Five Reasons Reading for Fun Will Make You a Better Student (in Any Discipline)

Thursday, November 10, 2016
by Kate Stericker

It’s widely acknowledged that the number of people who regularly read for pleasure has been in decline over the past decades (Flood). Accordingly, although today’s post-secondary students spend a great deal of time poring over academic articles and studying classic novels for courses on literature, they’re less likely to pick out a book that interests them and read it purely for entertainment and relaxation. At this point in the discussion, it’s important to note that modern students are engaging with written media in a diversity of ways which were unavailable in the past, a practice which has its own range of benefits. However, there’s still something to be said for the value of reading full-length books as a hobby, particularly among university students.

woman reading under tree

Pictured: Student improving her writing skills in the most relaxing way possible (Image Source: Pixabay)

The immediate assumption may be that reading books--especially works of fiction--is chiefly beneficial for students studying the Humanities, particularly those majoring in English or related fields. However, the advantages derived from regular reading could be considered equally beneficial for students in any field. Read on for an overview of the ways that reading recreationally can positively affect your writing skills and academic performance.

1. People who read regularly are less likely to make grammar mistakes in their own writing. There’s a definite link between the amount of time students spend reading other people’s work and the number of grammar errors present in their own. In many ways, this relationship is simply logical; it makes sense that exposure to properly-structured sentences and paragraphs will make it easier to follow these same rules when you sit down to write. Similarly, if you’re constantly reading texts with few to no errors, your own mistakes will start to stand out to you--even if you can’t explain exactly what rule you’ve violated, you’ll get the intuitive sense that something is wrong. Earlier this year, I spoke to many students who were struggling to properly format sections of dialogue in their narrative essays. If you rarely read novels, the rules that govern the positioning of quotation marks, commas, and periods in transcribed speech can definitely be difficult to follow. However, if you’ve spent a lot of time reading fiction books filled with conversation between characters, you’ll likely find that imitating the grammar rules followed by these authors comes as second nature to you. Formatting dialogue is just one example, though--the grammar skills you pick up through reading recreationally are just as beneficial to students writing lab reports or annotated bibliographies.

2. Reading can dramatically expand your vocabulary. Have you ever found yourself in a position where you have a complicated point to express in a paper and, although you understand what you want to say in your own mind, you just can’t find the words to get the idea across? Studies have shown a clear link between the frequency with which people read and the size of their vocabularies (Wiesen). Reading exposes you to a range of new words and often provides the necessary context for you to determine their meanings without needing to look up definitions, so you may find your vocabulary expanding without even realizing that this process is occurring. As you can imagine, a large vocabulary makes it much easier to express complex ideas in a clear, accessible way. Relatedly, reading a diversity of writers can expose you to different writing styles and allow you to assess which ones appeal to you most and which seem most effective for certain forms of communication; for instance, you may find that a direct, blunt writing style serves well for a persuasive essay, while a style with more complex sentences is effective for a descriptive paper. Regardless of what field you study, a broad vocabulary and a sense of how best to use it will be hugely advantageous when completing assignments.

3. Reading books unrelated to your post-secondary studies can diversify your knowledge base and develop your interest in new subjects. In general, I don’t consider myself someone with a particular interest in history. However, I do love feel-good books about the American south, so I recently read Fannie Flagg’s novel The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion. One of the characters in this book is a member of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs) of World War II, and I found myself completely drawn in by the historical details about these female pilots who endured discrimination and disenfranchisement while training pilots and ferrying planes. After I’d finished the book, I spent a long time scouring the internet for more information about the WASPs, and I know I’ll be more open-minded about studying this period of American history in the future. This reaction is representative of the ways in which reading novels can expand your horizons, exposing you to concepts and life experiences of which you might never have become aware.

