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Fiction readers, rejoice: you probably have better language skills, study shows

When it comes to reading, non-fiction is often regarded as more useful, widening our horizons and improving our knowledge as well as our language ability. But new research contradicts that idea and brings fiction into the spotlight.

The study from Concordia University researchers found that those who read fiction (yes, even the accessible, popular stuff) have better language skills, scoring higher in language tests compared to those who read just to access specific information.

Image credit: Flickr / Paul Bence

“It’s always very positive and heartening to give people permission to delve into the series that they like,” Sandra Martin-Chang, lead author, said in a statement. “I liken it to research that says chocolate is good for you: the guilty pleasure of reading fiction is associated with positive cognitive benefits and verbal outcomes.”

Martin-Chang and her team used a scale called Predictors of Leisure Reading (PoLR) to investigate reading behavior, looking at readers’ interests, obstacles, attitudes, and motivations. Then, they looked at how well the PoLR predicted the language skills of 200 undergraduate students from York University.

The researchers chose to focus specifically on undergraduate students because they are in a crucial period of their reading life. Early adulthood is when rereading becomes self-directed rather than imposed by others, making it a period to develop one own’s reading habits. It’s also a relatively understudied group, as previous studies have focused on children.

For the study, the volunteers first completed a 48-question survey that measured various reading factors. They were then given language tests and a measure of reading habits called the Author Recognition Test – which asks respondents to pick names of fiction and non-fiction authors they are familiar with from a long list of real and fake names.

After looking at the data, the researchers found that reading enjoyment, positive attitudes, and deeply established interests predict better verbal abilities — and these traits were more strongly associated with exposure to fiction than non-fiction. For Martin-Chang, “wanting to read something over and over again and feeling connected to characters and authors are all good things.”

Previous studies have highlighted the benefits of reading, particularly of fiction, helping people develop empathy, theory of mind, and critical thinking. When we read, we strengthen several different “cognitive muscles,” which essentially makes reading the equivalent of a hardcore empathy workout.

Research also suggests that reading fiction is an effective way to enhance the brain’s ability to keep an open mind while processing information, a necessary skill for effective decision-making. A 2013 study found individuals who read short stories instead of essays had a lower need for cognitive closure – the desire to reach a quick conclusion in decision-making. Ultimately, reading fiction is also fun, reducing stress and all the pressure accumulate through the day.

Some high-level business leaders have long touted the virtues of reading fiction, while others focus more on non-fiction. Warren Buffet, CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, spends most of his day reading and recommends books every year, including fiction. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk says he learned to build rockets by reading fiction books. Of the 94 books recommended by Bill Gates from 2012 to 2020, only nine were fiction.

Still, many adults don’t read fiction because at some point they came to believe that fiction is just a waste of valuable time that could be spent on something more productive. But it isn’t true, as seen with many studies. So finish this article, go and grab one of your Harry Potter books and warm cocoa, and get on reading!

The study was published in the journal Reading and Writing.