Those who read more (fiction), know more.
The recent insistence that English Language Arts standards include more nonfiction and less fiction is based on the assumption that nonfiction reading will better prepare students for the rigors of the real world. There are no studies I know of that compare fiction and nonfiction reading in terms of knowledge development, but a number of studies done by Stanovich and his colleagues show that those who read more fiction know more about a variety of subjects.
“Reading” in these studies included a great deal of fiction reading. Stanovich and his colleagues used the Author Recognition Test (ART) in several of these studies, a measure in which subjects indicated which authors’ names they recognized (West and Stanovich, 1991; Stanovich and Cunningham, 1992, 1993; West, Stanovich and Mitchell, 1993). The ART was “dominated by ‘popular authors’ as opposed to ‘highbrow’ writers who would be known by only the most academically inclined readers” (Stanovich and Cunningham, 1993, p. 213). Although the ART included different genres, most of the authors were fiction writers (e.g. 36 out of 40 in Stanovich and Cunningham, 1993), and subjects clearly did better recognizing the names of fiction writers (in Stanovich and Cunningham, 1993, the best-recognized non-fiction author was recognized by only 5.2% of the subjects). Data from Ravitch and Finn (1987) also suggests that a great deal of reported reading is fiction: About 44% of those who were readers said they preferred to read fiction, and about 29% said they read both fiction and nonfiction, a total of 73% (figures derived from p. 163).
Stanovich and Cunningham (1992) confirmed that college students who reported reading more did better on a test of history (from Ravitch and Finn, 1987), and this relationship held even when nonverbal ability factors were controlled.
Those who read more also do better on various measures of cultural knowledge. West and Stanovich created a cultural literacy test, a checklist of 30 names of artists, entertainers, explorers, philosophers, and scientists. Those who had more print exposure did better on this test, even when other factors, such as SAT scores (West and Stanovich, 1991), age, education, exposure to television (West, Stanovich and Mitchell, 1993), and nonverbal abilities (Stanovich, West, and Harrison, 1995) were controlled. Stanovich and Cunningham (1993) found similar results for a test of “practical knowledge,” and a test of science and social studies.
Ravitch and Finn (1987) reported that those who reported reading more did better on a test of literature, but this result is probably irrelevant for many fans of the English Language Arts Common Core standards.
Ravitch, D., and C. Finn. 1987. What do our 17-year-olds know? New York: Harper and Row.
Stanovich, K., and A. Cunningham. 1992. Studying the consequences of literacy within a literate
society: the cognitive correlates of print exposure. Memory and Cognition, 20(1): 51-68.
Stanovich, K. and A. Cunningham. 1993. Where does knowledge come from? Specific
associations between print exposure and information acquisition. Journal of Educational
Psychology, 85(2): 211-229.
Stanovich, K., R. West, R., and M. Harrison. 1995. Knowledge growth and maintenance across
the life span: The role of print exposure. Developmental Psychology, 31(5): 811-826.
West, R., and K. Stanovich. 1991. The incidental acquisition of information from reading.
Psychological Science 2: 325-330.
West, R., K. Stanovich, and H. Mitchell. 1993. Reading in the real world and its correlates. Reading Research Quarterly 28: 35-50.