|My own well-loved copy of The Tale of Mr Tod|
Fair enough, you may think: we don’t want to be obscure. But it's worth asking: do children really stop in their tracks – or worse, derail – when they come across an exotic word they don’t understand? I doubt it. When I read an unusual word as child, one of four things would happen:
(A) I would semi-skip over it. This is the best option for things like: “‘Luff, you lubbers! Haul on those sheets!” roared the captain, as the sail went aback”: I didn’t have to know the exact meaning of the words; I could see that the ship was in difficulties and the captain was worried, and that was enough. Luff and lubbers and aback, and their ilk, got stuffed into a mental category of ‘mysterious words that sailors use’. (As did ‘ilk’, in fact. And that’s pretty much where they still are.)
In 'The Tale of Mr Tod', I didn't worry when I came across: " 'My Uncle Bouncer has displayed a lamentable want of discretion for his years,' said Peter reflectively" - I got the point that Peter was criticising Mr Bouncer, and skipped on to the next bit, which was clear enough: "...'but there are two hopeful circumstances. Your family is alive and kicking; and Tommy Brock has had refreshment. He will probably go to sleep and keep them for breakfast.'" I used to read this book aloud to my bears when I was six.
(B) I would pick up the meaning from the context. On reading that the Flopsy Bunnies fell asleep because lettuce is ‘soporific’, I didn’t go to the dictionary, neither did I make a conscious mental note that soporific must mean something to do with making you sleepy; the word merely took on a contextual colour, or flavour, which I would recall the next time I encountered it. Children are good at making these associative leaps because this is how they learn their own language anyway. It may lead to the occasional misapprehension, but such things are generally cleared up by experience.
(C) I would ignore the word entirely and carry on, which is what I still do if I’m reading – say – a 19th century literary essay with bits of original Greek poetry dropped in here and there.
(D) I would carry the book to my mother and ask, “What does this word mean?”
All four of these options are perfectly legitimate and we ought to be making sure children feel OK about employing them. A healthy reader should be like a healthy cross-county runner whose steady pace is not interrupted by obstacles and stumbling blocks. A confident child reader should have the toughness and elasticity to leap over the odd unusual word and keep going. And how are they going to acquire that confidence if every text they read has been raked and weeded flat?
When I was small, the King James Bible was standard reading for everyone. At the age of seven my classmates and I were expected to learn pieces of prose and poetry by heart. One week it was this:
“Once upon a time there were four little rabbits and their names were Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail and Peter. They lived with their mother, old Mrs Rabbit, in a sandbank, underneath the roots of a very big fir tree…”
And the next week it was this:
“The beauty of Israel is slain upon thy high places: how are the mighty fallen!
Tell it not in Gath, publish it not in the streets of Askelon, lest the daughters of the Philistines rejoice; lest the daughters of the uncircumcised triumph.
Ye mountains of Gilboa, let there be no dew,
neither let there be rain upon you, nor fields of offerings,
For there the shield of the mighty is vilely cast away…”
I can still recite the whole of David’s lament for Saul and Jonathan, and I loved it as much when I was seven as I do now – maybe even more, in fact. “They were swifter than eagles; they were stronger than lions…”
Did I know what ‘uncircumcised’ meant? Of course not; I didn’t have a clue: and certainly no grown-up offered to explain it to me. IN CONTEXT, however, I understood perfectly well that it was a pejorative. Clearly the daughters of the uncircumcised were – for David – the daughters of people he disapproved of. That was enough for me at the time; nor does a clearer understanding of the procedure of circumcision add anything essential to this beautiful and troubled lament.
And Gath and Askelon and Gilboa – where were these? Again I didn’t know, but again it was obvious from the context they were towns or cities, and their names were beautiful – and just hearing about them made the world wider and more mysterious and exciting.
Don't worry, I'm not suggesting we return to making children learn swathes of the Bible by heart. But I am suggesting that the best way to learn something is to do it yourself, not to have it always done for you. Instead of worrying about individual words and their possible difficulty, shouldn’t we encourage children to throw themselves into a story and keep going to the end in spite of the odd word they don’t quite understand? Learning not to be afraid of strange words is exactly like getting down the length of the swimming pool without minding the odd wave that hits you in the face.
You discover your own ability, and it’s more fun that way.