I've recently enjoyed my boys using very descriptive language every day. For example, the two year old telling us that his meat was 'succulent', or the four year old describing his pudding as 'marvellous'. There have been times when they have used an unusual turn of phrase, and I've wondered to myself, 'Where did they get that from?' only several days later to realise it comes from one of Edward Lear's poems or from a book we are currently reading aloud together. And as I have considered this, I have made one or two observations.
Childrens' books today seem to have a very limited vocabulary. It is almost as though the author has thought that she must use simple language to be comprehensible to young children. I would disagree with such a presumption! My boys have loved Laura Ingalls-Wilding's stories of children growing up in pioneer America, which use beautiful and often elaborate descriptions of the activities which took place in their day to day lives. Arthur Ransome describes adventures on the high seas in his Swallows and Amazons series, and again, uses words which are often complex. It is interesting how the children rarely ask for a clarification, but rather are often able to understand new words from their context. And when they do stop to ask, they enjoy learning the new words. Has there been a change over the past 50 years? Comparing Ladybird books from the 1960s with those from recent years shows a huge change, and I see it as a sad loss.
I wondered whether anything had been written on this area. Much of my searching discussed oral communication, and the adoption of very colloquial and often simplified language. Other papers discussed childrens' language development in terms of parental interaction, educational status etc. Yet others refer to the increasing use of electronic forms of communication, the increasing numbers of children who are in childcare from young ages and so have less one on one interaction with their parents and insufficient time being read to as factors in stunted language development. But I am not really thinking about 'abnormal' language development, but rather a general decline in the use of English in our society, and in particular in terms of what is expected of children.
I wonder whether some of it has to do with the rise of phonics as the main method used to teach reading. The English language is notorious for having many words which do not obey the rules of phonics, and so if you stick to words for which the pronounciation can be deduced easily from the spelling, then it is easy to miss a great many words. Personally, I find phonics frustrating - whilst I can see the benefits, I am yet to find any 'early readers' using a phonics approach which are not completely 'twaddle' as Charlotte Mason would term it. Some time back, I was reflecting on what John Holt had noted about how children learn to read, and would agree with his observation that some children simply find it patronising to be given dull, simple material when they yearn for more. My children certainly do fall into that category, and would much rather I read a 'real' book to them aloud, and then they will point out the words they recognise and sometimes even start to read a little by themselves spontaneously. Furthermore, from what I understand, nobody really understands how children learn to read, how much is phonics, how much pattern recognition, how much the personal drive and desire to interpret the 'code' etc. Separating out one single element of this seems to me educationally naive.
Another, slightly sad observation has been how others react to young children who use complex words. Often it is laughter, and occasionally even comments like, 'They'll get picked on at school if they speak like that'. It seems that blending in and being average is considered more important. On other occasions, adults have misunderstood the boys, and when I have repeated what was said, commented, 'Yes that was what I heard, but I didn't expect it from them' because it is not typical. I find that sad, and also slightly concerning. We are home schooling our children for many reasons. We read to them and speak to them in rich vocabulary, not to make them different or 'precocious' but simply to enable them to use good English and to enjoy rich colourful descriptions. But how many children in mainstream education have this delight stamped out of them by peer-pressure or through being fed material which is 'suitable for KS1' etc?
I wonder whether you have any thoughts on this, or what your experiences have been?
- I am a Christian mother of five, and our highest goal as a family is to serve God in every aspect of our lives. Jesus promised His disciples 'life in all its abundance' (John 10:10) - that has been our story, a rich life, not devoid of challenges, but certainly abundant. Previously writing at www.homeeducationnovice.blogspot.com, we have come to realise that education is just one area where our faith shapes our choices and direction in life. This blog seeks to share our adventure.