Your vocabulary aged 40 depends on how much you read as a teenager

Higher brow. paulaphoto

Reading for pleasure as a child has been powerfully linked in research to the development of vocabulary and maths skills up to the age of 16. But does reading still have a part to play in the breadth of our adult vocabulary? Does it matter what kind of books you read, or is it just the amount of reading that counts?

Our study of a representative sample of more than 9,400 British people born in 1970 looked at how vocabularies developed between the ages of 16 and 42. The test involved asking people to pair words from one list with words of a similar meaning from another list. For example, they were asked to find other words meaning “hirsute”, “grotesque” or “cerebral”.

The good news is that learning doesn’t stop at the end of the school years – whether they read regularly or not. In fact, our study members demonstrated large gains in vocabulary between the ages of 16 and 42. At age 16, their average vocabulary test score was 55%. By age 42, study members scored an average of 63% on the same test.

Another piece of good news is that reports of the death of reading seem to have been exaggerated. More than a quarter, or 26%, of respondents said that they read books in their spare time on a daily basis, with a further 33% saying that they read for pleasure at least once a month. This left a minority of 41% who said that they read in their leisure time only every few months or less often.

University influences reading choices

People varied widely in the types of books they liked to read – and this was linked to their level of educational attainment. We were struck by the differences in literary tastes between graduates of the elite Russell Group of UK universities and other universities. When asked which kinds of books they usually liked to read, 43% of graduates of Russell Group universities included classic fiction such as Jane Eyre or Bleak House, compared to 29% of graduates of other universities and 11% of people with no qualifications.

The classics count. valhouser, CC BY-ND

Contemporary literary fiction by authors such as Angela Carter or Paul Auster was even more of a select preserve. Some 48% of Russell Group graduates, 30% of other graduates and 5% of people with no qualifications said they usually liked to read this kind of fiction. Crime fiction on the other hand was the most popular reading genre, enjoyed by 43% of all respondents. It was the most popular genre across our study – 36% of people with no qualification and 55% of people with Russell Group degrees said they read crime fiction.

How much and what you read

So who increased their vocabularies the most between the ages of 16 and 42? Our statistical analysis took account of differences in people’s socio-economic backgrounds and in their vocabulary test scores at the ages of five, ten and 16. We found that reading for pleasure in both childhood and adulthood made a difference to rates of vocabulary growth between adolescence and middle-age.

Reading for pleasure as a child appeared to exert a long-term positive influence of vocabulary development up to the age of 42. In addition, those who continued to read for pleasure frequently at the age of 42 experienced larger vocabulary gains between adolescence and mid-life than those who did not read.

It seems that it isn’t just how much you read, but also what you read that makes a difference. People in their 40s who now read high-brow fiction (such as classic fiction and contemporary literary fiction) made the greatest vocabulary gains.

Lifelong rewards

Our research suggests that encouraging a love of reading has an important role to play in promoting learning both in childhood and in adult life. The benefits of reading do not stop in childhood, but a love of reading gained in childhood can yield lifelong rewards.

Young people today have many competing demands on their time, but new technologies should make it easier than ever to share books and information about what to read. It is vital that schools promote reading for pleasure, so it is worrying that many schools today do not have school libraries. The threat to public libraries is also a potential threat to life-long learning.

Most importantly, we need to consider how to foster a love of reading in children who come from homes with few books, as we know that a lack of books in the home is one of the most powerful predictors of educational failure. A final message from our research is that not all reading is equally beneficial to learning, and the greatest gains come from more intellectually challenging fiction.