Monday, February 18, 2013

Do smart kids read fiction or non-fiction books? How about newspapers?

I like to borrow books from the library, from magazines to comics to self-help business books to science fiction. I noticed, however, that the non-fiction sections tend to be easier to find in Singapore's libraries. For example, they might be located nearer to the entrance than the fiction section, or placed on a lower floor. Perhaps Singaporeans prefer to read non-fiction books?

More importantly, is it better to read fiction, or non-fiction books? How about newspapers?


In the OECD PISA study, students were asked how often they read fiction, non-fiction, and newspapers because they wanted to, and not because they were forced to.

How is this associated with test scores? First, students who read fiction books several times a week (again, because they want to, and not because they were forced to) tend to have a much higher reading score than students who read non-fiction books and newspapers several times a week. No surprises there actually - presumably the language in fiction novels tends to be more complex.

Source: OECD PISA
Also, the benefit from reading fiction books appears to be dramatically larger than other reading materials. Compared to students who never or almost never read fiction books, students who read fiction several times a week registered a 100-point increase in scores. In contrast, the benefit from non-fiction and newspapers was about 50 points only.


You would think fiction books would have a much lesser impact on maths and science scores. After all, these are subjects that requires abstract logic, and more grounded in the real world. Not quite the stuff of fictitious imagination.

Not really. Students who read fiction are also better at maths and science, scoring about 20 points higher than students who read non-fiction and newspapers. Again, the payoff from reading fiction, at about 90 points, is much higher than that from non-fiction and newspapers (only 20-30 points) .

Source: OECD PISA

Source: OECD PISA

It seems that fiction trumps non-fiction books and newspapers in every aspect - students who like and read fiction books have better scores not only for reading tests, but maths and science tests too. But once again we are met with the reverse causality issue: does fiction make kids smart, or do smart kids gravitate towards fiction books? 

My personal love for fiction (and non-fiction, may I add), makes me want to believe the former. Opening the door to imagination and lyrical prose isn't a waste of time. Rather, it breeds creativity and a love for art and life itself.

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