The Cognitive Benefits of Reading

This is an essay by Anita Dualeh.

Reading is good for the brain. Though this would probably never be one’s primary reason for reading, it is an interesting byproduct of being an avid reader. The cognitive benefits of reading may also suggest some compelling reasons why we might want to help others – either children or struggling adults – to advance in their reading skills. (Kudos to all the reading mentors out there.)

The following findings are from an article published in the Journal of Direct Reading Instruction in which a professor of education and a professor of psychology examine empirical evidence about the contribution of independent reading to one’s general knowledge, reading ability and verbal intelligence. Though key findings in the article included both the impact of reading on children and adults, this blog post focuses on findings from studies with adults.

Growth in Verbal Skills

One benefit of reading a lot is a well-developed vocabulary. Most people acquire vocabulary through exposure rather than explicit instruction. We learn new words by seeing them or hearing them used in context. Since oral language lacks the richness of written material, most vocabulary is acquired through reading. Reading material typically contains words that are two to three times more rare than words used in conversation or TV. Additionally, print material provides about three times as many opportunities to encounter new words than oral language does. Results from a study with college students suggest that reading also makes a significant contribution to verbal fluency, spelling and general knowledge, even after factoring out the contribution of reading ability and general intelligence.

Increased Knowledge

Reading volume is associated with higher scores on general knowledge tests, while television watching is associated with lower scores. In a study involving 268 college students, avid readers scored higher on five different measures of general/practical knowledge. Respondents also demonstrated that familiarity with prime time television material tended to be negatively associated with possessing accurate information about the world. Researchers concluded that the “cognitive anatomy of misinformation” is the result of too little reading (though they did note that watching public television programs, news and documentary could have similar positive effects on world knowledge as reading would.)

Arrested Cognitive Decline

One study compared the performance of college students and senior citizens on working memory, general knowledge, vocabulary and syllogistic reasoning. Participants also completed several measures of reading volume. College students outperformed older participants on working memory and reasoning tasks, whereas they did not do as well as the older participants on vocabulary and general knowledge tasks. The positive relationships between age and vocabulary and age and general knowledge in senior citizens were shown to be correlated with reading volume. These results suggest that reading helps compensate for the natural cognitive decline associated with aging.

Though an early start in reading is an important predictor of lifelong reading habits, readers of all ability levels should be encouraged by learning that reading yields significant dividends for everyone.

So, how do we help more people become avid readers?

Suggested link:
What Reading Does for the Mind

Anita Dualeh is a freelance education writer who creates everything from test items to web content. She blogs at

Photo: Some rights reserved by IsaacMao.


  1. guest post | first teacher

    […] my guest post on the cognitive benefits of reading has been published at Share this:Like […]

  2. Chris

    Love this post. Reading is good for your mind (and your soul, and everything….). To make more people avid readers, we need to encourage people to read from a young age, but also as adults. Read a book with a friend, read a book with Brandon, read a newspaper, just read something.

    1. Anita

      Thanks, Chris. Reading from a young age is key, I believe, and research seems to back this up. Often it starts with foundational reading skills. Then, children who read well read more, setting in motion an upward spiral of reading and learning.

  3. Andrew Blackman

    Hi Anita, fascinating post! It provoked a question in my mind that I’d be interested in hearing your answer to. I remember when I was a teenager, I heard somewhere that you essentially learn your vocabulary by 18, and stop learning new words after that. I don’t think that’s true – my vocabulary has increased since then – but I have definitely noticed a slow-down in the rate of growth, and also how much more difficult I find it to learn new words. As a child I was a sponge, and once I’d looked a word up in the dictionary I knew it. Now, if I see an unfamiliar word, I tend to skip over it or guess it, and if I do make the effort to memorise it, I find it much harder. Do you know of any research into this slowdown? Maybe it’s covered in the article you link to – I haven’t read it yet…

    1. Anita

      I haven’t read anything that addresses this question head-on, but vocabulary is considered a part of crystallized intelligence, which tends to stick with us as we age (thus, we accumulate vocabulary throughout our lifetime). Perhaps the slow-down you describe is the result of the relative obscurity of the new words you now encounter. It takes repeated exposure to a word in context before we make it our own/consider it a word we know. Is it possible that you don’t read the unfamiliar word often enough for you to “learn” it?

      By the way, guessing the meaning of a word in context is an excellent strategy for dealing with unfamiliar words. Because you’re an avid reader, I imagine your guess is frequently spot-on. And the use of context clues is more likely to lead to remembering than memorizing an isolated word or words.

      1. Andrew Blackman

        Hi Anita
        That’s interesting – yes, the words I’m thinking of are ones I come across rarely. Now that I consider it a little more, I’ve added quite a lot of words to my vocabulary both through new technologies (the whole language of the internet is something I’ve acquired as an adult) and by moving to new countries (from the UK to the US and now the Caribbean). I’ve had no real trouble with those words because they’re repeated and reinforced. It’s when I’m reading and come across unfamiliar words that I struggle to remember them, although I think you’re right that if I stumbled on them often enough, I’d get them in the end.

        I like your point about crystallized intelligence. While I do sometimes forget words temporarily, I don’t think I lose them altogether (although if I did, maybe I wouldn’t know about it!).

  4. Andrea

    I love this post and thank you for the link. I want to encourage others to read and the avenue I am considering using, is to create a reading program where they feel comfortable reading and that brings some adventure for them. A lot of people are self conscious about their reading ability, or get bored in contrast to computers and tv. So, overcoming these challenges and sharing benefits like those spoken of in this post, i hope will be helpful.

    1. Anita

      Andrea, it sounds like you have a great vision – and the determination to make it a reality. Good on you.

Comments are closed.