Updated: Sep 12, 2022
The Wonder of Words
by Dr. Joanne Foster, www.joannefoster.ca
Language and communication are foundational to learning, and words are the building blocks for constructing knowledge. Young children love the sounds of new, tongue-tingling, or BIG words. Sometimes, the BIGGER, the better! They also like to try out intriguing words—especially ones that make them giggle.
For example, types of dinosaurs (daemonosaurus, iguanacollossus, or skorpiovenator) or plants (elephant-foot yam, venus flytrap, sneezewort yarrow) can be especially fun to say. And, even more fun to learn about!
Parents can help children extend their vocabulary, share ideas, and enjoy learning activities that spring from greater awareness and understanding of words that are interesting, hefty, or unusual. There’s nothing wrong with saying “laugh” but saying “gigantic belly-laugh” is SO much more expressive! Let’s explore the richness of words, and how to encourage children’s appreciation and use of them.
SIMPLICITY vs COMPLEXITY
“Simplicity is the glory of expression.”
~ Walt Whitman (poet)
Simplicity makes good sense. Why complicate matters? Isn’t it better to refer to something clearly and explicitly, making it easy to comprehend rather than complicated?
Yes. And no.
Yes, because we want children to be able to grasp concepts and understand the basic meanings of words we use to communicate. No, because simplification can be belittling, boring, and short-circuit motivation. The ideal is to find that sweet spot whereby children comprehend something and experience the urge to extend it to the next level. This is often referred to as the Zone of Proximal Development. The ZPD is that space wherein the learning experience is challenging enough to be interesting and familiar enough to be mastered with some help.
Up the ante. Simple words like happy or sad have their place, but they can also become exuberant or melancholy. How about tired (quanked) or angry (infuriated)? Virtually any word has synonyms, and some are extremely interesting! Create a game together using familiar, new, and more complex words to describe what you feel or see. A truck may be a flatbed trailer, a snowplow, or an excavator. A bird could be a cardinal or a woodpecker. (Guess why!) Perhaps a bug is a centipede? (That’s French for hundred legs!) When parents and teachers express interest in words—their simplicity, intricacy, and how they come to be—children enjoy the revelations and become keen to learn more.
APPRECIATING WORDS: CONSIDER THE BENEFITS TOGETHER
“Good words are worth much, and cost little.”
~ George Herbert (poet)
Fun and extended vocabularies are just two positive outcomes of word-related activities. Here are some other advantages:
• Words (like music, art, or dance) can propel creative energy. Support its emergence!
• Words inform. They lead to knowledge and foster exploration, inquiry, reflection, and fresh perspectives.
• Words strengthen communication channels, which in turn can fortify relationships and learning opportunities.
• Words can help to build confidence and instill pride. In short, words can enrich, educate, invigorate, and soothe. They fuel intellectual stimulation—thinking, learning, sharing, dreaming, inspiring, and creating—and personal growth.
“For me words have color, form, character; they have faces, ports, manners, gesticulations; they have moods, humors, eccentricities; they have tints, tones, personalities.”
~ Lafcadio Hearn (writer and teacher)
Here are some ideas to stimulate word appreciation and use with children.
• Compound words are potential teaching opportunities. Popcorn, ice cream, cupcake, and tablecloth. That’s just the kitchen. There’s also the bathroom, bedroom, and backyard. Is that a grasshopper? I hear the doorbell. What other combination words can children point to, or create? Look around the house, in the garden, or when you’re out and about.
• Onomatopoeia is a term that describes words that sound like what they mean, like sizzle, squish, buzz, hum, stomp, sniffle, or boom. Can your child think of others and imitate the sounds?
• Check out song lyrics for unconventional words. (Super-cali-fragilistic-expeali-docious comes immediately to mind.) There are lots of wonderful words embedded deep within songs such as lullabies, popular melodies, and show tunes. Music is full of avenues for rhythm-and-rhyme possibilities and learning. You can also make up your own songs with interesting or unusual words.
• Smaller words can be thought-provoking, too. They get to the point quickly. Author A. A. Milne wrote, “It is more fun to talk with someone who doesn’t use long, difficult words but rather short, easy words, like “What about lunch?” Children can choose when to use big, small, or middling words, and pick the time and context for each.
• An appreciation of words can lead to wordplay— and play is an important way to learn. For example, the plural of goose is geese. The plural of moose is moose. The plural of mouse is mice. And what about homonyms? Bark and bark, bat and bat, ring and ring. Or homophones: route and root, flower and flour. (Or the chuckle-worthy canopy and…) Are your children familiar with antonyms? High and low. Dark and light. Noisy and quiet. (And what lies in between?) You can compile a list of homonyms, homophones, and antonyms, some big and some not-so-big, and chat about them together.
• Manufactured word games are lots of fun. For example, Bananagrams, Junior Scrabble, Scategories, and alphabet flashcards are popular with families. Wordle has become a major recreational pastime, and although it may be difficult for young children, when they see their parents engaged in a word-based activity, it conveys the value of that pursuit.
• Words can convey kindness, encouragement, gratitude, respect, love, forgiveness, understanding, empathy, and more. Teach children to use words to bring comfort to others, and ask, “How can I help?” Two powerful words are “please” and “thanks”—and adults should model these consistently.
• Each year words are added to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary. The 2021 list included awewalk and contactless. Together you can investigate other newly evolving words, plus ones that are long, silly, hard to pronounce, or mysterious.
• Find quotes that resonate with your child. Some might reflect the wisdom that has stood the test of time. (“Who seeks shall find.” ~ Sophocles) Other sayings may be by favorite or noted authors. (“No act of kindness, however small, is ever wasted.” ~ Aesop. Or “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can. I knew I could!“~ Watty Piper.) What words really matter to you, or to your child, and why?
“Words have the power to change the way people think and act.”
~ ABCs of Raising Smarter Kids, p. 74
Words are enabling. Parents can encourage children to engage in conversations and to work on their reading and writing skills. Families can share literary experiences—poetry, picture books, songs, and stories about nature, adventures, and make-believe—and reinforce one another’s reflective habits while thinking about the different messages that words convey. Thoughts and ideas are empowering, and every person can choose to share or extend them, or even when to be silent. Help children learn words, appreciate their power, and use them wisely, creatively, and thoughtfully for enjoyment, connectivity, communication, and personal growth.
About the Author
Dr. Joanne Foster is a gifted education specialist and the award-winning author of several books, including the 3 rd edition of Being Smart—Being Smart about Gifted Learning: Empowering Parents and Kids Through Challenge and Change (co-authored with Dona Matthews, published by Gifted Unlimited LLC., 2021. www.giftedunlimitedllc.com). For additional resources on learning, creativity, productivity, children’s well-being, and more, go to www.joannefoster.ca