Education & Family

Tabloids 'worse for vocabulary than not reading a paper'

Adult reading Image copyright Thinkstock
Image caption What people read matters as much as how often, suggests research

Readers of tabloid papers have smaller vocabularies than people who do not read newspapers, suggests a study.

The University of London's Institute of Education compared vocabulary test scores and reading habits of 9,400 British people born in 1970.

The researchers analysed data collected at the ages of 10, 16 and 42.

As well as the tabloids finding, they said childhood reading for fun boosted vocabulary throughout life, while highbrow fiction helped adults further.

The research team drew on the 1970 British Cohort Study, which collects information on a group of people from England, Scotland and Wales who were born in the same week.

Better-off families

At the age of 10, the group took a pictorial language comprehension test and at 16 they did a multiple-choice vocabulary test.

The test they did aged 42 was a shortened version of the one used at 16.

The researchers also analysed information on the group's reading habits as adults and their educational achievements.

Image copyright Thinkstock
Image caption Good reading habits developed in childhood can benefit people throughout their lives, the research says

The group were asked how often they read books for pleasure and what sort of books they read.

The vocabulary tests showed all respondents had greater word power by the age of 42 than they had had at 16, with the average vocabulary score rising from 55% to 63%.

But those who had read regularly for pleasure as children beat the rest, scoring an average 67% in the age 42 test, compared with infrequent childhood readers who scored an average of 51%.

The study found those who read regularly as children tended to come from better-off families and had higher vocabulary scores as children.

However, even after the data was reanalysed to take these differences into account, there was still a nine percentage point gap in the vocabulary scores at age 42 between the two groups.

'Cognitive attainment'

This may be because the frequent childhood readers continued to read for pleasure as adults, wrote the researchers.

"In other words, they developed 'good' reading habits in childhood and adolescence that they have subsequently benefited from."

But they also found "what people read mattered as how often they read".

In terms of newspapers, they found readers of broadsheets made more progress in vocabulary than people who did not read newspapers.

But "tabloid readers actually made less progress than non-readers of newspapers".

Co-author Prof Alice Sullivan said the finding was in line with the team's previous work, which showed "the presence of tabloid newspapers in the home during childhood was linked to poor cognitive attainment at age 16".

The report also said: "Those who read 'highbrow' fiction made greater vocabulary gains than those who read middlebrow fiction; and lowbrow fiction readers made no more progress than non-readers."

The study found the adults with the biggest vocabularies were graduates of Russell Group of sought-after universities, scoring an average of 81% in the age 42 vocabulary test.

Of this group, two-thirds (66%) preferred "highbrow" fiction and more than half (56%) said they read only broadsheet newspapers.

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