Children’s Books that Support Language Development

Clap Hands by Helen Oxenbury cover art
There is sometimes a difference between good children’s books, and books that children like.  But what is that difference?  I think it is summed up in the term “developmental value”: good children’s books are books that both appeal to kids, and help them to develop.

In the previous article in this series—“Criteria for Book Selection: Developmental Value in Children’s Literature”—I explained the notion of “developmental value” and its importance as a criterion for choosing children’s books.  In this article, I will begin to explain the specific qualities that might make a book developmentally valuable, focusing on children’s books that support language development.  I will explain the book characteristic I call “edifying language,” i.e.,  language that contributes in some way to a child’s development, and how edifying language contributes to child development.  I will also try to give some guidance on choosing children’s books that support language development.

This article is the eighth in a series on how to choose children’s books.  If you would like to read from the beginning, click on How to Choose Children’s Books.”

Children’s Books that Support Language Development

Children’s books can be an essential help to a child in learning her native language.  Depending on how much a child is read to—and I hope the kids in your life are read to a lot!—children’s books can be a central example of how the language works, i.e., how sentences are structured, what the basic rules of grammar and syntax are, and what particular words mean.

The Wild Soccer Bunch: Kevin the Star Striker cover artTherefore, for children of all ages, edifying language will amount, in part, to language with proper grammar and sentence structure (unless poetic license is clearly in view).  Children’s books that exhibit proper grammar and sentence structure will help kids to internalize these features of the language. While this grammatical criterion might seem trivial, and something that any published children’s book would satisfy, this is not always the case.  For example, I was recently sent a published book for review—The Wild Soccer Bunch, Book 1, Kevin the Star StrikerThe Wild Soccer Bunch, Book 1, Kevin the Star Striker—that consistently flouts proper grammar.  Whatever other merits the book might have, proper grammar is a non-negotiable for me, so I didn’t even finish reading it, let alone review it: books like that can generate bad grammatical habits in children, inhibiting their language proficiency.

Edifying Language and Vocabulary Expansion

Edifying language can also contribute to the expansion of a child’s vocabulary in an organic and motivating way.  While flash-card memorization of word definitions may have its place at some stages of vocabulary expansion (e.g., when cramming for the SAT or GRE), in my view this approach is artificial and generally ineffective over the long-term.

A better approach is for a child (or adult!) to learn the meaning of words as she encounters them in the context of good books or other media, either by asking someone who knows the meaning, or by looking up the words in a dictionary.  Vocabulary learned in this organic, contextual way tends to “stick” better, since the child is motivated to understand what she is reading, and thus she cares about what the puzzling words mean.

Are You My Mother, by P.D. Eastman cover artMy 8-year-old daughter is a case in point: she is constantly asking me what words mean as she reads books, and once she hears my explanation (or once we’ve looked them up in the dictionary!), she tends to retain the meaning with uncanny regularity.  Months later she will use what seems to me a very big word, I’ll ask her where she learned it, and she’ll tell me what book it was from and that I had been the one who taught it to her!  Moral: words learned in isolation are boring; words learned in context are illuminating and interesting.

The way I have put this point about vocabulary expansion suggests that I primarily have in mind older children, i.e., children that can understand an adult’s explanation of meaning, or that can look up a word in the dictionary.  However, my point also holds for very young children.  For example, the language of a baby board book can contribute to a toddler’s process of acquiring basic vocabulary by connecting clear illustrations of objects with the words that signify them.

Helen Oxenbury’s Clap HandsClap Hands by Helen Oxenbury is a nice example of a board book with language that edifies in this way (for our baby board book review of Clap Hands, click here).  She uses simple words signifying concrete objects and activities that very young children can relate to—e.g., ‘clap’, ‘hands’, ‘open’, ‘bang’, ‘drum’, ‘daddy’, ‘mum’, etc.  Coupled with Oxenbury’s bright clear illustrations and some help from an adult, such simple language soon becomes part of a toddler’s repertoire.

