Choosing to read – what the evidence tells us...

Written by: Liz Twist | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Literacy and numeracy are critical skills for pupils to develop if they are to reach their potential and achieve rewarding outcomes during and after education. Liz Twist highlights the evidence showing why reading – including reading out loud – must be at the heart of the curriculum in the primary years

Children who enjoy reading tend to read more frequently than those who don’t – and they are better at it.

There’s nothing unexpected in that statement and nothing to disagree with. We can always find exceptions but, yes, it’s a virtuous circle. Reading is generally accepted to be “a good thing”, and each time a child chooses to curl up with a book, they are practising and improving their reading skills.

The national curriculum in England is explicit: “All pupils must be encouraged to read widely across both fiction and non-fiction to develop their knowledge of themselves and the world in which they live, to establish an appreciation and love of reading, and to gain knowledge across the curriculum.” (DfE, 2014)

Reading – what the evidence says

The American psychologist Keith Stanovich (1986) coined the term the Matthew Effect to describe the reciprocal relationship between the development of reading comprehension and the development of vocabulary knowledge.

The term is referring back to the Bible passage in which the rich-get-richer and the poor-get-poorer. Cunningham and Stanovich (2001) explored the differential amount of practice in reading children get and how this contributes to the reciprocal relationship between reading and not just vocabulary but also background knowledge, familiarity with syntax, and so on.

In a British context, data from the 1970 British Cohort Study shows how reading leads not only to improvements in vocabulary and hence better reading but has an even wider effect. Using the data from this longitudinal study, Sullivan and Brown (2013) found an impact of voluntary reading beyond that of developing better reading skills.

They found that frequency of reading for pleasure was linked to increases in the rate of cognitive progress over time. So while reading makes children better at reading, it has an even greater significance. It is linked to improvements in other skills that are important to success – in school and in life. And these skills aren’t just those which we might intuitively associate with reading, such as vocabulary, but also others, such as mathematics. This has implications across the school, for all year groups and all abilities.

Reading for enjoyment

A well-known study by McKenna, Kear and Ellsworth (1995) looked at attitudes to reading among US elementary-aged pupils and found that there was a steady fall in interest from Grade 1 to Grade 6 among pupils of all abilities.

There were positive attitudes from most pupils in the youngest grade, with similar measures across high, medium and low ability groups. By Grade 6 not only were attitudes in each group much less positive, but the differences in attitudes had become more marked, with lower attaining pupils having much less positive attitudes than higher attaining pupils.

In addition, there was a wide gender difference, with boys much less engaged than girls – boys had a lower engagement level at the start and the gap had widened substantially by Grade 6.

Given that McKenna et al noted that enjoyment in reading was at its peak at the start of schooling and fell with increasing age (and presumably growing reading competence), it seems reasonable to recognise it as a whole-school issue.

More recent data from the OECD’s 2016 Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) endorses the links between reading competence, reading engagement and frequency of reading (Mullis et al, 2017). Across almost all participating countries, higher reading performance within a country is associated with greater enjoyment of reading and reading more frequently. This isn’t just an issue in England or even the UK.

What reading offers

In a rare moment of lively prose, the national curriculum points out that: “Reading ... feeds pupils’ imagination and opens up a treasure-house of wonder and joy for curious young minds.”

Sullivan et al (2013) emphasised the impact reading for pleasure had on children and young people’s vocabulary scores – and the contrast between the complexity of vocabulary used in written texts compared to the spoken word is well-established.

Cunningham and Stanovich (2001) compared the relative complexity of spoken and written speech, describing the former as “lexically impoverished”. They emphasised the vast range in the amount of words children who read out of school are exposed to, depending on the volume of their reading.

So what can school leaders do?

There are enormous pressures on schools to ensure pupils make progress and are happy, engaged and challenged learners. What can schools do that does not add to the pressures they are already under?

Ofsted’s Bold Beginnings report (2017) put language and literacy at the heart of the curriculum for the Reception year. But it is not just needed at the heart of the curriculum for the youngest children in school. There are ways of putting reading at the heart of every classroom.

Reading aloud – not just while children are in the early stages of learning to read – fulfils the vital task of exposing children to books that they are, as yet, unable to read independently. Books they hear should be those that they would not otherwise come across or that they could not read themselves, that give them a flavour of the world of books that lies ahead of them.

This is clearly stated in the national curriculum and its statutory requirements for years 3 and 4, and years 5 and 6: “Pupils should be taught to ... participate in discussion about both books that are read to them and those they can read for themselves.” (DfE, 2013)

Sometimes it can be tempting to choose the “easy win” books – few children dislike Roald Dahl’s creations. But the most effective approach will be to read books that will expand children’s horizons – stories that they aspire to read but can’t yet or non-fiction books providing information that builds on what they already know rather than just reinforcing existing knowledge. To engage those 20 per cent of children in the PIRLS 2016 study who said that they didn’t like reading and rarely read outside school, perhaps sharing a great story or a fascinating information book will show them what they’re missing – particularly if they’re not going to pick up a book voluntarily.

The importance of school leaders encouraging this passion for reading throughout the school shouldn’t be overestimated. The evidence shows us how reading fully justifies its place at the heart of the curriculum.

  • Liz Twist is head of assessment research at the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER).


  • Cunningham & and Stanovich (2001). What reading does for the mind. J of Direct Instruction. Vol. 1, 2, 137-149.
  • Department for Education (2013). English programmes of study: key stages 1 and 2 National curriculum in England.
  • McKenna, Kear, & Ellsworth (1995). Children’s Attitudes toward Reading: A National Survey. Reading Research Quarterly, Vol. 30, 4, 934-956.
  • Mullis, Martin, Foy, & Hooper (2017). PIRLS 2016 International Results in Reading. TIMSS & PIRLS International Study Center, Lynch School of Education, Boston College.
  • Ofsted (2017). Bold Beginnings: The Reception curriculum in a sample of good and outstanding primary schools.
  • Stanovich (1986). Matthew Effects in Reading: Some consequences of individual differences in the acquisition of literacy. Reading Research Quarterly, Vol. 21, 4, 360-407.
  • Sullivan & Brown (2013). Social inequalities in cognitive scores at age 16: The role of reading. CLS Working Paper 2013/10.

NFER Research Insights

This article was published as part of Headteacher Update’s NFER Research Insights series. A free pdf of the latest Research Insights best practice and advisory articles can be downloaded from the supplements page of this website:

This material is protected by MA Education Limited copyright.
See Terms and Conditions.


Please view our Terms and Conditions before leaving a comment.

Change the CAPTCHA codeSpeak the CAPTCHA code
About Us

Headteacher Update is the only magazine delivered directly to every primary school headteacher in the UK. It is published six times a year, at the beginning of each term and half-term, to keep headteachers up-to-date with everything going on in primary education.

Learn more about Headteacher update


Register to receive regular updates on primary education news delivered free to your inbox.