It’s a topic that’s widely discussed, with related facts usually quoted to encourage kids to actually pick up their reading comprehension homework. But today I’m going to look into whether reading really does make you smarter. And by reading I mean reading anything, from books, to web pages, to Tweets.
So, does reading make you smarter?
Last year when I was studying English Language at A Level, we researched childhood language acquisition. I always found this so interesting, yet equally so difficult to get my mind around. Language really is a phenomenal thing when you get down to the nitty-gritty of it.
This study was split into three parts: vocal language acquisition, reading, and writing. The most important distinction here is that vocal language acquisition is widely believed to be inherent and innate, whereas reading and writing are acquired and learned. In short, without teaching, humans would not be able to read and write. However, they would still be able to speak. Perhaps this speech would be a little rudimentary, but still.
The simple relationship between vocal and written language is that written language is like a code – if you break it, you achieve spoken language. Hence, it would make sense that a grasp of spoken language aids the development of a grasp of written language. Remember when you were a child learning to read, and when you got stuck on a word you were told to ‘sound it out’? This is exactly that.
However, I’ve always been interested in looking at it the other way around. Does a grasp of written language aid your grasp at spoken language? And does it make you smarter?
The short answer is an almost-unanimous yes.
There are many studies and theories that suggest cognition and language acquisition develop in tandem. If this is the case, then the act of reading – which introduces us to new language – is likely to make you ‘smarter.’ For one, literacy improves our understanding of the world. Children are told bedtime stories in the hopes that they’ll relate or they’ll at least remember what happened. (Shirley Heath looked at this in her 1983 study ‘Ways with Words.’) These so-called ‘experiences’ can then be mapped to their own lives – meaning empathy and understanding of the world increases. In short, these stories make kids smarter, faster – especially much faster than if they would have had to experience first-hand everything that they read about.
Reading is also proven to make you less stressed, happier, and even more resourceful. However, there is a lot of conflict regarding which form of reading this applies to. If we consider ‘reading’ at its base form – defined as comprehending the meaning of written symbols – then these features would also apply to magazines, web pages, and even Tweets. There are a few articles out there regarding how the way we read has changed, and not just in terms of the move from physical books to e-readers. If you ask a bookworm what distracts them from reading, many of them will say social media.
It’s very easy to become quickly absorbed by Twitter or Instagram or Reddit. It’s very easy to fall into a Wikipedia wormhole. Yet we rarely consider this reading. In reality, we are constantly reading. Meaning and writing is everywhere. You just have to step through your front door to see road signs, house names, advertisements – all requiring you to read. Information is everywhere, and we absorb it at a rapid pace. Without even thinking about it. And with so much information available at our fingertips due to technology, it is almost a given that we would be getting smarter. And this only becomes more apparent when we look at the act of reading itself.
In 1994, David Olsen published a study called The World on Paper, claiming that reading – a conscious awareness of letter, word and sentence formations, as well as what is meant by these features – extends subsequent learning and thinking capacity. In short, the more you read, the larger your capacity to learn and the more information your mind can comprehend (a.k.a. the more you read, the smarter you become). It’s almost as if, with everything you read, you’re not just pumping information into your brain but air, as if making space for new information in the future.
So, if we have access to so much information and reading makes you smarter, aren’t we stuck in an exponential loop of getting smarter and smarter? All because of reading???
Maybe that’s a little extreme…
But the point stands: reading makes you smarter – both the act and the content. So next time someone asks you why you’re reading, no matter what is is, just let them in on this little secret: reading, in all forms, makes you smarter. Maybe social media a little less so, but still…
Reading makes you smarter! So pick up that book, smash that TBR, and grow your brain until it looks like that guy above…