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The Benefits of Reading for Fun

There’s a powerful academic impact, new research reveals, when students are voracious, voluntary readers.

Mrs. Mason was “the perfect reading ambassador,” said Sandra Martin-Chang, recalling an early reading role model, her high school English and drama teacher. “She encouraged me to read excellent books with great storylines. We read The Handmaid’s Tale, and it was fabulous.… We’d envision it first and then think about how to enact it and bring it to life.” Now a professor of education at Concordia University, Martin-Chang studies how reading storybooks and novels influences cognitive development.

In a new study published in Reading and Writing, she and her colleagues found significant differences between students who read for pleasure outside of class—immersing themselves in fantasy novels or spy thrillers, for example—and those who primarily read books to satisfy school assignments. Not only was there a powerful link between reading for fun and stronger language skills, but students who disliked reading frequently attributed their negative outlook to experiences they had in classrooms. Too much emphasis on analyzing the compositional nuts and bolts of texts and reading merely to absorb information came at a psychological cost, the researchers found, as students disengaged from voluntary reading.

In the study, Martin-Chang and her colleagues surveyed 200 university undergraduates, asking them about their reading interests, how often they read for pleasure, what motivated them, and what experiences helped shape their attitudes toward reading. They were also asked to identify authors they had read in the past—a proxy for measuring how many books they had read. The young adults then took a series of tests to gauge their reading ability.

“We found that often children’s experience in elementary school is far more positive, and then it drops in high school,” said Martin-Chang. While children in kindergarten and early elementary school tend to read storybooks as they develop their reading skills—often sharing the experience with an adult—by high school, the nature of reading changes as students are expected to read a steady diet of more challenging, information-rich texts. Somewhere during that transition, a love of reading seems to fade.

In the study, 35 percent of students pinpointed a specific reason: They didn’t enjoy reading because “being asked to analyze books in high school made it less pleasurable.” But analyzing the elements of good writing—how persuasion works, how figurative language can elevate texts—is essential to teaching kids the full range of their expressive potential, and Martin-Chang isn’t suggesting that we read only for fun. “Competence is very, very important. We can’t skip straight to books children love without teaching them how to do it right,” she said. She likens reading to eating a well-balanced diet: “The people who say chocolate is good for you don’t recommend eating it to the exclusion of all other things.” Focusing primarily on analyzing texts and gathering information—a shift that tends to occur in middle and high school—can send the signal that reading is merely a utilitarian undertaking, robbing it of its powerful connection to human imagination, passion, and creativity, making it a lot less desirable.

We need to take reading for fun as seriously as we take academic reading, if we’re going to sustain voluntary reading through middle school and high school, and into adulthood.

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