Reading for pleasure — a door to success

The benefits of reading for pleasure are far reaching. Aside from the sheer joy of exercising the imagination, evidence indicates reading for pleasure improves literacy, social skills, health and learning outcomes. It also gives people access to culture and heritage and empowers them to become active citizens, who can contribute to economic and social development.


Reading for pleasure — a definition
The importance of reading for pleasure
Engaging children with reading

Reading for pleasure — a definition

Reading for pleasure is also referred to as independent reading, voluntary reading, leisure reading, or recreational reading. It is defined by the National Library Trust (UK) as:

“Reading we do of our own free will, anticipating the satisfaction we will get from the act of reading”.

It is also defined by the same group as reading which began at someone else’s request, that we continue because we are interested in it. It is also described as an act of play that allows us to experience different worlds in our imagination, (Nell, 1988 as cited by Clark & Rumbold, 2006) and a creative and active/ interactive process.

The importance of reading for pleasure

In 2002, OECD research reported that reading enjoyment is more important for children’s educational success than their family’s socio-economic status. While the International Reading Association has pointed out the ability to read and write has never been more critical.

Adolescents entering the adult world in the 21st C will need to read and write more than at any other time in human history. They will need advanced levels of literacy to perform their jobs, run their households, act as citizens, and conduct their personal lives. They will need literacy to cope with the flood of information they will find everywhere they turn. They will need literacy to feed their imaginations, so they can create the world of the future. In a complex, and sometimes dangerous world, the ability to read can be crucial.
International Reading Association, ( Moore et al, 1999, p3 as cited by Clark & Rumbold, 2006).

The excellent 2012 report Research Evidence on Reading for Pleasure compiled by the Education Standards Research Team (ESARD) in the UK, outlines UK and international research on the benefits of reading for pleasure. It found that along with educational benefits and supporting personal development (cited in Clark and Rumbold, 2006) reading for pleasure also had a positive impact on:

  • reading attainment and writing ability
  • text comprehension and grammar
  • breadth of vocabulary
  • positive reading attitudes
  • self-confidence as a reader
  • pleasure in reading in later life
  • general knowledge
  • understanding of other cultures
  • community participation
  • insight into human nature and decision-making.

Increased engagement with learning

The ability to read competently and, more importantly, the enjoyment of reading has implications for a student’s academic success. It is also an important indicator of success in other areas of life. The Growing Independence report on the Competent Learners project for children at age 14, found that students who love reading:

  • had higher scores on the cognitive and social/attitudinal competencies
  • had consistently higher scores in mathematics, reading, logical problem-solving and attitude
  • had higher average scores for engagement in school, positive communication and relations with family, and positive friendships
  • showed less risky behaviour
  • had higher levels of motivation towards school

Those who did not enjoy reading were more likely to:

  • be heavier television watchers over time
  • have had bullying experiences
  • to be seen by teachers as having difficult classroom behaviour at age 12
  • be less likely to complete their homework
  • be less likely to be enthusiastic about going to school

The summary of the key findings from the Competent Learners @16 project (NZCER, 2009), On the Edge of Adulthood, includes enjoyment of reading as one of the 3 indicators that suggest a child or young person is well placed for learning.

Positive impact on reading achievement

International research strongly suggests frequent reading for enjoyment correlates with increases in reading achievement. (Clark, 2011, Clark & Rumbold, 2006, Clark & Douglas 2011, PISA, 2009)

When children read for pleasure, when they get “hooked on books”, they acquire, involuntarily and without conscious effort, nearly all of the so-called “language skills” many people are so concerned about: they will become adequate readers, acquire a large vocabulary, develop the ability to understand and use complex grammatical constructions, develop a good writing style, and become good (but not necessarily perfect) spellers. Although free voluntary reading alone will not ensure attainment of the highest levels of literacy, it will at least ensure an acceptable level. Without it, I suspect that children simply do not have a chance. Linguist Stephen D Krashen (1993, p. 85)

The Programme for International Student Assessment (2009) showed that in all countries surveyed, children who enjoyed reading performed significantly better than those who did not. Students who independently read fiction tended to score more highly, but students who read a wide variety of material performed overall particularly well.