Edifying Language and Literacy

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows book 7, by J.K. Rowling cover artEdifying language can also help a child learn to read.  I’m thinking especially of language pitched at just the right level for new readers. The “Beginner Books” picture book series are a good example here.  As I noted in my picture book review of Are You My Mother?, by P.D. Eastman (a “Beginner Book”), the authors of these books are required to write their stories using only a constrained set of fewer than 400 words that are simple but crucial building blocks in a child’s reading vocabulary.  These are words that are both used frequently, and that are relatively simple to figure out phonetically.  Such edifying language supports a child’s journey toward literacy.  Moreover, once a child is reading on his own, edifying language is the vehicle by which his reading skills continue to develop.

If language is to support literacy in this way, it is important that it not aim too high or too low relative to a child’s abilities.  Ideally, language in children’s books should challenge a child somewhat, even for books that are primarily read to the child by an adult.  Thus, the level of vocabulary and linguistic complexity should be slightly above the child’s current ability, to encourage growth.  However, if the language of a book is way over a child’s head, the book will likely be frustrating or boring for him, so it is important not to overshoot.  If you do overshoot, you can always try the book later.

Edifying Language and Beauty

Finally, edifying language can contribute to a child’s aesthetic sensibility.  Specifically, books with beautiful, elevating language—whether poetry or prose—expose children to verbal beauty.  If an adult chooses books with such beautiful language, children will come to appreciate and expect such beauty in their literature and in other areas of their life.

Grandfather Twilight by Barbara Berger cover artThe opportunity for verbal beauty is especially ripe in teen and young adult books (i.e., 13 to 19 years old).  At this stage children have mastered the basics of reading and are ready to appreciate elevated prose.  J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Book 7)Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Book 7) by J.K. Rowling provides a nice example.  At the end of chapter 23 one of Harry’s friends—an elf—tragically dies, and Rowling describes it thus: “And then with a little shudder the elf became quite still, and his eyes were nothing more than great glassy orbs, sprinkled with light from the stars they could not see.” (p. 476)  I believe the moving beauty of this language primes a child to appreciate beauty in all aspects of life.

Though the aesthetic aspect of edifying language is particularly important in books for older children, it can also be very effective in books for younger children.  For example, Barbara Berger’s board book Grandfather TwilightGrandfather Twilight by Barbara Berger effectively employs beautiful language in a book for toddlers (for my baby board book review of Grandfather Twilight, click here).

In the next article in this series on how to choose children’s books for your students, I will continue to explain the factors that give children’s books developmental value, focusing on the characteristic of story complexity.

What do you think about edifying language?  Leave me a comment; I would love to hear from you.  Also, if you found the article helpful, why not post it on Facebook or Twitter?  The “share/save” button below makes it easy.  Thanks!

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6 thoughts on “Children’s Books that Support Language Development

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  2. So true that children learn to love beautiful language through reading well-written books. It certainly happened that way for me. The funny thing is, I don’t think it was a conscious process, but an emotional one. Writing like the Rowling quotation you give brings tears to my eyes (even here, out of context). Now I know why (although could I put it exactly into words, I’m not sure), but if I’d read it at 12, say, I would have just loved the emotional experiences I had while reading the book and sought the book out again for that reason. I wouldn’t have realized that another writer might have written a similar scene with flat, pedestrian language that wouldn’t have evoked any emotion at all, let along tears. By the way, I spent the last half hour reading your whole series on How to Choose Children’s Books–well done and thought-provoking.

  3. Thanks for your comment Willow. I’m glad you’ve enjoyed the series so far.

    I agree that the process of beginning to recognize and appreciate verbal beauty is a mysterious and largely implicit one. There is something in us that just responds to beauty, and unless you are exposed to it, you don’t know what you are missing. And yes, it is deeply emotional, not particularly cognitive; this is a nice point. I think the emotional aspect is part of what allows beautiful language to actually shape our character, to make us different people, i.e., people with an increasingly acute sense of beauty.

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