The fact that reading can help people to grow their vocabulary and develop their verbal abilities is one of the most well-established findings within educational research. Decades of research have affirmed that reading is one of the main ways that we learn about language (Mol & Bus, 2011). But does what we read make a difference? My graduate student Marina Rain (York University) and I set out to investigate this question. In order to do so, we conducted 4 studies, each examining how lifetime reading habits related to performance on tests tapping different aspects of verbal ability: (1) synonyms (N = 340), (2) analogies (N = 227), (3) sentence completion (N = 219), and (4) reading comprehension (N = 174). The latter 3 were measured using items from the verbal section of the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), a standardized test employed throughout the United States to evaluate college applicants. What we found was that reading fiction was more strongly associated with verbal ability across the 4 different studies. In many cases, when controlling for the reading of nonfiction, fiction remained a good predictor of verbal ability. However, when lifetime reading habits related to fiction were controlled, nonfiction became a much weaker predictor and in some cases failed to predict verbal abilities at all. In light of these results, future work is needed to uncover why exactly it is that reading fiction appears to be more beneficial for developing verbal abilities relative to reading nonfiction. What these data do show, is that what we read appears to be just as important as that we read when it comes to improving our verbal abilities.
* For a copy of this article, please contact R. Mar (e-mail in About section).
Mol, S. E., & Bus, A. G. (2011). To read or not to read: A meta-analysis of print exposure from infancy to early adulthood. Psychological Bulletin, 137, 267–296.
Mar, R. A. & Rain, M. (2015). Narrative fiction and expository nonfiction differentially predict verbal ability. Scientific Studies of Reading, 19, 419-433.