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Hidden Treasure: Exploring Language-Rich Books

by Carolyn Munson-Benson

Preschool through early elementary school

Two students, filled with high expectations, head for first grade, but only one of them is destined to become an able, avid reader. Frustration and failure at reading await the other. What differentiates these two children? One child arrives with a mental word bank of what researchers call “rare lexical items”—words that rarely pop up in everyday speech.

The fortunate child carries these “hidden treasures” everywhere, including to those fateful first encounters with the printed page. Already knowing the meaning of these more exotic words is the key not only to early reading success but to later reading achievement as well. The lucky preschooler amasses this prior understanding from birth on through an exploration of a range of language-rich books.

Books, researchers remind us, have twice the number of rare words as conversations between college-­educated adults or speech heard on prime-time television. In everyday exchanges we express a core of often-­repeated common words, sometimes in incomplete sentences devoid of adjectives and adverbs. Written language, ideally encountered in more than 100 books per year, widens a child’s scope. If served up repeatedly and—this is important—in different contexts, a single word ultimately gets added to the treasure trove for later service.

Collections with a narrow thematic focus—say, teddy bears or trains—do not provide a wide range of new vocabulary. The advantage of providing collections with a more global intent, such as books about things that go, or a get-up-and-go theme that features books about rhythmic movement, physical feats, and vehicles, is that they offer different tangents for children to follow.

Through repetition and meaningful context, children continually incorporate words into an ever-richer vocabulary—ideally at least 10,000 of these “rare lexical items” by age five. The intent is not to abandon age-­appropriate content or to push titles designed for older children, but to ensure exposure to enriching material. In fact, sometimes the title with simpler words is not as engaging as a book that may require some paraphrasing.

Limiting preschoolers’ immersion in books rich in language limits their future capacity to decode for meaning, and studies show that it is rarely the case that school-age kids are able to make up for this missed early exposure. Yet another reason, beyond pure pleasure, to bring together a young child and stellar books starring wonderful words!

Bibliography

Ashman, Linda. Babies on the Go. Illus. by Jane Dyer. 2003. 32p. Harcourt, $16 (9780152018948). Also available in a board-book edition.
Age 6 mos.–5 yrs. Rich language in a simple, satisfying format (a polar bear cub “nudged along with gentle paws,” crocodile babies “floating by in giant jaws”) describes humans, bats, beavers, koalas, and anteaters, as illustrated parents and their young clearly demonstrate the meaning of the descriptive phrases.

Aston, Dianna. An Egg Is Quiet. Illus. by Sylvia Long. 2006. 36p. Chronicle, $16.95 (9780811844284).
Age 2–12 yrs. An elegant visual feast, this book demands repeat visits to marvel at more than 60 different eggs and their amazing qualities. Three font sizes and three levels of vocabulary make it possible to read only the simplest text to a young child, adding information from the rest of the text as the child matures and interest grows.

Bannerman, Helen. The Story of Little Babaji. Illus. by Fred Marcellino. 1996. 72p. HarperCollins/Joanna Cotler, $16.99 (9780062050649); HarperTrophy, paper, $7.99 (9780060080938).
Age 30 mos.–7 yrs. A beautifully illustrated twist on a classic, this book retains the simplicity of the original tale—complete with rolling and tumbling, wrangling and scrambling, fighting and disputing tigers—but it also expands horizons with visual and verbal references to another time and place.

Elya, Susan Middleton. Bebé Goes Shopping. Illus. by Steven Salerno. 2006. 40p. Harcourt, $16 (9780152054267).
Age 3–5 yrs. Mother and baby wheel through the supermercado, and Bebé’s antics test his loving mama’s patience, in a rhyming tale enriched, here and there, by Spanish words and pictures often illustrating their meaning.

Eriksson, Eva. Molly Goes Shopping. 2003. 32p. R & S, $15 (9789129658194).
Age 4–7 yrs. Molly’s attempts at self-sufficiency fail, but, with the support of Grandma, she triumphs in the end. The many possibilities for extended talk make this story a standout. Ask children to identify the different emotions conveyed by the characters’ facial expressions or the pairs of opposites in the story.

Fine, Anne. The Jamie and Angus Stories. Illus. by Penny Dale. 2002. 112p. Candlewick, $15.99 (9780763618629); paper, $5.99 (9780763633127).
Age 4–7 yrs. Six engaging stories about preschooler Jamie and his beloved toy bull perfectly capture the sensibilities of young children. The drawings, interspersed with pages of text, also help children attend to the lengthier narrative in this quintessential introduction to the chapter book format.

