The Perks of Summer Reading

One of the joys or burdens of summer is the summer reading list for the next year. Honestly, I was the dutiful student who read all the books early on (and then forgot about them by the time September 1 rolled around!), but most of my friends “enjoyed” their summer reading in a flurry of skimming pages a few days before school started.

Numerous blogs trumpet the benefits of reading and lament the lack of it amongst students. Many researchers taut the supposed benefits of reading: maintaining an active mind, reducing stress, improving writing ability, improving focus, boosting self esteem, and decreasing boredom.

A study by Cunningham and Stanovich out of the University of Southern California Berkeley examined what happens when students read more. The results, while not earth-shattering, are important for affirming the anecdotal evidence provided by parents and educators. The study found that “reading volume made a significant contribution to multiple measures of vocabulary, general knowledge, spelling, and verbal fluency” when students’ innate comprehension and nonverbal abilities were removed. The overall takeaway: reading benefits us for a variety of reasons.

First, reading improves vocabulary. The study compared the diversity of word usage across various reading forms, television, and conversation (see chart below). The higher the score, the more varied and rare the words used. A newspaper had a score of 1,690, an adult book scored 1,058, and a children’s book scored 578. To compare, a prime-time adult TV show scored 490, and Sesame Street scored 413. Most interesting was an adult conversation between a college graduate and a friend, which scored a measly 496. Clearly conversation (and Spongebob, for that matter) is “not a substitute for reading,” as Cunningham and Stanovich agree (140). The application is clear: if you want to be exposed to more vocabulary than you would find on Sesame Street, hang up the phone, turn off the TV, and pick up a book. For those preparing for the SAT, the study also pointed out that “the bulk of vocabulary growth during a child’s lifetime occurs indirectly rather than through direct teaching,” (138). So if you want to build your vocab skills for the critical reading section, use vocab flash cards in conjunction with reading a good book.

Second, reading improves general knowledge. The study examined the relationship between reading volume and general knowledge. It found that well-read individuals had a more accurate knowledge of the world around them (for example, they knew what a carburetor does in a car, or about how many practicing Muslims currently span the globe). Prime-time television, it was found, actually promoted more misinformation than did educate on current events.

As for spelling and grammar, it can be assumed that increased exposure to more words would also increase the ability to correctly spell those words. Also, just as reading increases our range of vocabulary, it also increases our grammatical flexibility. Pick up an Alexandre Dumas tome, and you’ll find a style of writing (albeit an English translation) that will expand your idea of how sentences can be arranged.

The study confirms what we’ve already known to be true: reading has a wealth of benefits. Reading improves vocabulary, grammar, and spelling. Reading increases general knowledge, accuracy of information, and ease of expression. Not to mention all of the physiological benefits such as reducing stress, decreasing boredom, and stimulating the mind.

These are much needed skills for today’s high-school and college students to be developing through a lifelong love of reading. So this summer, rather than push off the reading for the last two weeks, why not set aside 20 minutes each day to turn off your phone/tablet/computer, sit down in a comfy chair with a hot beverage, and immerse yourself in another world? You’ll be thankful you did!


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