I grew up with parents who were avid readers. My dad could get so absorbed in a book he didn’t hear you when you spoke to him. Mom was a slower reader but generally had at least two books going at a time. We learned how to access the library early on and the dictionary was the most important book in the house.
Growing up I too was an avid reader. I could hardly wait to get home from school so I could get a snack and sit down with whatever book I was reading. I read well above my grade level and often ran across words I didn’t know.
“Hey dad, what does colossal mean?” I’d yell from my room.
“Look it up!” he’d reply.
This always irritated the heck out of me because I know he knew the meaning of that word and could just tell me. But he always made me look it up. The same went for spelling a word as well. I’d grumble all the way to the hallway where the dictionary was on the shelf. But the physical act of looking up the word not only reinforced the spelling of that word, but also made the meaning memorable beyond 5 minutes. I might not remember the exact definition but the context of the word was now etched in my brain. I’d know it the next time it came round.
Never once did my parents suggest that I should be reading something easier. Never once did they say that the words were too difficult. Never once was it expected that the difficulty of the vocabulary would make reading an unpleasant experience. Never once were they worried that if a word was too difficult my self-esteem would suffer. I think they were more worried at how stupid I would feel if I was out in the world without a solid knowledge base in the English language.
Writing children’s books isn’t an easy endeavor. There are lots of opinions, both pro and con, about challenging vocabulary. But for my part as an author, I think it’s important to show a reader that they can learn and understand more challenging words and thus expand their experience beyond a simple capacity. Will it be more difficult? Yep. Will they have to learn how to use a dictionary or an on-line source? You bet. Is this a good thing? I believe so.
In an article entitled For The Love Of Words by Susan Canizares, who holds a PhD in language and literacy development, states:
“Word knowledge is among the most critical pieces of language development. Children who acquire a substantial vocabulary are often able to think more deeply, express themselves better, and learn new things more quickly. They are also very likely to be successful not only learning to read, but also in reading at or above grade level throughout their school years. Research shows that children who reach school age with smaller vocabularies, less depth in prior knowledge and background experiences, and fewer experiences with hearing stories and exploring with print are more likely to have significant problems in learning to read. We know now that if we boost children’s language and literacy experiences early in life, later difficulties can be alleviated or even avoided.”
I think as educators my parents would be horrified at how modern schools dummy our curriculum down in order to protect self-esteem. I think I’d rather let my self-esteem be part and parcel of how much I can learn and know instead of how easy something is or isn’t. Just sayin.