'The best books, reviewed with insight and charm, but without compromise.'
- author Jackie French

Sunday 28 November 2010

First Books and Early Language Development

KBR contributor Jo Burnell treats us to this amazing post on the correlation between early language development and choosing first books for your child. Jo is an experienced paediatric speech pathologist with a passion for books.

‘What’s the point of all this alliteration business, anyway, and why do we bother to make things rhyme?’

This comment by a fellow writer took me by surprise. I had no idea that the links between normal language development and our writing techniques were not common knowledge.

Matching your writing techniques to the developmental skills of your target age group is a key to winning children over. It’s what makes children’s eyes widen with delight and lures them back for more. When a toddler is working hard at combining two words, their favourite books inevitably model how this is done.

As a speech pathologist who has helped children with communication difficulties for more than twenty-five years, it’s hard to know where to begin. Instead of presenting a mini-thesis, I’ll try to summarise some key points about normal patterns of language development and link these landmarks to how we write for children.

First words emerge in typically developing children between 12 and 18 months. Prior to the explosion of single words, tiny tots are literally language sponges. Babbling and the animal noises made in play herald a world of words that will soon follow.

Enter the board book.

Durable pages of cardboard or plastic withstand chewing, dribble and numerous other unmentionables. Each page often highlights a single word or several objects. Bold colours and clear outlines are popular for this age group. Board books for teaching early language abound. My First Toys, My First Actions and the like, appear and disappear from bookstores regularly. The same core intent remains: to increase vocabulary through stories about daily activities.

At around two years of age, typically developing children begin combining two words. The emergence of ‘my’ and ‘don’t’ give control. Toddlers delight in the power of words.

One of the best characterizations of this age is All By Myself by Mercer Mayer. Toddler takes charge with an emphatic ‘I can’. The illustrations tell a different story, adding depth and humour. Parents love All by Myself for different reasons to their toddlers, but both reach for it repeatedly.

As little hands become more adept, play and language collide in the form of flap books.

Children love to discover for themselves. What better way to learn the meaning of prepositions ('in', ‘on’, ‘under’, and ‘behind’) than through hide-and-seek games? Bears in the Night by Stan and Jan Berenstain and Who’s Behind the Door? series by Michael Salmon – Family Books are examples. A simple question leads children on their quest for an answer. This is an age-old recipe for enjoyable learning. Wrapped between book covers, the result is a life-long invitation for learning fun with pictures and word.

Where’s Spot? was first published in 1983 and has enjoyed continuous print ever since. The Maisy Series was first published in 2004 and enjoys similar popularity. Are You My Mother? and many others follow this quest format with great success. Several of Rod Cambell’s flap books enjoy ongoing reprints: Oh Dear, Dear Zoo and Farm Chase are just a few of his perennial favorites.

As the expressive language skills of toddlers mature, so does their wish to take part. Any story that offers predictable repetition of two or three words will be best-loved for many years. We’re Going on a Bear Hunt by Michael Rosen and Helen Oxenbury.

As the third birthday approaches, language explodes. Two word utterances give way to short sentences. ‘Want bear’ transforms into: ‘I want my bear’. Parents blink in surprise. Language learning has just begun.

Expectations of politeness are soon imposed. There are new ways to talk to Grandma that are different from the way we talk to the cat. Some delightful books, such as Say Please Louise by Keith Harvey and Lauren Beard and The Berenstain Bears say Please and Thank You by Stan Berenstain, depict the humour of socially acceptable and unacceptable interchanges. It’s important to note that books on manners are often parents’ favorites while their children tend to prefer other stories.

Grammatical structures such as ‘he’, ‘she’, ‘they’, verb tenses, plurals and possessives emerge from to 3½ years of age. Many picture books focus on one aspect of grammar, but the ones that do this best capture the imagination with a riveting story, lead the listener with a rhythmic beat and sneak in a healthy dose of humour.
The following is a shortened list of books that do just this:

Question asking: Who Sank the Boat? By Pamela Allen

Negatives: I’m not Cute by Jonathon Allen and I’m not Scared

Plurals: Too Many Pears by Jackie French and Bruce Whatley

Adjectives, plurals and prepositions: Bears, Bears Everywhere by Mara Bergman and Helen Craig

Adjectives: My Dad! by Charles Fuge

Possessive ‘s’: Whose Nose and Toes? by John Butler

Verb tenses: I Went Walking by Sue Williams and Julie Vivas

Of course, many bestselling children’s are not based on normal language development. However, speech pathologists fill their shelves with books that promote oral language and support language development. They strongly recommend books with these aims to parents and teachers.

As writers, we constantly search for inspiration and a different angle that will make our books noteworthy. This peek at early childhood from a language development perspective is just another angle.

Jo Burnell has been working with children for more than a quarter of a century. She is an avid reader and reviewer of children’s literature in all formats. Hooking the reluctant reader into the world of books is her dream. Keeping them there for a lifetime of reading enjoyment is her idea of the Holy Grail.

Stay tuned for Jo's next wonderful post… What’s in a Rhyme?