Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Good Writing is Memorable: Scientific Proof

When we posted the Ink Think Tank website we included a link to articles supporting our contention that literature enhances learning. Recently I was informed of another study that is quite convincing. I cite the original study below, but the results were succinctly summed up by Marjorie Scardino, a former editor of a Pulizer prize-winning newspaper and the first female CEO of a Fortune 100 company, when she gave the keynote address at an award dinner in 1998 at the Columbia University School of Journalism. She said in part:

Having looked for many years for a way to prove the obvious truth – that journalists tell it better, I finally have found, while rambling through the field of education, scientific proof:
About 10 years ago there was a study done – documented in education journals, in fact, though with little publicity – about how people best learn history.

The study went like this: three pairs of writers, each representing different training and therefore different styles, taught a history lesson to students in their own way, and the results were calculated.

The first pair was text linguists, people who are trained in linguistics and psychology and tend to take a structured, formal approach to writing and language. They think about writing, but they don’t teach people how to write.

The second pair was college composition teachers. They were trained in English or education. They tended to focus on the process one goes through in writing rather than the product produced. They did teach people to write, using this process approach.

The third pair was magazine editors, from Time magazine, in fact. Their training ranged generally through a liberal arts education, and they learned much of their craft on-the-job. They wrote for a living, and their job was to get the story told memorably … and quickly.

These three pairs were asked to re-write two passages from a U.S. history book to make them more readable, understandable and most of all memorable. To aid learning.

One of the passages dealt mainly with the end of the Korean war and problems over Formosa; and the other dealt with early American involvement in the Vietnam war.

The pairs were then matched with groups of [300] 16-17 year-old students, who were asked to judge their work. For each pair, one group read the original passages, and the other read the revisions. They then immediately wrote down everything they remembered from the passages, and the number of ideas they had retained were scored. Although I’m simplifying, I’m assured the methodology was kosher.

Without going through the intricacies of how each revision team worked, the results were stark:
1) Students reading the text linguists’ revision recalled 2% more than those reading the original versions, a trivial difference
2) Students reading the composition instructors’ revisions recalled 2% less than those reading the originals. Wrong direction, and also not significant.
3) Students reading the magazine editors’ versions, however, recalled 40% more than those reading the originals.

Needless to say, the academics were dismayed, and they wanted another chance. So the study was run again, with the same methodology.

The second time, with the benefit of learning what the successful versions had been, there was a little change for the academics, but not much. The basic results were exactly the same.
So while this could be an advertisement for the brilliance of journalists, it is probably better used as a reminder, to us as publishers as much as anyone, of the importance of presentation to substance. The power of clarity and style.

I believe the lesson is that Bagehot [the nineteenth century British financial and political essayist for whom the award being given at this dinner is named] wrote clearly about the most complex subjects because he had something to steer by. He related everything to the human condition, to being human. Common sense and a little bit of history informed him. Nothing more complicated.

"The knack in style," he said, "is to write like a human being. Some think they must be wise, some elaborate, some concise. But legibility is given to those who neglect these notions, and are willing to be themselves, to write their own thoughts in their own words, in the simplest words, in the words wherein they were thought in the first place."

The original study was done in 1988 by seven academics at five different universities. But science is science. Time doesn’t change the significance of the work of Galileo or Darwin. This study seems quite relevant to me over twenty years later. What amazes me is that there are editors and educators out there who still don’t get it. Good writing and high interest stories trump low reading levels and student apathy and enable higher performance on assessment tests. Duh!


Linda Zajac said...

Thanks for the encouraging post.

lgburns said...

"The power of clarity and style."

Hear! Hear!

Dorothy Patent said...

What a great study, Vicki! Perfect fuel for our efforts to help children get fired up by the world around them through well-written nonfiction trade books!

Marfe Ferguson Delano said...

Vicki, I heard about this--or a similar study--years ago when I worked at Time-Life Books. Those series, which covered subjects ranging from the Civil War to Mysteries of the Unknown, were great reads. I believe some Time-Life volumes may even have been used in such a study. It was a great selling point, and of course a source of pride to those of us creating the books. Thanks for bringing this up!

Vicki Cobb said...

I'm not sure where I heard this, but when Time Magazine was analyzed for reading level, it was deemed 4th grade. I'm not certain what the average reading level is for Americans in general but interestingly Time has become the standard for literacy.