Let’s Talk About Reading

Chances are that you have heard that reading is good for children.  Reading leads to vocabulary development and content knowledge and is a necessary skill for participation in 21st century society.

But did you know that there is greater variety in written words than in spoken words and that when we read printed materials we are more likely to encounter rare words that serve to enhance our vocabularies?

In 1971 researchers developed a ranking system of 86,741 different words used in the  English language.  The most common word in English (ranked Number 1) is the word “the” with the word “know” coming in at Number 100.  The word “pass” is ranked at  Number 1000, “shrimp” is Number 9000 and “amplifier” comes in at Number 16,000.

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In 1988, another pair of researchers (Hayes and Ahrens) analyzed three different kinds of communication:  spoken language, written language and language used on television.  Hayes and Ahrens found astonishing differences in the statistical distribution of words used in each of the three situations.  According to their findings, conversations between college educated adults yield words that are ranked between 400 and 600 on average.  Consequently, most interactions between adults are conducted using extremely common vocabulary.  Similar results were found in speech on television.

The researchers also screened communication for rare words.  They defined a rare word as one with a ranking of over 10,000.  According to the research findings, adult exchanges usually contain less than 20 rare words per 1000 words uttered.  Television shows fared slightly better, with between 20 and 30 rare words spoken for every 1000.

Significant differences in vocabulary usage and frequency of rare words emerged when the researchers examined printed materials.  Preschool picture books contain the same amount of rare words as adult speech while more than 30 rare words are found per 1000 words in children’s literature, nearly double the rate of college educated adult interactions.  Popular magazines and books read by adults include between 50 and 65 rare words per 1000 while newspapers print nearly 70.

According to the researchers, the vocabulary of an average 6th grader is comprised of words that are ranked up to 10,000 on the rare word list.  In order for children to continue to learn vocabulary after the age of 12, they must have exposure to increasingly rare words and these rare words are unlikely to be encountered within conversations and television viewing.   Books and other written materials can introduce both children and adults to variation in vocabulary.

The good news uncovered by researchers is that reading just a few minutes every day can result in significant gains in vocabulary exposure.

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Every little bit counts!

We can be cognizant of our speech around children by using a variety of words in our daily conversations.

We must read aloud to children both for the enjoyment of the stories as well as for enhancing their vocabulary development.

Children need to be encouraged to continue to read independently every day well into their teen years to foster the habit of daily reading and to increase their exposure to rare and complex vocabulary.

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