Pause for thought… Never dumb down words and stories  

Susan Elkin pleads the case for writers and publishers to help stretch the vocabularies and minds of young readers.

I’m going to quote it in full: “[young readers] should be bombarded with words like gamma rays, steeped in words like pot plants stood in water, pelted with them like confetti, fed on them like Alphabetti spaghetti and given Hamlet’s last resort: “Words. Words. Words’”.

That’s Geraldine McCaughrean accepting the 2018 Carnegie Medal for her historical novel Where the World Ends fulminating against the current shift towards routinely offering children books with a reduced, controlled vocabulary – aka dumbing down. And she’s absolutely spot on. They applauded her at the awards ceremony in June and I applaud her now.

Children learn words by hearing them used and by reading them. You have to meet a word in order to master it. You will never understand language which is denied to you. In other words, we adults should always use a wide vocabulary when talking to, or writing for, young children. They will simply absorb meanings and usage like blotting paper.

The famous example, offered to us at teacher training college to illustrate this point is Beatrix Potter’s unpatronising use of “soporific” in The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies. The meaning is obvious from the context and illustration. Every tiny child to whom the story is read learns the word effortlessly. No need to explain or make a fuss.

Arguing that publishers no longer recognise this and continually excise or proscribe “difficult” words on the grounds that young readers won’t know what they mean, McCaughrean says that “We are in danger of creating an underclass of citizens with a small but functional vocabulary – easy to manipulate and lacking in the means to reason their way out of subjugation”. Sinister, quasi-dystopian stuff but it has a hideous ring of truth about it.

Education – and of course books and reading are its backbone – has to be about opening doors and shoving people through them so that they discover things they probably wouldn’t find for themselves. And to do that you need to be able to think articulately which you can’t do without words. Words are what distinguish us from other primates.

So do stories. We hear a lot these days about the need for stories with which, for example, BAME and LGBTQ young readers can identify. Well of course we shouldn’t exclude these groups from fictional narratives – far from it. Let’s be as diverse as possible. But equally if you feed, for example, a child of Nigerian heritage growing up in Tottenham on an exclusive diet of stories about black children’s experiences in London then you aren’t exploring many imaginative ideas beyond where the he/she is now.

The last thing I’d have wanted as a voracious child reader was stories about growing up over a shop on the South Circular Road near Catford. That was my everyday reality. In fiction I wanted, for example, to explore Cornwall with two brother/sister pairs and a dog, no adults and plenty of unlikely baddies. I loved sharing the experiences of schoolgirls from all over the world being educated beside a beautiful lake in Austria. And I chuckled happily over the exploits of seven 1930s siblings whose father was a dustman and whose mother took in washing.

Children today are no different. Witness the success of Harry Potter or David Walliams’s books. Stories take you to other worlds and fling open the floodgates of the imagination. Well-written fiction uses wide ranging vocabulary too, including Latin in the case of JK Rowling’s septology, so that the reader becomes more and more verbally fluent.

Reading books which use lots of words, including occasional unfamiliar ones, worked a treat for me although I shudder to remember, initially mispronouncing ‘vehement’ and ‘annihilate’ because I’d read and learned them but never heard them spoken. And if you liked nineteenth century novels (which I sailed on to quite early) ‘brougham’ is a stumbling block. Obviously, from context, it’s a rather racy horse drawn conveyance – the equivalent perhaps of, a Porsche or an E-type Jag when I was growing up – but how on earth do you say it? Eventually I learned that it’s braw-am to rhyme with, say, draw ‘em.

But I digress. My point is that nothing should ever be dumbed down for children. TS Eliot said that poetry can communicate before it is understood and the same applies to any written or spoken text. Children need not, indeed should not, immediately understand every word or everything they read and hear. Neither should every story offered boringly relate directly to the young reader’s own background.

Anyone who insists on formulaically monitoring and reducing the vocabulary used in stories for children of any age or serving up a diet of “relevance” is simply trapping readers within the confines of their own very limited experience and knowledge. Reading should be a lifelong adventure of discovery and it should be extensive rather than reductive. We want thinkers not Orwellian Proles.