Little Children – Big Words

Hedda SharapanThe other day I heard a child singing “Row, row, row your boat,” and I couldn’t help thinking of the delightful version that Fred wrote for King Friday–

Propel, propel, propel your craft…
Gently down liquid solution.
Ecstatically, ecstatically, ecstatically, ecstatically,
Existence is but an illusion!

Fred loved introducing his viewers to “big” words. Yes, he did speak in simple and clear language that could be easily understood, but at the same time, he knew how important it was to enrich their vocabulary. Fred didn’t “dumb down” the language. He raised it up.

By passing along a love of words to children, Fred was giving them a real boost for their literacy skills. Research shows that children with a large vocabulary are more fluent readers. Later on, when they’re learning to read and come across a complex word, they’ll be more able to sound it out if they’ve heard that word before.

Here are some ideas that may help when you are introducing “big" words to children:

Think of words that are fun to say

I remember a teacher using the word “scrumptious” when she was pretending to taste a child’s make-believe cupcake. She said that means “especially delicious,” but I think from just the way she said it, the children understood. Think of other fun words for children like “humungous,” "stupendous," and "metamorphosis." When you have fun saying those kinds of words, the children are more likely to use them, too.

Stretch children’s emotional vocabulary

We all talk about helping children “use their words” to tell us how they feel. So let’s go beyond “mad, sad, and happy” and add to their emotional vocabulary with words like “frustrated,” “disappointed,” “worried” or “annoyed.” Then give the children examples of times when they might feel like that, so they’ll understand these words and be more likely to use them to express their feelings in the future.

Expose children to new words in books

In her NAEYC keynote last year, Mem Fox, the delightful children’s author, gave us an important message about introducing children to new words in books. She suggested that we don’t interrupt a story with definitions the first few times we read it. Let’s help children enjoy the rhythm and the rich language (and possibly figure out a word from the context and our voice) before “dissecting” it.

Help children move from general to specific

We’ve all known young children who can tell us the names of dinosaurs and heavy equipment. That takes a lot of different skills -- observing carefully, noticing differences, and the ability to remember complex words.

Think about opportunities you have to introduce children to the specific names for ordinary things in their environment, like flowers (marigolds, zinnias, forsythia) or trees (oak, maple, pine, sycamore). I’ve always thought that whether we’re children or adults, we get a sense of pride and mastery from being able to name things in the world around us.

When you think about it, children benefit in lots of wonderful ways when you expose them to new words. You’ll be giving them important tools -- for communication, literacy, science, emotional development -- and a love of words that can last a lifetime.

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