I distinctly remember the time my son, Jasper, used the word ‘impeccable’. He was three and the word rolled off his tongue with ease. I’d use this word when preparing my boys to visit someone’s house. I used it somewhat tongue-in-cheek as I don’t think children should behave impeccably, but it was a word my own mother used a lot, and it was a way for me to conjure her from across the ocean. I remember being so surprised at hearing the natural way Jasper used this rather large word. I knew that he understood it, but I hadn’t necessarily expected him to use it himself.
Because it’s essential for us to understand and be understood by our children we can end up using language which we perceive to be straightforward. However, what I realized in that moment, and subsequently went on to prove in my own home and in our book clubs, is that words hold equal value for children. They are just as able to understand the meaning of impeccable as the word perfect. They naturally understand that relentless rain can either be never-ending or inexorable. They just need to hear these options.
Exposure to more complex language early on allows children to absorb more from the conversations around them and build a richer world picture. Additionally, accessing the nuance of language allows a child to name their own experiences and feelings more articulately, which ensures they are better understood and have less conflict with adults and peers.
A child who has already been exposed to a wide and elevated vocabulary at home has an easier time when it comes to reading. They expect to encounter words they don’t understand, and they have the confidence to know they will be able to learn them. They already have an ear for linguistic patterns which they’re able to transpose onto the written word. Their written work seems more observant because they have greater word choice. Both reading and writing become fun rather than burdensome.
Parents whose first language isn’t English might feel unable to help their children elevate their vocabulary, and children who speak a second language at home can find reading and English comprehensions more challenging at first. However, children speaking Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Romanian, and French, the Romance languages which evolved from Latin, have an advantage when it comes to accessing elevated vocabulary. Let’s take the earlier example of inexorable. The Latin origin of inexorable is In (not) and exorabilis (pliant, moved by entreaty). This word is identifiably spelled and pronounced in all the Romance languages. And while inexorable might be elevated in English it is more commonly used in these languages. This is the case with many Latin-derived English words. Parents from these European countries, who may feel hesitant to read aloud with their children, can feel confident that they can still be a source of rich vocabulary in their conversations.
Teenagers often start to swerve reading (as well as us!), when schoolwork intensifies and they have greater independence. The complexity of GCSE texts can kill their enjoyment of reading. Ironically, an elevated vocabulary is essential for interpreting those very texts, and we can help our teenagers by using elevated language around them naturally, rather than in questions or statements made pointedly at them. Hearing words in many different contexts and without fanfare makes them more likely to be adopted. One of the techniques we use in our book clubs when introducing elevated words is to cluster words in order of perceived difficulty. As we’re reading a new word we will seamlessly follow the word with two known synonyms so that children can figure out the meaning for themselves. In conversation with children of all ages, we can do this by making our original statement containing the elevated word and then re-phrasing the same statement with an alternative known word.
Although speaking in this way to our children may seem overly purposeful it very quickly becomes natural and fun, and, frankly, it’s no bad thing for us to improve our own vocabulary in the process!