So I stumbled across an interesting paper What Reading Does for the Mind authored by two really smart people in the field of education. They cover a lot of interesting things, but the discussion of reading’s effects on children’s vocabulary struck me in particular.
Table 1 on the right shows some super in depth analysis of words found in written texts, TV, and adult conversation. In total the researchers, Hayes and Ahrens, tallied up 86,741 English words between the 3 mediums and then ranked their frequency count as a way to classify rare words from common ones. The word “the” was number one on the list. “It” is the 10th most common word. The word “know” is 100th. The word “pass” is ranked 1,000, the word “vibrate” is 5,000th in frequency, the word “shrimp” is 9,000th in frequency, and the word “amplifier” is 16,000th in frequency.
‘Rank of Median Word’ is the frequency count of the average word found in that category. A rare word is defined as a word with a frequency rating of 10,000 and above. No surprise to see abstracts of scientific articles top the list. Let me just say FUCK those things. Just because no one can understand you doesn’t make you smart. Anyway…
So the analysis: “Most theorists are agreed that the bulk of vocabulary growth during a child’s lifetime occurs indirectly through language exposure rather than through direct teaching. Furthermore, many researchers are convinced that reading volume, rather than oral language, is the prime contributor to individual differences in children’s vocabularies.”
All this is interesting, but I don’t really care about children’s vocabularies, or even my vocabulary for that matter. I care about ideas, thoughts, knowledge, etc.
Here’s my version: “Most theorists are agreed that the bulk of idea growth during a person’s lifetime occurs indirectly through language exposure rather than through direct teaching. Furthermore, many researchers are convinced that reading volume, rather than oral language, is the prime contributor to individual differences in people’s idea vocabularies.”
Idea vocabularies? Hell yea! Vocabulary is defined as “the body of words used in a particular language.” So, your idea vocabulary is the body of ideas used in a particular person’s thoughts . Just as a higher vocabulary allows you to speak with more eloquence, a higher idea vocabulary allows you to think at a higher level.
Ideas are made up of words. Could there be correlation between the quality and amount of ideas, thoughts, and knowledge and the frequency rating of the words of a certain category? I think so. Original, complex ideas cannot be explained in a very simple way. The highest praise for an author in a highly specialized field is that his ideas are accessible to the general public, but even then, these books are no walk in the park to read. Scientific articles are mainly inflated with scientific jargon and complex speech to make the author look smarter, but at the same time they are condensing a huge amount of scientific research into a couple paragraphs on complex and something brand new topics. (kind of a joke. heh.)
So, if you read lots of Adult books, you are reading material where the average word ranks 1058th on the frequency rating. More importantly than vocabulary, you are getting the quality of ideas that demand a more complex vocabulary to convey. For example, if you want to learn about the latest psychology theories, you are probably going to be reading material that ranks higher on this chart.
Since this is a reading website, I must point out the humor in the fact that adult speech and preschool books contain pretty much the same level of vocabulary, and that TV rates lower than children’s books. Go read something and be smart!
OK, so going further, here’s another table that shows that by reading about an hour a day, you will be introduced to 4.4 million words per year. I’ve discussed that ideas are made up of words, so by reading non-fiction books, how many new ideas will you be introduced to in a year? A staggering amount no doubt. What can a plethora of new ideas do for you? It’s more than just sounding smart in conversation or being all stoic and shit. Creativity comes from ideas and memories. If you build your storehouse of ideas and memories you will be more creative. Creativity works by forming connections between separate ideas and memories in your head to create something new. The more ideas you have, the more connections you can make.
Here’s Steve Jobs saying this more eloquently than I can:
“Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things. And the reason they were able to do that was that they’ve had more experiences or they have thought more about their experiences than other people”.
Reading idea rich material provides more experiences. You literally feel the highs and the lows from reading success stories of the mega successful. You digest the lessons. You experience lab research in studies as the are explained to you in text. You can see it happening in your mind’s eye. Also, reflecting on new ideas that resonate with you is a natural occurrence. Reading helps you become more reflective in this regard.
There are many studies examining the relationship between creativity and intelligence. It is debatable, but lots of studies do show a connection between intelligence and creativity. This is because the more intelligent you are, the more you are capable of storing memories in the brain. With more memories stored in your brain, the more likely you are to make novel connections between multiple ideas to create something original and new. But how do people get intelligent in the first place? Sure, smart people can usually learn faster and easier, which makes it easier for them to learn more. But, books go at your pace, and you can improve reading speed and comprehension with practice. With enough effort, anyone can obtain as much knowledge as an ‘intelligent’ person.
So by increasing your idea vocabulary, you can increase creativity, but also, just plain reading may increase creativity…
In one study, 7th graders were divided into 2 groups. one group saw an educational film about certain environmental issues, while the other group read the narration of these issues. The students were then asked to write down the most original, best idea they could think of. The children who read had the more creative responses. For example, one topic was the recycling of rubber tires being thrown into an incinerator to be used for power. The people that watched the TV program had responses that had to do with what they saw. i.e. “old chewed up gum could be used to patch old tires up” or “old scrap metal cars could be used for spare parts.” These responses are heavily rooted in the original video of recycling tires, and not very original themselves. The students who read came up with more original creative ideas such as “ideas are thrown away that may have helped the world” and “we could use old teeth for energy”. (Meline, 1976)
Another study found that the number of voluntarily read books read during freshman year was positively related to the improvement of critical thinking skills during the year (Influences affecting the development of student’s critical thinking skills, Terenzini et al., 1995,)
In conclusion, reading is good, so do it.