The study analysed the results of maths, vocabulary and spelling tests sat by 6,000 children born in the same week at the ages of five, ten and 16, from the 1970 British Cohort Study.
Children who were read to regularly at the age of five by their parents performed better in all three tests at the age of 16 than those who were not helped in this way.
Study co-author Dr Alice Sullivan said, ‘It may seem surprising that reading for pleasure would help to improve children’s maths scores, but it is likely that strong reading ability will enable children to absorb and understand new information and affect their attainment in all subjects.’
The IOE study also found that having siblings had a negative effect on children’s vocabulary test scores. Children with older siblings were more affected, with noticeably lower results in all areas.
The report suggested that this was because children in larger families spend less time in one-to-one conversations with their parents and therefore have less opportunity to develop their vocabularies.
However, a parent’s education is less important to a child’s learning development than reading, according to the study.
The research found that the combined effect on children’s academic progress of reading books often, going to the library regularly and reading newspapers was four times greater than the advantage of having a parent with a university degree.
Nonetheless, Dr Sullivan emphasised the importance of improving adult literacy in order to help children’s cognitive development.
‘Children of parents who had reading problems performed significantly less well in all three tests than children of parents who reported no reading problems,’ she said. ‘Given the prevalence of adult illiteracy in Britain, with functional illiteracy estimated at 15 per cent, policies to increase adult literacy rates could significantly improve children’s learning outcomes.’