Saturday, 17 January 2015

The language of books

The other day, the kid and I ended up "writing" a book together. I say "ended up" because it didn't start out as the intention of our activity. At first she simply wanted to draw a picture of Cinderella living in a castle in the jungle. Intrigued by this exotic setting, I offered to write that on the picture for her and so, with a few prompts and questions from me, she started telling a thrilling story about Cinderella's encounter with a lion in the jungle. She drew the pictures (with some assistance from me) and I took down what she told me.

I was particularly fascinated by her use of language and narrative structures she would normally not have uttered during everyday conversation. For example, adverbial phrases like "one morning, Cinderella..." (this occurred twice in her story), her use of rising tension "Cinderella was in the jungle alone and then she saw a shadow and it was a roaring sound" (before revealing that it was a lion) and of course, finishing off the story with the traditional "and then they got married and lived happily ever after". I had to marvel at where this language had appeared from because she'd really mastered certain key elements of narration here.

This got me thinking about the language of books and how narratives are absorbed into us from so young. It also got me thinking about how written and spoken language are not the same. On the surface this seems an obvious statement, but it is in fact more complex than it appears (in fact, lots of adults don't understand that you can't write like you speak). Children soon realise that books and the stories they tell have a language all of their own; we don't speak like books do and this is something that the kid appears to have begun grasping in our little story-experiment. This highlights how language output relates to language input: the more books that are read to them, the more children begin to internalise the syntax and semantics of language and can produce them in creative versions of their own.

In Proust and the Squid: The story and science of the reading brain, Maryanne Wolf makes a strong argument for what reading offers children in terms of cognitive development. While oral stories contribute immensely to children's language development which will of course positively impact their reading abilities later on, it is through the written word that their cognitive and linguistic capabilities are enriched. Wolf writes:
"Phrases like 'once, long ago' and words like 'elfin' aren't part of typical discourse. However, they are an integral part of the language of books and give children clues that help them predict what type a story is and what might happen. Indeed, by kindergarten, words from books will be one of the major sources of the 10 000-word repertoire of many an average five-year-old."
This is particularly well illustrated by a study Wolf refers to. In this study, two groups of five-year-old children were looked at. All were of a similar socio-economic background and had parents of equal educational attainment (factors that are known to influence literacy), however, the one group had been "well read to" (at least five times a week) and the other had not. The study simply required these children to do two things, firstly to tell a story about a personal event and secondly, to pretend they were reading to a doll.
Wolf notes, that "the differences were unmistakable. When the children in the 'well-read to' group told their own stories, they used not only more of the special 'literary' language of books than the other children but also more sophisticated syntactic forms, longer phrases, and relative clauses. What makes this significant is that when children are able to use a variety of semantic and syntactic forms in their own language, they are also better able to understand the oral and written language of others. This linguistic and cognitive ability provides a unique foundation for many comprehension skills a few years later, when children begin to read stories of their own."
Stories are so much fun, yet so powerful! Just one more reason to keep on reading...

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

A new year, a new page

Hello 2015! 
The beach is quiet enough to go down for a quick dip again. The crowds are thinning out, leaving behind space like low tide at the beach. The last of our holiday visitors are sadly packing their bags to bid us goodbye. The house is becoming a bit more ordered after a holiday season full to bursting point with shared meals and cooking for many. As things go back to normal routines and old habits, I'm left examining my dreams and plans for this new year, trying to balance expectations and reality.
And so the year ahead looks more and more like a blank page. Awaiting something. Expecting something. 
We'll have to see...


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