The effects of psycholinguistic variables are critical to the evaluation of theories about the cognitive reading system. However, reading research has tended to focus on the impact of key variables on average performance. We report the first investigation examining variation in psycholinguistic effects across the life span, from childhood into old age. We analyzed the performance of a sample of 535 readers, aged 8–83 years in lexical decision and pronunciation tasks. Our findings show that the effects on reading of two key variables, frequency and AoA, decrease in size with increasing age over the life span. We observed the systematic modulation by age and reading ability of these and other psycholinguistic effects alongside a global U-shaped effect of age. Diffusion model analyses suggest that developmental speed-up in decision responses can be attributed to the increasing quality of evidence accumulation in reaction to words, while the ageing-related slowing can be attributed to decreasing efficiency of stimulus encoding or response execution processes. An analysis of spoken response durations furnishes a consistent picture in which the slowing of pronunciation responses with age can be attributed to slowing articulatory processes. We think our findings can be explained by theoretical accounts that incorporate learning as the basis for the development of structure in the reading system. However, an adequate theory shall have to include assumptions about both developmental learning and later ageing. Our results warrant a life span theory of reading.