The Importance of Children’s Books For Language Development

More than Just Talk

When it comes to language, more is more. Most parents know the advice to “talk to your kids.” There is a great deal of evidence that the more language that children hear, the more that they acquire. Many parents will also notice that while they talk to their kids quite a bit, things do get repetitive after a while. How many parents out there assume that they’ve broken some sort of world record for the number of times one person has said “put on your shoes” in a single day? Or “wash your hands”? I’m sure most of the parents reading this can relate.

The richness of the language that children hear is also important. So where do children get this rich language if the adults in the room are too busy chasing them around with a pair of shoes? This is where books come in. Children get a wide variety of vocabulary and are exposed to more complex sentence structures through children’s books.

What Books Contribute

To pull an English book of the shelf, the opening lines in Madeline, are: “In an old house in Paris that was covered in vines, lived twelve little girls in two straight lines.”* The structure and elegance of that sentence are different from how we normally talk. That is not an indictment of everyday speech, but a reason for why reading to children is so important.

Similarly, books are a window into different worlds that children might not get to experience on their own. Children see under the ocean through Rainbow Fish, American children visit China in Mulan and kids in San Antonio go to Boston through Make Way for Ducklings. Children develop larger vocabularies through this greater exposure to the wider world.

Why Books Matter For Immersion Programs

What does this all mean for language immersion programs? The same reasoning applies. Teachers in language immersion programs do repeat the same things over and over again, just like parents do in their children’s first language. From books in Chinese or French, children hear longer and more complex sentences. They also hear a variety of words. The illustrations in children’s books are also important to helping children understand the language that they hear. Children need that comprehension in order to acquire the language.

Developing a confident command of a language takes more than listening to everyday speech. Books provide additional complexity and also cover topics that kids don’t normally encounter. They also help children develop larger vocabularies. In addition to lots of talk, reading to children is essential to their overall language development, no matter whether it is English, Spanish, French or Chinese.

 * Hat tip to Mark Seidenberg for this example

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