How Can Reading for Pleasure Lead to Improved Exam Grades?

A 2006 study by Clark & Rumbold shows how a person’s reading ability and motivation to read for pleasure can have a significant effect on exam performance. It then goes on to discuss some of the strategies that can be used to improve a student’s motivation to read and hence their ability.

It has been said that one of the single best and simplest things a student can do to immediately improve their exam results for almost all subjects is to read regularly. Young people today are going to need to read and write more than they have in any point in human history. Whether this is for finding and keeping a job, searching for information or socialising with friendship groups, the ability to read and write well has never been more crucial.

Reading for pleasure is the reading of books for personal enjoyment. This may be to learn something new about a favourite hobby or to immerse oneself in an exciting or emotional novel. Reading for pleasure has a number of amazing benefits which directly and positively affect performance in school exams. These include:

  • An improvement to reading and writing ability.
    • In the UK, school aged children are assessed with a series of largely written exams, to which they respond with mainly written answers. The ability to read and write is the key to performing well in these assessments. Without this ability, a student could not hope to score as highly as a proficient reader. Yes, there are adults available to act as readers or scribes, and while these interventions can reduce the impact of any shortcomings, a student who has a low reading ability will always be at a disadvantage.
  • An increased ability to understand what is being communicated.
    • There are many examples of exam questions which start by giving students some written information. In order to respond to these questions students must first understand what is being told to them and be clear about what the question is asking of them.
  • A wide breadth of vocabulary.
    • The more a person reads, the more they develop the variety of words they are able to use and understand. In turn this leads to an increased capacity to grasp what the exam question is asking them to do. Words such as interpret, reflect upon, evaluate and analyse are rarely used in the average 16 year old’s daily interaction with friends. Yet these words are among many which are common in written exams. Understanding their meaning is critical if the maximum marks are to be gained.
  • An increased confidence when reading text.
    • From my own experience as a teacher, I see many students who don’t read the question well enough to allow them to answer it correctly. Many don’t even read it at all, preferring instead to just write what they think the answer might be to a question they’ve guessed. This cannot be a successful strategy, but is one that we would all probably use if we found reading the text difficult. Imagine answering a question written in a language with which we are unfamiliar. We may be able to pick out the odd word and have a guess at what the question might be. Isn’t that what some students are doing in their exams?

It’s not all about exams and school. Reading for pleasure should also be just that – pleasurable. It can fire the imagination, improve general knowledge and give us a greater understanding of other cultures or locations across the globe.

Photo by Martin Pu00e9chy on

Ideally, reading at home would start from a young age. Maybe with a bedtime story read together. However, it is never too late to start.

Obtaining pleasure from reading enables us to practice reading, which develops our proficiency at reading, and so our motivation to read. We create a virtuous cycle in which our reading ability soars. On the flip side, someone who struggles to read may have a low motivation or few opportunities to practice, which create negative feelings about reading and so enhancing their belief that they struggle to read. We now have a vicious cycle whereby our reading confidence deteriorates over time. Which cycle would you rather for your own children, or for yourself? The virtuous cycle or the vicious cycle?

Looking at PISA data from 2002, The UK as a whole has a reading score which puts us in 7th place out of the 32 countries studied. Finland were the highest scoring country, Ireland scored a respectable 5th place and the US came in at 15th.

So can we do anything about it?

Can we get onto the virtuous cycle or can we help our children to do so?

The motivation to read for pleasure comes from two sources. Intrinsic motivation is the type to come from within. It comes from the interest in, and enjoyment gained from, reading. Extrinsic motivation, on the other hand, comes in the form of external rewards for reading.

Clearly parents, carers and other family members have an important role in helping to develop both.

Extrinsic motivational rewards for reading could come in the form of hard cash or little gifts, but far better would be a parental involvement in terms of discussing the content of the books being read. This shows an interest and gives the young person attention. It also helps to develop a deeper understanding of the content of the book, fostering analytical and evaluative skills.

Intrinsic motivation can easily be established in a home environment where other family members can be seen enjoying books, discussing books and sharing books. Being part of these social interactions can be very powerful motivators.

Once formed, the trick now is to maintain the motivation to read. Parents, family and friends have an important part to play here too. One of the most crucial factors which determine whether a young person reads and enjoys a book is the nature of the book. We are all different and have different preferences for what we like to watch, listen to and read. Everybody can have an input here by offering young people a choice of what they read. Instead of buying them a book, think about vouchers to be used to buy their own. Share reading material with friends and wider family. Join a library and take family trips on a regular basis. Do whatever works for you.

Reading should be a pleasure. We can gain so much. It gives us knowledge, it immerses us in other worlds, it makes us more interesting people. Ask anyone who has seen a movie based on a book they’ve also read – the book will always be better. If you don’t read, you should start. If your children don’t read you should encourage them. It really is the single most important skill you can have. Then once you find the type of books you like, you too will be hooked.

Pu (currently reading: John Grisham, The Rooster Bar).

Clark, C., and Rumbold, K. (2006). Reading for Pleasure a research overview. The National Literacy Trust.

OECD (2002). Reading for change: Performance and engagement across countries. Results from PISA 2000. New York: Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.


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