The Immeasurable Value of Encouraging Kids to Read

Family Counseling Insights brought to you by Patricia McTague-Loft

You may have heard the old saying: Learn to read from kindergarten to third grade; read to learn from then on. There’s a lot of truth in that little aphorism. What’s more, its importance can hardly be overstated. Active brain development in childhood sets the stage for lifelong mental health. Research also indicates vigorous brain development in early childhood has a positive correlation with economic success later in life.

A young boy reading

One huge societal problem is that socio-economic conditions are directly related to educational opportunities. Many people are working on solutions to help kids in poverty get easy access to a better education. Although that’s a complex problem, there is fortunately another excellent option. In an article for Scientific American, co-authors Barbara Jacquelyn Sahakian, Christelle Langley, Jianfeng Feng and Yun-Jun Sun write: “This shows just how important it is to give all children an equal chance in life. But until sufficient measures are taken to reduce inequality and improve outcomes, our new study, published in Psychological Medicine, shows one low-cost activity that may at least counteract some of the negative effects of poverty on the brain: reading for pleasure.”

That’s right. Simply getting kids to read more can be as valuable as many of the more formal and expensive activities offered in some schools. That stands to reason. Ever since Gutenberg invented the printing press, history is filled with self-taught people — think Abraham Lincoln — who went on to remarkable achievements primarily through voracious reading.

As rigorous academics, the co-authors base their observations on large-scale research projects. One source is the Adolescent Brain and Cognitive Development (ABCD) project, which included over 10,000 kids from different economic levels and varying ethnic backgrounds.

Their finding? “We discovered that reading for pleasure in early childhood was linked with better scores on comprehensive cognition assessments and better educational attainment in young adolescence. It was also associated with fewer mental health problems and less time spent on electronic devices.

“Our results showed that reading for pleasure in early childhood can be beneficial regardless of socioeconomic status. It may also be helpful regardless of the children’s initial intelligence level. That’s because the effect didn’t depend on how many years of education the children’s parents had had – which is our best measure for very young children’s intelligence (IQ is partially heritable).”

The measurable results of increased early reading even extended to the physical makeup of the brain. “We also discovered that children who read for pleasure had larger cortical surface areas in several brain regions that are significantly related to cognition and mental health (including the frontal areas).”

The conclusion that should be drawn from these findings is as clear as it is important: no matter a parent’s background, economic status or any other factor, they should get their kids to read more. Get them to read for fun — they don’t have to read textbooks. The positive benefits will be striking and last a lifetime.