The relationship between online reading activities and reading performance was also positively co-related. Frequent reading for fun regardless of whether books/ magazines or the internet was strongly co-related with improvements in PIRLS literacy scores, whereas reading for information was not strongly co-related ( PIRLS, 2006).   

Young people who enjoy reading very much are nearly five times as likely to read above the expected level for their age compared with young people who do not enjoy reading at all. Children's and Young People's Reading Today, National Literacy Trust, 2011

Improves other aspects of literacy

Research from University of London’s Institute of Education (IOE) has also found children between the ages of 10-16 who read for pleasure, make significantly more progress in vocabulary, spelling and maths than children who rarely read. Study author Dr Alice Sullivan found:

...reading for pleasure was more important for children's cognitive development between ages 10 and 16 than their parents' level of education. The combined effect on children's progress of reading books often, going to the library regularly and reading newspapers at 16 was four times greater than the advantage children gained from having a parent with a degree.

You can download the Social inequalities in cognitive scores at age 16: the role of reading report from the IOE site.

Can increase empathy and social skills

The impact of reading for pleasure and empowerment, a report from the Reading Agency in the UK brings more insight into the non-literacy benefits of reading for pleasure. 

Along with overall improved well-being, findings included increased empathy, greater knowledge of other cultures, reduced symptoms of depression and dementia, and improved parent-child communication and social capital for children, young people and adults. It also found that people who enjoy reading and choose to do so in their free time are more likely to enjoy all of these benefits.


Exploring the link between reading fiction and empathy: Ruling out individual differences and examining outcomes found exposure to fiction increased performance on empathy tasks. They also found that reading fiction also had a positive correlation with social support.

A Carnegie Mellon University study in 2014, Simultaneously Uncovering the Patterns of Brain Regions Involved in Different Story Reading Subprocesses discovered that reading a chapter of Harry Potter and the sorcerer’s stone involved the same brain regions you would be use in a real-life experience such as watching someone move in the real world.

Interacting with others over books can develop social and oral skills, leading to increased social interaction and oral language development, becoming a source of pleasure throughout life. (Clark & Rumbold, 2006).

Is a source of pleasure and stimulates the imagination

It is also important to acknowledge the importance of the pleasure and imaginative aspects of reading. Through reading, children are free to choose; the worlds they visit, the characters they meet, the points of view they encounter and the visions they create.

Neil Gaiman articulates this beautifully in this 2013 Guardian article: Why our future depends on libraries, reading and daydreaming in stating that

using our imaginations, and providing for others to use theirs, is an obligation for all citizens."

Improves health and well-being

Reseach suggesting that reading for pleasure can have health benefits includes this study, Reading 'can help reduce stress' from Mindlab International at the University of Sussex. They found that tension eased and heart rates slowed down in subjects, who read silently for as little as 6 minutes.

Engaging children with reading

Although research shows children generally enjoy reading for enjoyment, not many do it.

Some reported issues are lack of motivation, negative attitudes to reading (readers are boring, reading is boring), peer pressure, lack of reading skills and subsequent low self-efficacy, lack of choice and lack of appropriate high interest resources, and other distractions.

Reading for pleasure decreases with age

Reading for enjoyment tends to decrease with age, and children from lower socio-economic groups doing it less than children from higher socio-economic groups.

Boys spend less time reading for pleasure than girls

The OECD's report The ABC of Gender Equality in Education states that one reason boys may be lower achievers than girls is that they are less likely to read outside school for pleasure. Other reasons include:

  • their attitude to homework and school
  • they are more likely to spend time online - gaming and on the internet.

Read more about boys and reading

Reading for pleasure has decreased over time

Reading for enjoyment has decreased over time. Between 2000 and 2009, on average across OECD countries, daily reading for enjoyment dropped 5 percentile points, accompanied by a related decrease in positive attitudes towards reading. (OECD 2010, PIRLS, 2006, as cited by Research evidence on reading for pleasure, Educational Standards Research Team, UK, 2012)

Reading should not be presented to children as a chore or duty.
It should be offered to them as a precious gift. Kate DiCamillo

What the research suggests engages children with reading

Choice relates to motivation

Choice, interest and motivation are highly related. Surveys internationally suggest most children are more likely to read for pleasure if they can choose their own books (Gambrell, 1996, as cited in Clark & Rumbold, 2006 ). But, as Clark & Rumbold, 2006, state “To affect reading behaviour they must subsequently choose to read that book over any other available activity”. 

