Boost learning, understanding with creative copy

Tap the 1:1 concrete-comprehension ratio

Two professors from Texas A&M University and one from the University of the Andes aimed to find out whether concrete or abstract information was more understandable, memorable and interesting.

Boost learning, understanding with creative copy

Turn ideas into things Researchers found an almost one-to-one correlation between how concrete a passage was and how easy it was to understand. Image by Holly Mindrup

First, the professors crafted a series of passages. Each passage was 56 words long and written at about the same level of readability.

Half of the passages were abstract:

Character cannot be summoned in a crisis if it has been squandered by years of compromise and excuses. The only testing ground for the heroic is the mundane. There is only one preparation for that great decision that can change a life. It is those hundreds of half conscious, self-defining, seemingly insignificant decisions made in private.

The other half were concrete:

Think twice before buying another “convenience.” Grandmother’s kitchen had a pan, spoon and a knife. It produced a Sunday dinner of roast chicken, potatoes, salad, vegetables and apple pie. The kitchen of the 1990s contains a food processor, blender, laser-cut knife system and a 20-piece cookware set that produces a Sunday dinner of microwave pizza.

Then the researchers asked 40 graduate students to read the passages and rate them for how interesting and easy to understand they were.

Countertop gadgets vs. domestic devices

Countertop gadgets vs. domestic devices The more concrete the message, the more interesting and understandable it is. Image by Nadya Spetnitskaya

The students rated the concrete copy more interesting and understandable.

1. Concrete stories, headlines are easier to understand.

In fact, there was almost a one-to-one correlation between how concrete a passage was and how easy it was to understand, the researchers said (Sadoski, Goetz and Rodriguez, 2000).

Next, the researchers wrote a series of abstract and concrete headlines for each of the 56-word passages. They included:

Abstract headlineConcrete headline
Domestic DevicesCountertop Gadgets
Preferred ItemsFavorite Junk
The Laws of LiftHow a Plane Flies
A Science FindJungles in Ice
Mortal JusticeDeath Penalty

Then they asked the graduate students to rate the headlines for how interesting and easy to understand they were.

The students rated the concrete headlines much more understandable and interesting (Sadoski, Goetz and Rodriguez, 2000).

“Using more concrete language and content should,” the researchers write, “have positive effects in making … text more comprehensible, interesting and memorable.”

2. Interesting messages boost learning.

We’ve known this for years.

In the early 19th century, German philosopher Johann Friedrich Herbart said that interest leads to understanding, learning and memory — and even inspires readers to learn more.

We've known this for years

We’ve known this for years For some 200 years, researchers, philosophers and communicators have found Herbart’s link between interest and learning to be true. Image by Fischer Twins

For some 200 years, researchers, philosophers and communicators have found Herbart’s link between interest and learning to be true.

One of those researchers is Suzanne Hidi, associate member at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education’s Centre for Applied Cognitive Science. In “Interest and Its Contribution as a Mental Resource for Learning,” she reviews the research connecting interest with learning.

What’s interesting? “Interesting copy,” Hidi found, is:

  • Concrete. It shows instead of tells, turns ideas into things and is filled with action and images.
  • Emotional. It includes human interestnarrative action and “life themes” readers can identify with.
  • Novel. It’s surprising or unexpected.

Here, for instance, are some of the concrete, interesting sentences that researchers have studied:

Beetle madness

Beetle madness Sentences like “When a Click Beetle is on its back, it flips itself into the air and lands right side up while it makes a clicking noise” help readers learn, simply because they’re concrete and interesting. Image by Alan Emery

  • The huge gorilla smashed the bus with its fist. (Anderson, 1982)
  • When a Click Beetle is on its back, it flips itself into the air and lands right side up while it makes a clicking noise. (Garner et al., 1989)
  • When a fly moves its wings about 200 times in a second, you hear a buzzing sound. (Garner et al., 1989)
  • The Battle of Trafalgar was the greatest naval victory in British history, and it was the war for Great Britain. (Wade & Adams, 1990)
  • [Lady Emma Hamilton] fell in love with the battered, one-eyed, one-armed naval hero and became his mistress. (Wade & Adams, 1990)

