As an English major, I obviously enjoy reading and writing. Ever since I was little I always gravitated towards the language arts classes. Contrarily, my friends are more science and math oriented. It’s not uncommon for them to ask me if I could read over their essays and other writing assignments because they think I’m “good with words.” My friends are undoubtedly intelligent and literate, but it seems that they feel slightly deficient when matters of literature are involved. I’m constantly reading (both for my classes and for personal enjoyment) and have noticed that through the years, deciphering words and picking up on contextual clues seems to grow easier. However, if someone presented me with a math problem (with a complexity transcending beyond that of simple addition, subtraction, multiplication, and/or division) I would be at a loss of how to complete it. My inability or struggle to find a solution to the math problem may possibly have nothing to do with my intelligence, but rather, it could be that I don’t exercise my mind regularly enough with that type of material. It got me thinking, could differences in reading, vocabulary, and critical thinking be a result of a person’s innate level of intelligence, or could the constant practice of reading increase those cognitive abilities? I hypothesize that habitual reading will improve cognitive reading skills.
If I were to conduct a study to test my hypothesis, I would observe a younger group of children, most likely at the elementary stage of schooling. I assert that reading habits are formed at a young age, (as most behaviors are). I would conduct a longitudinal study and follow the children over a number of years, recording the progression of their cognitive skills (reading, word recognition, spelling, and critical thinking). Of course I’d have to account for possible confounding variables such as learning disabilities, parents’ background, and social economic status. This would not be an experimental study, because requiring one group of children to read habitually, or read more advanced works and telling the other to not read at all or read less complex novels would be unethical and could inhibit academic growth. Instead, this would
be observational because I would analyze what types of novels the children each read (and decipher their difficulty/complexity) as well as how often the children read each day. At the end of the study, I can see if there is a relationship between the time spent on reading and the level of cognitive skills for each child. Although correlation does not equal causation, if the relationship is strong enough, it can be concluded that the result isn’t a fluke or due completely to chance. Also, reverse causation could be ruled out as a possible explanation because one’s ability to read and comprehend as a young adult does not have an effect on behaviors during childhood.
There was a study conducted by Anne Cunningham and Keith Stanovich in 2001 that was designed to test whether or not reading novels does have an impact on the advancement of a person’s vocabulary over time as well as the type of medium in which children are exposed to the most words. The study was observational and followed first grade students’ reading habits, making them write how often they read every day in a journal. The scientists then followed up with the same group of students when they reached eleventh grade (only have of the original students were available ten years later) and had them complete tasks involving reading comprehension and vocabulary. Taking the scores from those tasks, the scientists then compared them to each students’ journal from first grade. They did this to find a correlation between the number of hours each child documented from first grade and the score of the tasks in eleventh grade. The scientists found first grade measures of reading does not uniquely cause a higher level of comprehension or vocabulary later on in life. The results did show, however, that being exposed to reading at an early age does predict that those children will be likely to read more over the years. Because of the longer experience with reading, these children did show an increased vocabulary and cognitive reading skills. The scientists also proved that reading novels exposes children to more words than any other source (television, magazines, conversations, etc). This study proves my hypothesis to be correct; consistent reading does improve vocabulary, regardless of innate intelligence.
This study didn’t mention the difficulty of the novels that lead to an increased vocabulary, which is something I think is worth knowing. It would’ve also been interesting to know how the students learned the new words. And by this I mean did they use a dictionary for the definition, did they ask someone what the word meant, or did they use contextual evidence to make an inference? Does a formal or informal definition help a child commit a word to memory, and why is it so? These are questions that would have been something worth including in the study as well. All in all, I think that the study was conducted well and the results, though not directly causal, have a strong enough correlation that would make any logical parent or administrator push their children to read from an earlier age.
Cuningham, E. Anne and E. Keith Stanovich. “What Does for The Mind.” American Educator 22.1-2 (2001): 8-15.
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