Access to books is essential

Lack of availability of high interest reading material is cited by students as one of the reasons they don’t read for enjoyment. Having books in the home, or books of their own has a major impact. Children with books of their own read more, and more frequently. Library membership is positively co-related with reading frequency. Students who are members of a library are twice as likely to read at home. Non library users are 3 times more likely to only read at school, or to state they can’t find a book to read.

Impact of reading frequency and duration

There is a positive relationship between attitude to reading, reading attainment and reading frequency. In a survey of 17,000 students (Clark & Douglas, 2011) students who were reading above their expected age read more than those reading below their expected age. 1/10 of students who stated they read rarely or never scored above their age, as compared with ⅓ of students who stated they read daily.

Anderson, Wilson and Fielding ( 1988) found when investigating a wide range of reading activities and their relationship to reading, that the amount of time spent in independent reading was the best predictor of the amount of gain made in reading achievement between the ages of eight and eleven. 

Relationships and role models, at school and at home

Reading for pleasure at school is strongly influenced by relationships between teachers and children, and children and families ( Cremin et al, 2000 as cited by Clark & Rumbold, 2006). Parents are influential in developing early reading for enjoyment, and if books are valued from a young age, this is likely to continue.

Research has repeatedly shown that parental involvement in their child’s literacy practices is a more powerful force than family background and variables such as social class, family size, and level of parental education”. National Literacy Trust, Reading For Pleasure Executive Summary, Nov, 2006

We need to take a collective and collaborative approach across school and community.

“In order to reap the benefits that reading for pleasure can bring, schools need to implement a reading programme that will make reading an experience that is actively sought out by children”. Reading for pleasure, what we know works, Centre for Literacy in Primary Education.

In 2012 in recognition of the importance of reading for pleasure in developing literacy, Ofsted in the UK implemented the requirement for schools to “develop policies to promote reading for enjoyment”. Any school that wishes to be judged outstanding needs to demonstrate strategies that encourage “reading widely and often across all subjects”.


Competent Learners @14 The Growing Independence report (NZCER, 2006)

Competent Learners @16 project, On the Edge of Adulthood (NZCER, 2009)

Literature Review: The impact of reading for pleasure and empowerment, (PDF) The Reading Agency, June 2015

Open a World of Possible  Scholastic's website on reading includes the Joy and Power of Reading a comprehensive summary of research

PISA results PISA OECD (2012)

PIRLS 2010/11 in New Zealand: An overview of findings from the third cycle of the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study, Education Counts website

PIRLS 2011 International Results in Reading

Reading for Pleasure, A Research Overview Clark, C & Rumbold, K, National Literacy Trust, UK (2006)

Reading for Pleasure article, Institute of Education, UK (2013)

Reading for Pleasure (PDF) National Union For Teachers, UK (2010)

Reading: The Facts by Canada's National reading Campaign outlines the benefits of reading in all aspects of life, along with a comprehensive list of research. 

Trends in reading OECD (2011-12)

Do students today read for pleasure OECD (2011), PISA in Focus series

PISA Low-Performing Students: why they fall behind and how to help them to succeed OECD (2015) report

Reading unbound: Why kids need to read what they want—and why we should let them. Wilhelm, J. & Smith, M. (2013). New York: Scholastic.

Research Evidence on Reading for Pleasure Department of Education, UK (2012)

What reading does for the mind article by Anne E. Cunningham and Keith E. Stanovich.


Chambers, Aidan (1996). Tell me. Thimble Press, Lockwood, South Woodchester, England

Chambers, Aidan (1991). The reading environment. Thimble Press, Lockwood, South Woodchester, England

La Marca, Susan, and MacIntyre, Pam (2006). Knowing readers: unlocking the pleasures of reading. School Library Association of Victoria, Australia

Layne, Stephen (2009). Igniting a passion for reading: successful strategies for building lifetime readers. Stenhouse Publishers, US

Miller, Donalyn & Kelley, Susan (2014). Reading in the wild: the Book Whisperer’s keys to cultivating lifelong reading habits. Jossey- Bass, One Montgomery Street, San Francisco, US

Image: Boys reading in the library at Kingsford School