I came across an oddly fascinating connection a few months ago.
As a reading teacher, in the back of my mind is a constant reminder that I need to be thinking of my student’s reading levels. Are they moving forward along the continuum? Are they below are above grade level? As a beginning teacher, I was curious where these magical numbers or letters that correspond with reading level come from? How does a book receive a certain level? How are they determined? So, I did some research. If you use the Lexile system, there is a computer program called the “Lexile Analyzer” that looks at the complexity of a text and measure things like sentence length and word frequency. If you use Fountas and Pinnell, there are several other factors, but they also look at sentence complexity, vocabulary and word difficulty.
Enter the weird connection….
I am a huge fan of the podcast “The Allusionist” with Helen Zaltzman. It is a podcast all about words and language and I highly recommend it because, not only is it entertaining and informative, but you can also use bits and pieces to compliment your classroom word study sessions. In October 2015 (episode 23, if you care to check it out) Helen paired up with another podcast, Criminal, to share the linguistic act of lying. And something interesting surfaced. The duo behind Criminal interviewed a man named Andy Morgan, who studies human memory and deception. Mr. Morgan has studied how to determine if someone is lying, and it has nothing to do with a lie-detector test with all the wires and the little line scratching across paper. Here’s what he said:
“The way we’ve analyzed that [lying] in most of our studies is that we record the interviews and we do a transcript and we let the computer just count the number of words that comes out of a persons mouth in the interview and the number of unique words that comes out of their mouth.” -Andy Morgan
That’s right… to determine if someone is lying you count the number of words in a sentence and the number of unique words. Kinda sounds like sentence length and word frequency to me.
Is it weird that the way we determine text difficulty is also a very reliable way to determine if someone is lying? It just made me take pause--- especially during those beginning days of school when I have to get a reading level from every student. I wonder, is it just a lie?
Unfortunately, I’m not sure quite yet what I can do with this information in a practical sense. But, it sure is interesting to think about when we are obsessing over reading levels.
Of course, maybe I can use the bit about lying to determine who's telling the truth about those missing Sharpies... And I do wonder, are my students who are reading at a higher reading level, better equipped to lie?
Best case, if this teaching gig doesn't work out, I'll be a prime candidate to join the CIA. I already know so much about word frequency and fibbers!