Concrete, colorful copy, according to Hidi’s review of the literature:

  • Encourages reading (Hidi & Baird, 1986).
  • Improves comprehension (Hidi & Baird, 1986; Bernstein, 1955).
  • Boosts learning (Hidi & Baird, 1986; Shirey and Reynolds, 1988).
  • Increases recall (Hidi & Baird, 1988).
  • Helps people come up with bigger, better, more creative ideas (Bernstein, 1955).

Nearly 45 years of research proves it: Concrete details help readers “get” your message; abstract concepts aren’t so helpful.

For instance, the entire incoming first-year class of a college participated in a study where researchers rewrote passages from American history textbooks to make them more concrete. Students understood the revised, concrete passages much better than the original ones. They also rated the revised passages significantly more interesting (Wharton, 1980).

In another study, students understood and remembered concrete words (PDF) like aisle, ceremony, scene and pile better than abstract ones, like pride, theory, time and truth (Sadoski, Goetz, Stricker and Burdenski, 2003).

3. Word pictures boost understanding by 43%.

That’s because abstract words are hard for your audience members to understand and remember.

Paint word pictures

Paint word pictures Make your message more concrete, and readers will understand it better. Image by Seb

But use concrete, visual words, and people understand 43% more, according to a study by Prabu David and Jagdeep Kang.

For the study, researchers used an infographic and accompanying text from a USA Today article about the effects of nicotine on the body. They tested abstract copy and concrete copy, both with and without the accompanying infographic.

What the study tested
ApproachExample
Abstract (low-imagery) copyThe filters in the bronchi, called cilia, are immediately affected and are unable to filter out harmful particles. Tar collects in bronchi, greatly increasing lung cancer risk. Buildup in air sacks reduces lung efficiency and causes disease.
Concrete (high-imagery) copyThe tiny hairs called cilia, (which) act as filters in bronchi, are immediately burned or coated with excess mucus and are unable to filter out harmful particles. Tar collects in bronchi, greatly increasing lung cancer risk. Corrosive buildup in air sacks reduces lung efficiency and causes disease.
Accompany-ing visualA diagram of cilia, bronchial tube and an air sack dotted with tar particles.

The results: Word pictures increased understanding dramatically.

Why? Because concrete copy — word pictures — paint pictures in your readers’ minds. (Think of the word pictures you hear on National Public Radio or read in The Wall Street Journal.)

Those mental images serve as surrogates for real pictures, the researchers hypothesize. And real pictures have been shown, in study after study, to make information easier to understand.

Learn why word pictures work.

Help readers see with concrete information.

That’s no surprise. After all, we say “I see” to mean “I understand.”

So help them see.

“Cecil, the black-maned lion” is easy to see. “Leveraging our industry-leading synergies”? Not so easy.

Turn ideas into things: Make your message more vivid and visual with concrete information, and people will literally see what you mean.

Are you turning ideas into things? Or are you hoping to gain understanding with abstractions?

____

Mark Sadoski, Ernest T. Goetz and Maximo Rodriguez, “Engaging Texts: Effects of Concreteness on Comprehensibility, Interest, and Recall in Four Text Types,” Journal of Educational Psychology 92, 2000, pp. 85-95

Sources: Suzanne Hidi, “Interest and Its Contribution as a Mental Resource for Learning,” Review of Educational Research, Winter 1990, Vol. 60, No. 4, pp. 549-571

Prabu David and Jagdeep Kang, “Pictures, High-Imagery News Language and News Recall,” Newspaper Research Journal, Summer 1998

Speak Your Mind

Tell us what you're thinking...
and oh, if you want a pic to show with your comment, go get a gravatar!


Free writing tips
  • Get tips, tricks & trends for Catching Your Readers
  • Learn to write better, easier & faster
  • Discover proven-in-the-lab writing techniques