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

Wednesday 12 March 2014

Guest Post: Getting it Right — Kids, Vocab and Reading

KBR is delighted to welcome writer, storyteller and songwriter, Tim Myers, as he writes on the importance of challenging children when it comes to the vocabulary used in kids' books.

My decades of experience as a teacher, teacher–educator, and writer for children and adults have taught me a lot about the natural power of the human mind to learn language. And this is especially true when it comes to children, who are, after all, language-learning machines! And yet some people seem to believe that only the most basic vocabulary is appropriate in works for the young. This is a mistake.

Consider a little experiment I've performed many times. At a conference where I presented, I asked my audience — all teachers, reading specialists, and others professionally involved in literacy — to imagine themselves as editors. I then described for them an 'imaginary' middle-grade manuscript, asking if they thought it would be suitable for nine- and ten-year-olds. 

First I listed some vocabulary items from the book:
  • pliable   
  • transfixed   
  • luminous   
  • gibbering   
  • inept   
  • travesty   
  • pompous   
  • envoys   
  • palpable   
  • hard-pressed   
  • skeptical   
  • reimburse   
  • stringent   
  • acute   
  • deduced   
  • assiduously   
  • ethereal   
  • furtive   
  • acrid   
  • voluminous

Next, some phrases:
  • seized up   
  • rue the day   
  • disembodied voice   
  • obsessed with security   
  • a bemused expression   
  • most fundamental instincts came into conflict   
  • always given you free rein   
  • pangs of adolescence  
  • tangled love lives   
  • unearthed worrying facts   
  • dilating with excitement   
  • visibly affronted   
  • animal magnetism   
  • in the bowels of the Department   
  • found solace  
  • cutting it very fine   
  • to stave off the moment   
  • scarlet woman

Finally, I asked them to consider some major themes and plot elements:
  • a 'well-organized mind' sees death as a continuation of life
  • 'good' people often live in denial of political and military evil
  • intense and bitter bigotry that inspires physical violence
  • bureaucratic inertia
  • symbolic versions of substance abuse or periodic mental instability
  • underlings in devotion to an evil leader, who controls them through terror and competitiveness
  • adult intrigue and rivalry within an institution, both political and personal
  • ambivalent adolescent rage at an adult who’s loved and protected that adolescent

When I then asked if they thought the story appropriate for the age-range, not a single attendee said yes. Their reasons were predictable: the vocabulary was too difficult and not part of children’s experience; the concepts were too complex; the book was sure to bore children, etc.

A gasp arose when I revealed that the manuscript in question was Harry PotterAnd I’d taken my examples from the first four books, which are less complex and demanding than the later books, and which include countless other examples at the same level. This group of experienced professionals had rejected a series which we know nine- and ten-year-olds are reading and understanding — books that are being read even by children as young as six or seven!

This example, it seems to me, reveals something profound about children and vocabulary. If books as 'difficult' as the Harry Potter series can enchant whole generations of children, we have to ask ourselves if adults are underestimating young people’s abilities to handle more complex vocabulary. I don't mean to suggest that we can simply present kids with unfamiliar words. But J.K. Rowling has shown us one of the best single strategies for helping children deal with challenging vocabulary: the motivation that comes from great stories.  

The good news is that there's so much wonderful children's and YA literature out there, both traditional and contemporary! And of course it makes a huge difference if the adults in a child's life read to that child, discuss books with that child, seek out great stories that they think the child will love. Much of this, of course, will also work with adolescents.

Consider the following from Moira Allen of Writing-World.com:

'It seems to me that children today are at such risk of missing out on some of the great stories of children's literature because of the ongoing effort to 'dumb down' classic books, on the assumption that kids just won't understand them. Even if we choose to assume that kids today are, somehow, "stupider" than those of yours and my generation — is that how we want them to remain?'  

Obviously this doesn't mean plopping down Joyce's Ulysses in front of a nine-year-old. It does mean, however, that we should consider literary excellence — and, above all, the power of an engaging story — as a critical factor in choosing books for young people. Since, at that point, the power of motivation will spark some of that natural human language-learning ability — and the acquisition of new vocabulary will be only one of the many benefits accruing to that kid!

Tim J. Myers lives with his family in Santa Clara, California, where he's a Senior Lecturer at Santa Clara University. He has four new children's books in press. Find out more about Tim and his work at his website.