Gay, Marie-Louise. Stella, Queen of the Snow. 2000. 32p. Groundwood, $15.95 (9780888994042); paper, $7.95 (9780888996510).  Age 3–8 yrs. Part of a series that features exuberant, imaginative Stella and her gullible little brother, this story challenges children to distinguish between the factual and fanciful; do snowmen really eat snowballs, snow peas, and snowsuits, as Stella insists?

Hatkoff, Isabella, and others. Owen & Mzee: The Language of Friendship. Photos by Peter Greste. 2007. 40p. Scholastic, $16.99 (9780439899598).
Age 4–10 yrs. The second installment on the real-life friendship between an orphaned baby hippo (Owen) and a giant tortoise (Mzee) updates readers on Owen’s progress. Paraphrase the ample text and focus on the abundant photographs recording the hippo’s rescue and recovery. Also see Owen & Mzee: The True Story of a Remarkable Friendship (Scholastic, 2006).

Here’s a Little Poem: A Very First Book of Poetry. Selected by Jane Yolen and Andrew Fusek Peters. Illus. by Polly Dunbar. 2007. 112p. Candlewick, $21.99 (9780763631413).
Age 2–5 yrs. In this spacious anthology of more than 60 poems, the sounds of the words are a big part of the fun (“Oh soggy greens, I hate you / I hate your sloppy slush”). The clear, active, mixed-media illustrations show very young children in a variety of settings and moods. Many of the best children’s poets are included, from Rosemary Wells and Mary Ann Hoberman to Jack Prelutsky, as well as Langston Hughes, Gertrude Stein, and more.

Hobbie, Holly. Toot and Puddle: Puddle’s ABC. 2000. 48p. Little, Brown, $14.95 (9780316365932).
Age 2–6 yrs. This alphabet book does double duty: alliterative phrases (“Ballerina blowing bubbles,” “Zooming zucchini”) build phonological awareness, while lots of new vocabulary augments the mental word bank. Puddle’s whimsical artwork and the discovery by Otto that “OTTO is TOOT spelled inside out” add to the fun.

Jenkins, Steve, and Robin Page. Move! 2006. 32p. Houghton, $16 (9780618646371).
Age 1–8 yrs. Far removed from “Run, Spot. Run!,” action verbs on each page seem to move in concert with the out-of-the-ordinary creatures (armadillo, jacana, roadrunner, praying mantis), as pairs of different species show how they slither, waddle, and sprint.

Potter, Beatrix. The Tale of Peter Rabbit: Commemorative Edition. 2006. 80p. Frederick Warne, $6.99 (9780723258735).
Age 3–6 yrs. More than 100 years old, Peter is as spry as ever, trespassing in Mr. McGregor’s garden as Potter treats young listeners to delicious phrases (“some friendly sparrows, who flew to him in great excitement, and implored him to exert himself”). For generations, young children have preferred the language in the original masterpiece to the simplistic text in dumbed-down versions.

Reiser, Lynn. Hardworking Puppies. 2006. 40p. Harcourt, $16 (9780152054045).
Age 4–8 yrs. The illustrations do the hard work here. Not only do they invite extended talk about breeds of dogs and their duties in concert with their masters’ jobs, but they also challenge readers to match footwear with the appropriate person and profession. In addition, there’s simple subtraction for older kids.

Rosenthal, Amy Krouse. Cookies: Bite-Size Life Lessons. Illus. by Jane Dyer. 2006. 40p. HarperCollins, $12.99 (9780060580810).
Age 2–8 yrs. Full-page watercolors illustrate abstract terms such as patient, optimistic, greedy, and loyal, and an accompanying sentence or two opposite each picture offers a concrete example of the term. Dyer’s charming animal and child characters utilize cookies as they demonstrate the abstract concepts and invite further discussion of the vocabulary.

Wheeler, Lisa. Sixteen Cows. Illus. by Kurt Cyrus. 2002. 32p. Harcourt, $16 (9780152026769); Voyager, paper, $6 (9780152055929).
Age 3–8 yrs. A tale of two Texans—and two herds of cattle with the most melodious-sounding names on the range—introduces young children to the vernacular of the region, enriching oral proficiency with terms such as hoppin’ mad, commenced to singin’, and purt’near into night, all in a comical, rhyming read-aloud.

Carolyn Munson-Benson is the author of Playful Reading: Positive, Fun Ways to Build the Bond between Preschoolers, Books, and You (Search Institute, 2005).

"Hidden Treasure: Exploring Language-Rich Books," by Carolyn Munson-Benson, July 2007 Book Links magazine