Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Language Matters

Photo by Ian Britton at
When my daughter was two, a friend gave her a picture book that had more vocabulary words she'd never heard than words she knew.  Each page had 3-4 sentences on it and perhaps 3-4 words that she recognized.  I overheard her first exposure to the book:  the Giver sat down on the couch with the Toddler.  They looked at the colorful cover and began the story.  High interest faded fast.  She lasted about three pages.

A few days later I pulled the book out and "read" it to her.  I translated each page into toddler-speak as we went along, leaving 1-2 new words on each page.  I figured a little vocabulary-building couldn't hurt.  When we finished, she asked me to read it again. (That's toddler-speak for "I like it!") 

As I've written for children and teenagers I've tried to write on their level.  I don't want them to need someone to translate or lose interest because they don't understand what I've written.  Trying to write on-level, however, brings a couple problems:
  •   Not all 3-year-olds (or 8-year-olds or 14-year-olds) are on the same level! 
  •   I still think a little vocabulary-building is good.
Trying to balance my desire to write on level with my utopian-world concept of eager children excitedly learning new vocabulary has been an interesting line to walk.  I feel like the vocabulary in an article or book is a precise chemical equation that must be perfectly balanced, or (horror of all horrors!) it will never be read.  Because of the resistance to reading I've seen in junior high and high school students, I've tended toward the safer, on-level side of the writing equation.  A research project a friend introduced me to this week is shifting my attitude.  A little.

In 1983 Betty Hart and Todd Risley began a research project that wouldn't be complete and published until 1995.  They followed 42 families from upper, middle, lower, and welfare socio-economic levels for several years, recording and transcribing how much the parents talked to their babies.  What they discovered was astounding.  The average child in an upper socio-economic family heard 2153 words per hour while the average child in a welfare home heard 616 words per hour.  By the time a child turns four, that translates to almost 45 million words for the wealthier child and 13 million words for the poorer child.*  Even more interesting, the preschooler's vocabulary can be an indicator for how well they will perform in later years.  All this by the time they're four!

I've always thought vocabulary-building is good, but this makes me much less timid about introducing new words to kids!  Even if they don't know what each word means, it seems that the simple exposure is doing them good!  Also, books tend to have more opportunity to use language that isn't common in everyday conversations and speech.  It's okay to use complete sentences and appropriate grammar in books where in "real life" it might sound a little formal.

At three-and-a-half years old, my daughter still likes the picture book I mentioned earlier.  I haven't translated it for many months.  She's probably heard it over 100 times.  She still doesn't know what all the words mean, and I am perfectly okay with that.

* Read an NPR article about the research here:  The actual article Hart and Risley published is available here:  

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

A Scary Story

Photo by Ian Britton at
Kids can be the best place to go to learn what's important when writing a story.  While my two children and I were waiting for some laminating my 3 1/2 year old daughter told me some stories.  She made them up while we waited in the copy shop.  I'll share one with you:

"Once upon a time a boy decided to travel to the jungle without his family.  While he was in the jungle, a ghost grabbed him and took the boy to the ghost's house!  The ghost sat down, but the boy pushed him away with his arms!  The boy ran out of the house and locked the door, so the ghost was stuck.  Then the boy went home to his family."

Look at some of the elements that were important to her:
  •   The main character was a child.
  •   The child became the hero of the story.  No Mom or Dad to the rescue here!
  •   There was tension: a kidnapping and a dangerous ghost.  Just being a child doesn't make her appreciate fine literature any less.  She expects a climax and a conflict with appropriate resolution. 
  •   It was high interest...this is, of course, related to the tension but my daughter finds jungle, travel, family, and ghosts exciting.  I'll admit, though, the kidnapping did surprise me!
These same elements were present in all the stories she made up that morning...even the stories that she did not label as "scary!"  I took a look at the writing in some of her favorite books, and they all had all four of these elements.  Important?  I think so.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

A Writing Epiphany

I had an epiphany a few days ago and thought I'd share it.

Writing is a lot like raising kids.

They both need important tasks done frequently that can seem mundane.  I don't know how many thousands of diapers I've changed, but I do know it's important.  The repetitive parts of writing can seem mundane too, but they build and get more exciting.

Kids and writing both grow with repetitive habits.  A child needs to see a letter and hear its sounds hundreds of times before he can read the words it makes.  Similarly, a writer needs to put some proverbial ink in the notebook daily to teach her mind and body how to write.

A community does wonderful things.  Getting support, encouragement, and ideas does wonders for mommies and writers.  It's nice to know someone else has been (or is) in the exact same spot as you!

Kids and writing change constantly.  They both grow and have new needs as they meet new days, months, and years.  Mommies and writers have to grow too!  Only in growing are we capable of using challenges to reach new heights and change as momentum for progress.

Kids and writing both thrive on routine.  My kids know that after lunch they take naps.  There is no question or argument.  They just know.  Similarly, I look forward to nap/writing time each day.  It's something that just happens.  Sadly, when I don't get my writing time I am as cranky as a two-year old who didn't get a nap!

One joy can make up for a thousand stresses.  When my three-year old gave me a hug last night and said, "Mommy, I just want to keep you forever!" I completely forgot every silly argument and melt-down she had dramatized during the day.  Likewise, every article I sell and every bit of positive feedback re-energizes me and reminds me how much I love to write.  Cheap thrills are a wonderful thing.

It's a small epiphany, but it's a lot of fun to see how much raising kids and writing have in common.  The best part is how much each "part" of my life can learn from the other.  What about you?  You learn about writing from writing, but where else do you learn about writing?  I'd love to hear from you!

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Writing in 2011--A New Year

Photo by Ian Britton at
One of the most important things to learn in life is timing. I might get many important things done in a day, but if I tried doing them all at once very little would happen.  Life is the same way:  I can get a lot done over the course of a year (or thirty years), but if I tried doing it all this year, I would accomplish very little.  Albert Einstein is purported to have said, "The only reason for time is so that everything doesn't happen at once."  Besides being practical, it is easier to enjoy what you're doing when you spread things out a bit.  Buddhists have an appealing concept of mindfulness, where you are entirely focused on exactly the thing you are doing.  While life sometimes seems to demand multi-tasking, truly focusing on one thing can actually be refreshing and calming. 

How do time, New Years, and writing relate?  I would love to write full-time.  I have so many ideas for so many projects that I would love to focus on daily.  At this point in my life, writing full-time would mean either an ill-timed sacrifice of many other things or a sloppy job of many things done at the same time.  As a new year dawns I find myself wanting to define how much time I get to write and how much time I get (and need) to devote to other worthy things in my life.  A couple writing goals seem like the best way to do this.  I am inspired by Kendra Turner's comments as a guest blogger on Writing While The Rice Boils, and I am making a three-tiered goal for the year.

Tier 1 is the ideal:  Each day I will write for at least an hour.  In the past I might take 1-3 hours one day and none the next.  This year, the plan is one full hour every day.  I can work on any of my professional projects or just on blogs, but the goal is that full hour of actual writing.  If I can't follow my normal schedule, then...

Tier 2 will be okay:  I will write for at least 15 minutes.  This will at least train the creative energy to get out and work fast every day.  In the event of a very unusual day, then...

Tier 3 will surface:  I will write at least ten words.  I have a suspicion that I will do a lot more than that once I start, but the minimum is there.

My other writing goal for this year is that I will complete a book manuscript to a first draft point every other month, for a total of six by the end of December.  I have several begun, and they need to be completed.

Timing is important.  It lets us organize, plan, and enjoy the things to which we choose to give time.  This year, I'm giving myself more time to write...what a treat!