Does reading make you smarter? Literacy and the development of verbal intelligence

Adv Child Dev Behav. 1993;24:133-80. doi: 10.1016/s0065-2407(08)60302-x.


The studies reported here represent the first steps in the development of a new research paradigm for studying the unique cognitive correlates of literacy. Reading experience exhibits enough isolable variance within a generally literate society to be reliably linked with cognitive differences. Research on such links is therefore facilitated because the consequences of engaging in literacy activities can be studied without necessarily obtaining totally illiterate samples or setting up cross-cultural comparisons. Issues that are at least analogous issues to those raised in cross-cultural research can be studied within literate societies with a paradigm such as this, and therefore the speed with which we can answer questions about the cognitive consequences of literacy may be greatly increased because more studies can be carried out, larger samples can be studied, and the range of the cognitive domains tapped can be widened. Research in this area appears to have been stifled because of the widespread acceptance of the most extreme interpretations of the outcome of Scribner and Cole's (1981) investigation--interpretations that have slowly diffused throughout the literature without being accompanied by any new data. These conclusions are fueled by a powerful social critique that advances the argument that the positive cultural and economic effects of literacy have been overstated--indeed, that literacy is, if anything, a repressive force (Auerbach, 1992; Street, 1984, 1988; Stuckey, 1991). Educational theorists such as Frank Smith accused the educational establishment of "overselling" literacy and have argued that "Literacy doesn't generate finer feelings or higher values. It doesn't even make anyone smarter" (1989, p. 354). The data reported herein appear to indicate that these theorists could well be wrong in this conclusion. If "smarter" means having a larger vocabulary and more world knowledge in addition to the abstract reasoning skills encompassed within the concept of intelligence, as it does in most laymen's definitions of intelligence (Stanovich, 1989; Sternberg, 1990), then reading may well make people smarter. Certainly our data demonstrate time and again that print exposure is associated with vocabulary, general knowledge, and verbal skills even after controlling for abstract reasoning abilities (as measured by such indicators as the Raven).(ABSTRACT TRUNCATED AT 400 WORDS)

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Child
  • Child Development*
  • Educational Status
  • Humans
  • Intelligence*
  • Mental Recall
  • Reading*
  • Verbal Learning*
  • Vocabulary