differences in test scores are determined by age 10. It also seeks to identify any factors that are linked to a growth in differentials during adolescence. An important conclusion is that childhood reading is linked to substantial cognitive progress between the ages of 10 to 16 – see quotation below.

Children’s own reading behaviour was strongly linked to test scores in maths, spelling and vocabulary, and this somewhat mediated the influence of parents’ reading. Our findings support other work suggesting that children’s leisure reading is important for educational attainment and social mobility (Taylor 2011), and suggest that the mechanism for this is increased cognitive development. Once we controlled for the child’s test scores at age five and ten, the influence of the child’s own reading remained highly significant, suggesting that the positive link between leisure reading and cognitive outcomes is not purely due to more able children being more likely to read a lot, but that reading is actually linked to increased cognitive progress over time. From a policy perspective, this strongly supports the need to support and encourage children’s reading in their leisure time, especially given that the available evidence on trends over time suggests that children’s reading for pleasure has declined in recent years (Clark and Rumbold 2006). In light of the decline in leisure reading between the ages of ten and 16, our findings suggest the particular need to support teenagers’ reading.

Sullivan & Brown are based at the Centre for Longitudinal Studies in the Institute of Education, University of London.


Clark, C. and Rumbold, K. (2006) ‘Reading for pleasure: A research overview’. London: National Literacy Trust.

Sullivan, A, and Brown, M. (2013) ‘Social inequalities in cognitive scores at age 16: The role of reading’. CLS Working Papers 2013.13/10.

Taylor, M. (2011) ‘Life course outcomes of cultural practices – instrumental benefits?’. Paper presented at British Sociological Association annual conference, London School of Economics, London, England.