Monday, 23 April 2012

Are We Underestimating Children?

My own well-loved copy of The Tale of Mr Tod
Friends of mine who are children’s authors were recently having a conversation about words their editors had asked them to alter, or explain, on the grounds that children would be puzzled by them. Among these were some horse-riding and falconry terms. And I’ve had the experience myself: writing about Viking ships in ‘Troll Blood’, for instance, I was asked to weed out or else explain some of the nautical terminology – ‘reefing a sail,’ for instance, and ‘a lee shore’ and other sailorly commands such as ‘luff’ or ‘jibe’.

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.


  1. One of the reasons I enjoyed Pat Walsh's book the Crowfield Curse was she made no attempt to explain all the strange words. At the very end the glossary allowed me to look back and I was pleased that I was mostly right about my guesses. Thanks for the post!

  2. I absolutely couldn't agree more, Kath. If we only exposed children to words they already knew, nobody would ever learn to speak.

  3. I feel very strongly about this. I totally agree with you about the flavour of the unfamiliar and being able to cobble together the general gist. Also the delights of the dictionary. I would quite often go to look something up and end up spending an hour reading the dictionary instead ! :0)

    My son is almost five and like his parents he *loves* words. He picks up on our rather florid way of talking to each other and uses phrases such as "Here's a radical notion.." much to our amusement.

    He's not reading for himself yet, but I have just finished reading him "The Lion The Witch and the Wardrobe" and he delighted in discovering and then using unfamiliar words and phrases. To deprive children of this joy is to do them a disservice.

  4. I loved long,hard words as a child. I still do. I rarely use them. I just like them. Children should be exposed to them!

  5. Thanks Katherine... I feel far happier now having worried about words like 'elemental' and 'wrath' that I have used in my picture book text, but liked too much to change! I loved descriptive, evocative language as a child and very much still do - its sets a feeling and an atmosphere just by the sound and ryhthm whether or not the word itself is fully understood I think...

  6. I so agree, Kath. This cautious dumbing down by editors enrages and depresses me. How will children learn words and concepts, or more importantly LEARN HOW TO LEARN new words and concepts, if they are never challenged or given the chance to guess, skip over, infer, or ask adults?

    My three-year-old niece's favourite word at the moment is 'iridescent'...

  7. Haer! Hear! I believe the more we molly-coddle the young the less they grow as people and the more difficult it is for them to overcome obstacles later in life.
    they need to make mistakes and learn hard lessons while in the relative safety of home where they can be corrected given advice and /or right themselves. once they get out into the wider world and the onus is all on them they are less likely to explore the possibilities that are out there because they don't have the skills for it.
    and it's a crime and a sin to let the "round corner society of political correctness" make everything safe and inoffensive for all because it diminishes and homogenizes us to point of wonder-bread and blancmange.
    I delighted in using those 5 and 10$ words as a child they made me feel smart and more "grown up"
    children are much intuitive ans way smarter than people give them credit for and if our "next gen" is not smarter than we are we have failed!

  8. I *so* agree, Kath! Not only will children never learn new words if they aren't exposed to them, they will be deprived of a source of delight and - if they do adopt the new words - pride. Children love the sound and exoticism of new words; who are editors to keep them away from them through some misplaced sense of 'protecting' them from frustration or feelings of inadequacy?

    Mind you, it's not only children. I remember being told off for using the word 'lacuna' in a business report. I was accused of deliberately showing off by using words people wouldn't understand, and when I said they could always look it up and then they would increase their vocabulary, I was taken to task even more. Perhaps some people just don't delight in words? But an editor should!

  9. Thanks all! Looks like a lot of us feel the same. I would add that reading aloud is also crucial, and many children enjoy re-reading books which parents or older siblings have already read aloud to them - books they might not have had the confidence to begin on their own. If this happens, these children learn another importance lesson: to stick with a book over the slow bits, knowing that excitement is to come. It always amazes me that educators (I don't meant teachers, the poor darlings, I mean the policy-makers) seem to have forgotten that the only reason anyone ever sticks with anything is if they enjoy it. (This is why I was always useless at sport.) We HAVE to show children that reading is fun. it IS fun - but not if you're stuck reading phonics and being marked on it.

  10. My siblings and I all have a common foible; we often throw a word into a conversation only to realize we've mispronounced it. This is because we learned it from a book. My teenaged siblings have vocabularies more impressive than most college graduates. There's nothing whatsoever wrong with throwing 'big words' into children's literature, as long as they are the most appropriate for the sentence.

    Great post!

  11. Bravo! Well said. I could write at length but it won't all fit here. I have a little website about this topic however. See Will link to your blog there.

    I'm a teacher for kids with learning and behavioural problems and love to confront my so called 'weak readers' with interesting texts. None of them have suffered any injuries to date!


  12. And maybe an important side-effect is that children learn to look up/ask about the words they don't know... because that's a skill for life.