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.
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.
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 Hands
Edifying Language and Literacy
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.
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 Twilight
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!