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I’ve been reading Marianne Wolf’s “Proust and the Squid: the Story and Science of the Reading Brain.” Chapter 4 tackles the beginning of reading development in very early childhood.
An early insight comes as a child is sitting on a reading adult’s lap: any book is full of long and short words. Those words stay the same every time they are read. This is a gradual insight.
Another insight: books have a “language” all their own!
Certainly, most of us haven’t given this any conscious thought.
And several somewhat unusual and important conceptual and linguistic features accompany this language, which contribute significantly to cognitive development.
First, the special vocabulary in books doesn’t appear in spoken language.
Once, long ago, in a dark, lonely place where the sunlight was never seen, there lived an elfin creature with hollow cheeks and waxen complexion; for no light ever touched this skin. Across the valley, in a place where the sun played on every flower, lived a maiden with cheeks like rose petals and hair like golden silk.
As Wolf says, “No one, or at least no one I know, ever speaks this way.”
Phrases like “Once, long ago,” and words like “elfin” aren’t part of our daily speech. But they are an integral part of the language of particular books. They give children clues that help them predict what type of story they are hearing, and what might happen.
And note this: by kindergarten, words from books will be one of the major sources of the 10,000 word vocabulary of an average five-year-old (who has been lucky enough to have been read to).
But it isn’t just vocabulary growth that happens. Equally significant is the syntax or grammatical structure found in such language — syntax and structure that are not heard in the kitchen, the back yard, or at the mall. Where the sun was never seen… for no light ever touched this skin…
These are constructions, says Wolf, that are typically found only in print, and they require a goodly amount of cognitive flexibility and inferential processing.
A study looking at two groups of five-year-olds, one which had been “well-read-to” and the other which had not, is compelling.
The children were asked to do two things: first, tell a story about a personal event like a birthday, and second, to pretend they were reading a storybook to a doll.
When the “well-read-to” children told their own stories, they used not only more of the special “literary” language, but also more sophisticated syntactic forms, longer phrases, and relative clauses.
Why is this significant? Because when children are able to use a variety of syntactic and semantic forms in their own language, they are also better able to understand the oral and written language of others.
This ability provides a unique foundation for many comprehension skills a few years later, when they begin reading stories on their own.
source: Maryanne Wolf’s “Proust and the Squid: the Story and Science of the Reading Brain,” published by Harper Collins. ISBN 978-0-06-018639-5.
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