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Get Ahead Kids - Vol. 4, No. 3 - May/June 2012

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'Just Read It To Me!'

By Dr. Virginia Lowe

John and I are word-people, and we used to read to our baby daughter Rebecca often. I was very keen for her to start speaking. At 17 months she had only 35 words, though three were book-related, two names for nursery rhymes ('Awfaw' - 'All fall down' and 'Oh-de' - 'what can the matter be') and the demand 'wead wead' as she followed us with a book.

She was a perfectionist, so if we didn't understand a word she wouldn't use it again for weeks. Her words jumped to 350 by 19 months and at 27 months I counted 1147.

By then it seemed that every word in our vocabulary or in her books could be used.

The day after her second birthday, Rebecca made her first quotation. She objected that her dinner was 'hot'. 'No, it's warm' I countered. 'Warm and cosy' she said. Both John and I recognised this as a quote, but couldn't place it. 'Say-or' she volunteered, but we didn't understand.

So she went to her room, pushed the books off her table, and came back bearing Bruna's "The Sailor". Sure enough 'The igloo was warm and cosy.'

For the next year, it seemed that a large proportion of her speech was quotations adapted from books, especially in new situations. The ocean with spume in piles on the beach: 'I went down to the fluffy sea' (AA Milne's 'Sand Between the Toes'). Tiny spiders flying on filaments of silk we said were called 'lerps'. 'I think I'll call them nightingales' (Lionni's "Inch by Inch"). To boats on the lake: 'Baby Doll [her rag doll] wants to go on a boat to market' (as did Hendrieka in "The Cow who Fell in the Canal").

She especially enjoyed vocabulary that was not in our family lexicon - 'Macintosh', 'tippet', 'chamomile tea'. She would use this in play, and only after weeks come and ask: 'What does "fortnight" mean?' The meaning seemed less important than the sound, and the feel of it in her mouth.

We read the author's words, rather than playing the 'labelling game' ('Where's the brown dog?') We didn't test her knowledge, or ask her to perform, and never praised her for enjoying a book or giving a correct answer as many experts recommend. If it is something that gives pleasure, praise is superfluous.

Our second child's experience was quite different. Ralph listened to everything read to Rebecca. Conversation with three people chatting would have been largely unintelligible too.

For Rebecca, words were for communication. For Ralph, words were for socialising - being understood was less important than joining in the conversation.

Much of his early speech was jargon. He started to speak earlier than Rebecca had, but by two she had outstripped him. Their vocabularies were equivalent by four.

We felt it was important to avoid retelling the book's story in our own words. The children heard our speech patterns all the time. We wanted them to experience the author's instead. As Rebecca (27 months) said to her grandmother, 'don't tell me about it, just read it to me'


  • Let children hear literary language - don't paraphrase the words of the book.
  • Don't underestimate the learning abilities of young children.
  • Don't deny children the rich vocabulary of books.
  • Literary language will be familiar to them when they start to learn to read.
  • Children will develop a life-long love of language for its own sake.

About Dr. Virginia Lowe

Dr. Virginia Lowe is the author of "Stories, Pictures and Reality: Two Children Tell" (Routledge 2007) and a chapter in "Emergent Literacy: Children's Books from 0 to 3" (ed. Kümmerling-Meibauer, Benjamins, 2011).

She has run the manuscript assessment agency Create a Kids' Book for the last fifteen years, also offering workshops, e-courses and mentoring to aspiring authors.

More Information

P: 03 9578 5689


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