Kids learn more “rare words” from books than from the adults around them

The other day, I came across a scholarly article called, “What Reading Does for the Mind.” It’s an oldie, originally published in 1998 in a journal from the American Federation of Teachers. It discusses kids’ unique sponginess, and the notion that most of the vocabulary we develop when we’re young comes from exposure in our environment, rather than through direct instruction. But it goes a step further, suggesting that written word has a much greater influence than spoken on kids’ developing lexicons.

This, the article suggests, is because children are exposed to far more “rare words” in their books than in any adult conversation or television show they may hear.

The relative rarity of the words in children’s books is, in fact, greater than that in all of the adult conversation, except for the courtroom testimony. Indeed, the words used in children’s books are considerably rarer than those in the speech on prime-time adult television.

– Cunningham and Stanovich

What is a “rare word?”

This particular article references a word frequency study from the early ’70s that ranks over 85,000 words by how often they’re used in a broad sample of written English. “The” is ranked #1, “it” is 10th, and “know” is 100th. As you keep moving down the list you find words like “vibrate” at 5000, and “shrimp” at 9,000.

So when we say words are rarer, it’s because they’re farther down on the list.

Now, granted, this particular ranking is nearly 50 years old, and could be replicated more accurately using something like the n-gram viewer. But I would imagine a refreshed list would drive us to the same conclusion:

Kids are reading more rare words in their books than they’re hearing from the adults around them.

Look at Where the Wild Things Are:

And when he came to the place where the wild things are, they roared their terrible roars and gnashed their terrible teeth, and rolled their terrible eyes and showed their terrible claws till Max said “BE STILL!” and tamed with the magic trick of staring into all their yellow eyes without blinking once and they were frightened and called him the most wild thing of all and made him king of all wild things.

– Maurice Sendak

Or A Series of Unfortunate Events, and the incredible language Lemony Snicket uses on every other page.

Violet had a real knack for inventing and building strange devices, so her brain was often filled with images of pulleys, levers, and gears, and she never wanted to be distracted by something as trivial as her hair.

– Lemony Snicket

Roald Dahl, Lewis Carroll, JK Rowling… their books for children are filled with delightful words that exist only in their stories.

Words is oh such a twitch-tickling problem to me all my life. So you must simply try to be patient and stop squibbling. As I am telling you before, I know exactly what words I am wanting to say, but somehow or other they is always getting squiff-squiddled around.

– Roald Dahl

Maybe the results of these studies are skewed because children’s books lean so frequently toward the fantastic or, at least, make believe. Or because so many of these books are meant to be educational. Or because stories contain more expository and descriptive words than conversations. (After all, the rankings showed that books for adults also contain more rare words than conversation.)

Whatever the contributing factors, I consider these findings a win for children’s literature, filling their brains with as many words as possible when they’re at their spongiest. I wonder, if we measured kids’ conversations for a month and compared them to adults’ conversations, if we’d find the same results.

I was lucky to grow up in a house full of reading experiences.

The end of the article summarizes the cognitive benefits reading provides kids–whether they’re naturally good at reading or not–and ends with the recommendation that “we should provide all children, regardless of their achievement levels, with as many reading experiences as possible.”

It’s something I think about a lot but, reading the article, I was reminded again how grateful I am for all the reading we did in my family when I was little. We went to the library once a week and came home with stacks and stacks of books, and my parents read to me all the time. I have very few memories of my requests for one more book or one more chapter being denied.

What are some of the best words you learned in childhood books?