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Kids and Language

As a mother of 2 small children I am continually astounded by their language development- the words they pick up and the way they manage to play with multiple languages already. As we're currently living in Vienna they are having to master German on top of English… so here are some of my ponderings on the linguistic theme.

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Reading

Book review #3: A book for bilingual children

a fish in foreign waters bookFor those of you who haven’t come across it yet, a new book is on the market which is specifically directed at bilingual and multilingual children. “A Fish in Foreign Waters”, written by Laura Caputo- Wickham and illustrated by Pamela Goodman is perfect for all young children who are learning a second language.

While written in English (with plans to translate it into other languages in the future), this book appeals to children of all (but especially bilingual or multilingual) backgrounds. It tells the story of Rosie Ray, whose family move to another part of the ocean. When they arrive Rosie has to learn a new language and make new friends- a daunting task for anyone, but especially for a young fish. The story describes her struggle and success, and reflects nicely the lives of many children who move to a new country or have to start afresh somehow.

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Helping children with reading difficulties

kids-reading-nook-6Reading is one of my big pleasures- at a young age I used to tuck myself into the top shelf of the hot cupboard at my parents’ house to get some quiet time with a book, or head into the fields behind our house to find a peaceful spot. Not everyone is so lucky though- many find reading a chore, or worse, they struggle with even short texts. Having just finished following a course on Dyslexia and Language Learning I wanted to write about it in layman’s terms, and look at the ways we can help children to learn to read. I’m not just confining myself to dyslexia though- many children simply don’t enjoy reading as they either didn’t have enough exposure when young, or weren’t taught how to read well.

Dyslexia can not be cured because it is not an illness or disease; instead we need to look at ways in which we can make the process of reading easier on the individual. If dyslexic students are taught with their needs being considered, and if they are equipped with the relevant strategies, they will learn how to overcome their difficulties. Girls somehow develop more easily successful strategies that help them study in their own way not only languages but other academic subjects too, while boys show more struggling in acquiring new materials, regardless of the subject.

Since dyslexia itself is of neurobiological origin connected to phonological awareness and working memory, its occurrence is not language dependent: it occurs in students of all language backgrounds. However, how much and what type of difficulties it causes CAN depend on the learners’ mother tongue or the language they are learning. Phonologically more or less transparent languages with the ‘say what you see, write what you hear’ system (like Finnish, German, Italian or Hungarian) are supposedly easier to master, while opaque languages like English and French, where one letter can have many different sounds, cause more difficulties for dyslexics. However, individual student’s experiences may differ since there are other factors (motivation to learn the language, relationship with the teacher, family background…etc.) that influence the success of learning any language (first or second).

Here are some tips which are easy to include in your reading routine, and which will help a troubled reader or dyslexic learner:

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How to raise an enthusiastic reader

kids-readingIf I was given a penny every time I was told that reading is the best thing for kids’ development…

But it’s true!! Books are a continual source of vocabulary, colours, pictures; a breeding ground for imagination. Kids just can’t (or shouldn’t) get enough! By reading with kids and engaging in fun literacy activities, parents are encouraging lifelong learning. There are a myriad of studies that link reading to your kids to their future success in school and life, but I’m sure you’ve heard it all before (Even on my blog: Do you read to your kids?)

Instead, let’s talk about how to actually fit some useful reading time into your busy life! I promise, there’s no need for Pinterest-worthy flashcards, homemade alphabet biscuits, or endless hours reading to your unborn child – you can fit a little real learning into everyday life.

Here are tips to help you explore literacy together, for every age group:

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Book review #2: Winners of children’s book awards

It’s hard to choose a new book for your children- especially with such a wonderful, wide range out there and recommendations coming at you thick and fast from all sources, reputable or not. Of course word-of-mouth suggestions are often the best, but it’s nice once in a while to find something new and feel comfortable that you have made a good choice for your child.

The Randolph Caldecott Medal annually recognizes the preceding year’s “most distinguished American picture book for children”. The Caldecott and Newbery Medals are the most prestigious American children’s book awards, and so, despite the fact that I am not American myself, I love to look and see who has won, read the excellent stories and admire the wonderful illustrations of not only the winners but also the other ‘Honor (sic.) Books’.

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Book review #1: Un, Deux, Trois

We all know the tried and tested books that have gone through generations: The Hungry Caterpillar, The Little Prince (Or Le Petit Prince in its original language), anything by Roald Dahl… but sometimes it’s not easy to choose a new book, especially when you are looking for something in another language. This is the first of my recommendations for books to help your children in another language.

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Simple songs and rhymes are an excellent way to familiarize young children with another language. Un, Deux, Trois, by Opal Dunn (a specialist in books on early first and second language development), is a collection of 25 traditional French nursery rhymes, and is an excellent aid for guided learning. An illustrated vocabulary features simple words and phrases that are easy to learn and that can be used in games or everyday life. The rhymes are simple and they incorporate many things like numbers, body parts, days of the weeks etc… Children are encouraged to repeat the phrases and sing along with the rhymes, and the CD lets them know how both should sound. For those parents who are not French natives, a guide translates the more difficult phrases, with notes in the back of the book.

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Do you read to your kids? Part 2

dadreadingThere are so many things that I, as a teacher, wish that people accepted regarding education. The list is, actually, endless: it lowers prejudice, it improves healthcare, it gains you respect, it makes your world safer, it makes you self reliant, it improves your confidence, it brings equality, it brings you money, it helps with economic growth,  it turns your dreams into reality… (I could go on, but I think I have made my point). I have never heard someone say “I wish I wasn’t so damn well-educated!”

Now that we have accepted the above fact, that education is good for us, how do we go about getting one? Or more importantly, how do we make sure that our children get one?

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Do you read to your kids?

parents-reading-to-childrenI guess this should come as no surprise- that the more you read the bigger your vocabulary will be. Research has been done into the way that vocabulary improves with different levels of reading, and while the results aren’t groundbreaking, it’s very interesting to see that an enthusiastic reader will build up a much bigger vocabulary in quite a short amount of time.

The online testing site, Test Your Vocabulary  has done a lot of research into how our vocabulary levels build and change throughout our lives, and the results are very clear- reading is important!

At around age 4, when children are only first starting to read, their average vocabulary levels are roughly equivalent in accordance with reading habits- as one would expect. This comes in at around 6,000 words. That to me is already an amazing number- they really are sponges! Then, it’s between the crucial ages of 4–15 where reading makes all the difference in the rate at which children increase their vocabulary. We can calculate the differences, although these should be taken as “ballpark approximations” at most, given the noisiness (that there are random fluctuations) of the data:

Reading habits Vocabulary growth per day, ages 4–15
Reads “lots” +4.1 words/day
Reads “somewhat” +2.6 words/day
Reads “not much” +1.4 words/day

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