This post is long and does relate to education, but if you don’t care about why I started thinking about this whole idea, skip to the section entitled “Classroom Application” at the end of the post. However, the tools and process described in the first part of this post may help to provide you and/or your students with resources for the assignments described at the end of the post.
Hobbies and Literacy:
The other day my friend sent me a link to an interesting infographic that shows the depth of vocabulary for various rap artists. The methodology used to create this infographic was to count the number of unique words within the artist’s first 35,000 lyrics.
Click for Interactive and Full Size Version
The infographic and the accompanying analysis were quite interesting and made me start thinking about how hobbies can help to expand an individual’s vocabulary. I have played Magic: The Gathering since 1995. I was introduced to the game by my middle school friends and we played the game religiously. We played in study hall, at lunch, during after school meetings for clubs, and in between our tennis matches. We played so much Magic in school that we were probably the reason that Magic and other trading card games were banned by the administration. Magic is still a hobby of mine, and I often tell people that I believe it had a significant positive impact on my development as a reader and writer. The fact that the cards are used to play a competitive game made me read the rules text of each card critically and for complete comprehension. More importantly, I believe the game had a huge impact on my vocabulary. People always laugh when I say this, so I’ve always wondered if there was some sort of “proof” to back this up.
I wanted to replicate the methodology used within the rap analysis (as closely as possible) so I could compare Magic’s data with the various rappers. I copy and pasted the the spoiler for several sets of cards (Alpha-Homelands) into Textalyser in order to get relatively close to 35,000 words. For those not familiar with Magic, here’s a sample spoiler (for the Alpha set). Each card contains a name, rules text (to tell you the effect that the card has on the game), flavor text (to tell you the story of the Magic world), the card “type” (spell, creature, etc.), casting cost, and the artist of the card’s artwork.
Before looking at the results, I believe there are are several problems with this methodology. These spoilers have some words that are not actually located on the physical cards themselves – the name of the set and the rarity. Also, the name of the artist really wouldn’t have a huge impact on a person’s vocabulary acquisition, and there are a large number of different artists for Magic cards. Therefore, these names could inflate the number “unique words” in the following graphic. That said, here are the results:
Several things stand out to me here:
- The unique word-count is at the high-end of the spectrum for the rap infographic. (However this unique word count could be artificially inflated as discussed above).
- The readability score for these Magic cards is 5.5, while the recommended age for the game is 13+. The readability score is probably not as accurate as possible due to the fact that there are many phrases (artist name, card title, etc.) along with complete sentences in this analysis, but this score is still interesting. Based solely on readability, Magic could be geared towards younger players. However, 13 is probably appropriate age for the game given some of its artwork, themes, and the complexity of the game’s rules.
- The average word in the English language is around 5 letters and 1.6 syllables, so Magic appears to be above average in terms of word length.
Based on the limitations discussed above, I wanted to try one more test. Although I feel like the rules text of the cards definitely helped with my reading comprehension and critical reading skills, I don’t think it helped my vocabulary as much as the card titles did. You can often use the card’s rules, flavor text, and especially the artwork to develop context clues and understand new vocabulary within a card’s title. So in this second test, I uploaded just the names of all Magic cards (from core and expansion sets) to Textalyser.
Looking solely at card titles, Magic goes WAY above any of the rappers included on the infographic. Now, that may have something to do with the following…
As you can see, the word “Phyrexian” is one of the most used words in the title of a Magic card, but it’s not an English language word (that I know of). I’m sure plenty of the “unique” words referenced in this analysis are words similar to “Phrexian.” These fantasy type words reference Magic’s story line, geography, people, etc., but are not necessarily English language words. However, I think the same could be said for rap lyrics. I have not listened to the majority of the artists listed in the original infographic so I’m not the best judge of this, however I would imagine that a number of these lyrics include words that are not necessarily found in an English dictionary.
Finally, the word length and syllables per word is still above average, even moreso than when the rules and flavor text are included in the analysis.
In conclusion, I don’t think it’s possible to “prove” one way or another that Magic improved my vocabulary as a child, but this data seems to suggest that it could have had a positive impact. Given that exposure to new vocabulary is so important for improving literacy, a game with so many unique words can’t be a bad thing!
This whole investigation left me with a couple questions:
- I wonder how Magic compares to Pokemon or other trading card games.
- I wonder what an analysis of the “Wheel of Time” fantasy series would show in terms of vocabulary. Along with Magic, I attribute this fantasy series with helping me become a stronger reader and writer.
- What other games could be effective for improving literacy and vocabulary?
Applications for the Classroom:
I see a lot of potential for this type of analysis in an English classroom. You could use the resources and links discussed in my methodology as a hook/introduction for these lessons. Here are several possible ideas:
- Have students develop a list of games that could be effective for improving literacy and vocabulary. Have students develop a process for analyzing these games. Students could look at readability, unique words, word length, etc.
- Have students predict which musical artists have the biggest vocabulary. Develop a process for the whole class to use and have each student research an artist of their choice using that process. Students could compare the readability, unique words, word length, etc.
- Have students develop a large list of books that they enjoy and believe could help students develop their vocabulary and reading abilities. After generating this list, assign each student 1 (or more) of these books to analyze using Textalyzer. You could assign these books based on who has electronic copies of each one (because students will need an electronic copy or a free version of a text online to complete this assignment). Then, create a Google Form to have students enter data for their book. Possible fields include readability, unique words, word length, etc. Provide students with this data and give them the following performance task:
“You are a reading specialist for Henrico County. Your job is to create a summer reading list for grades 6-8 (or 9-12). The goal of this summer reading is to encourage students to read books they find interesting while also improving their reading comprehension and vocabulary. Use the data from the class survey to recommend several books for each grade. In your explanation, include specific data to justify why you chose each of these books for various grade levels.”
The students could even use charts and graphs to make their recommendations!
As much as I have enjoyed writing this post and coming up with these ideas, now I’m just sad because I don’t have any Magic tournaments on the calendar until July. 🙁