Students often have difficulty with open-ended assignments where professors give them free reign to research a subject they’re interested in, as long as they follow certain guidelines. Without a list of topics to choose from, it can be difficult to find a subject that both interests the student and seems relevant to the assignment. However, avid readers are exposed to such a diverse array of subject matter that they’ve likely developed curiosities about a number of complex topics and would be eager to learn more while fulfilling an academic requirement. For instance, someone who’d recently read the Canadian graphic novel Tangles might choose to learn more about Alzheimer's for a psychology project, while a student who’d enjoyed Jenny Downham’s Unbecoming might write a sociology paper about the experiences of LGBTQ+ teens in high school. Expanding your worldview and learning about a diverse array of subjects is beneficial in any context, but it’s particularly helpful for university students.

4. Reading full-length books improves your ability to focus for extended periods of time. Recent studies have indicated that, on a typical day, as many as 70% of students come to class not having done the assigned reading (Gooblar). Often, the factors preventing students from reading assigned texts are practical in nature; for instance, it may be necessary to prioritize the completion of a major assignment over the reading of an article that will be briefly discussed in class. However, it is also common for students to have the time for readings but lack the attention span to complete them. The human attention span is fairly short, and research indicates that it has been shrinking in recent years (Watson). When students are accustomed to receiving information in short bursts, it can be difficult to plow through a lengthy textbook chapter or a full novel for a literature course. However, students who read recreationally are accustomed to setting aside long blocks of time to focus on a certain text. They’ve learned what conditions make reading most comfortable for them, and they’ve likely developed strategies to maintain concentration. Therefore, when it comes time to read something for a class, they simply have to apply the strategies they use during self-motivated reading. If you develop a reading habit, you’ll likely find that completing your assigned readings seems like a less overwhelming task. You may also notice improved focus while writing assignments or attending lectures; after all, an extended attention span has wide-ranging benefits.

5. Reading recreationally can improve your critical thinking skills. A study conducted in 2012 found a positive correlation between voluntary reading and high scores on critical thinking tests (Hawkins). This result is not unexpected. Although relaxing with a fiction book is different than rigorously studying an academic text, you’re still required to exercise the skills that come into play during the act of critical thinking. Reading a novel requires you to keep track of a range of characters and their relationships in order to properly understand the progression of the plot. Often, subtle clues dropped by the author serve to foreshadow developments later in the book, and readers must be attentive to these to fully appreciate how the story unfolds. Furthermore, when you’re engrossed in a compelling novel, you may find yourself trying to predict what plot twists are on the horizon or use the information you’ve been given about a character to understand why they would make a seemingly illogical decision. All of these mental exercises are examples of critical thinking, and you’ll likely find that, the more time you spend reading, the more naturally they take place. As your critical thinking skills strengthen, you’ll become more adept at interpreting texts of all kinds, including academic texts which you must analyze for class.

Reading recreationally isn’t just an entertaining pastime--it’s also a great way to sharpen your academic skills and become a more effective student. Whether you’re reading non-fiction books, romance novels, or the latest dystopian series that’s taken pop culture by storm, the benefits are undeniable. However, for students who have never taken a strong interest in literature, it can be difficult to cultivate a reading habit. Next time, we’ll discuss a helpful tool that can make it easier to start reading for pleasure and remain committed to the habit.

Works Cited

Donovan, Melissa. “Sneak Peek at ‘10 Core Practices for Better Writing’ — Read More and Write Better.” Writing Forward. Writing Forward, 12 May 2016, Accessed 12 Dec. 2016.

Flood, Alison. “Sharp decline in children reading for pleasure, survey finds.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 9 Jan. 2015, Accessed 12 Dec. 2016.

Gooblar, David. “They Haven’t Done the Reading. Again.” Chronicle Vitae. The Chronicle of Higher Education, 24 Sept. 2014, Accessed 12 Dec. 2016.

Hawkins, Kimberly Tanner. Thinking and Reading Among College Undergraduates: An Examination of the Relationship between Critical Thinking Skills and Voluntary Reading. Dissertation, University of Tennessee, 2012.

Watson, Leon. “Humans have shorter attention span than goldfish, thanks to smartphones.” The Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group, 15 May 2015,  Accessed 12 Dec. 2016.

Wiesen, G. “What Is the Relationship between Reading and Vocabulary?” wiseGEEK. wiseGEEK, 9 Nov. 2016,  Accessed 12 Dec. 2016.