Do Good Scrabble® Players Read More Than the Rest of Us?

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Protzner, A. B., Hargreaves, I. S., Campbell, J. A., Myers-Stewart, K., van Hees, S., Goodyear, B. G., … & Pexman, P. M. (2016). This is your brain on Scrabble: neural correlates of visual word recognition in competitive Scrabble players as measured during task and resting-state. Cortex, 75, 204-219.

I’m a sucker for academic clickbait. This article’s title got me to download it and take a quick peak when I really should have been doing something productive with my time. I am consoled only by the knowledge that by reading this post, you may be no better than I am at impulse control.

The researchers compared a group of 59-year-old Scrabble® players to a group of non-Scrabble® players of the same age and education level (N = 12 per group). Most of the paper is devoted to comparing fMRIs of the subjects’ brains, which I happily skipped over. The interesting stuff actually comes right at the beginning, when the authors report on the results of a set of cognitive tests both groups took before the brain scans.

The two groups scored about the same on general vocabulary and a “digit-symbol” speed test. More importantly, they did not differ on the amount of pleasure reading they had done (as measured by a “print exposure” checklist). Scrabble® players do not get their particular skill, it seems, by reading more than the rest of us.

The Scrabble® players were about 20% faster at identifying words versus non-words, and did a slightly better on generating as many words as possible in a short amount of time (e.g. “Say as many words as you can that begin with the letter F in the next 60 seconds”). The biggest difference, however, was on an magrana anagram test: Scrabble® players absolutely killed it, getting on average 55 out of 60 correct, compared to only 19 for the non-Scrabble® subjects.

But of course doing anagrams is pretty much what Scrabble is all about, which leads me to conclude that playing Scrabble® makes you good at playing Scrabble®, but not much else. (This is also true for some of the so-called “skills” literacy researchers like to measure, as I discussed previously.)


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