I received an outstanding manuscript from a children’s book author this week. The rhyming was extremely clever! She definitely has a gift for that. However, the vocabulary was very advanced for a picture book. Now, I don’t have a problem with that. I never talked baby-talk to our children and they all had incredible vocabularies before they reached school age. Teachers frequently told us that our children spoke like little adults.
One employee here at BookLocker pointed out the vocabulary as well. I had been reading the manuscript out loud for input. We had a discussion on whether or not it’s a good idea to dumb down vocabulary in children’s books. I then proceeded to read the rest of the manuscript.
When I got to the end, I was thrilled to find a glossary with all of the creative, BIG words that had been used in the book. It included the pronunciation, definition of each, and much more. That author is ON THE BALL!!!
So, readers, what are your thoughts on this? Should authors only use basic words in picture books designed to be “read to” children (this is not an early reader book). Or, would young children benefit from more from simple words?
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The Art and Craft of Writing and Editing
Writing is a constant dialogue between author and reader.
The craft of writing involves an interchange of emotions between an author and a reader. An author creates a story line, conflict, and characters, gives his characters words to speak, and then hands off these materials to a reader. This process results in a constant dialogue between the mental imagery produced by a reader and that proposed by the author.
Read more here:
One of my favorite anecdotes from teaching was when I passed out copies of a book from the Wizard of Oz series to an eighth grade class. Those books were written early in the last century. (“Last century” are two words that make me feel old.)
Anyway, I remember sucking up those books when I was in the fifth grade. As we read from it in the eighth grade class, I realized how advanced they are compared to books today–often even adult books–which are frequently written for 11th grade level and below.
Reading above your level forces your brain to do some deep breathing, stretching, and then cardio. When you do it as a child, you learn to understand words in context, and you learn what context is, because if you don’t, you won’t understand what you’re reading.
I still talked “baby talk” to my son, however. There’s nothing wrong with it, anymore than there’s anything wrong with eating dessert, if you want dessert. Doesn’t mean your diet sucks and you don’t know anything about nutrition. I homeschooled him and he tested at a sixth grade level in science when he was in first grade. He was also reading Shakespeare in middle school. The teachers told him not to for some obscure reason teachers have for holding kids back.
An alphabet rhyming book for kids is a great idea. I have one in the works that’s a little more advanced than some people might think is appropriate. Too bad; I always hope kids learn something new from books they read.
When I was in journalism class, we were instructed to write news stories at a sixth grade level so that most adults could understand them. 🙁
I have a new Great-Grandchild that just turned two years old a month ago. He knows most of his A-B-C’s already and can count to ten. HIS library also has about 35 books that I stared to send to him when he was about 5 o 6 months old. Also, my mother feed me books at a very young age and when I went to school I was always ahead of the other kids. In fact there were six of us and you know what happens when you have six year olds finishing before the other kid in the class? They get into trouble. They double promoted us from third grade to fifth grand. That didn’t solve the problem, because kids that didn’t skip the fourth grade were getting all the same lessons as we were. A month or so into the term and we were ahead of those kids too. The simple fact of the matter is; if the parents are well educated they will teach their kids long before they even start school. Less educated parents can’t give their kids the same boust, and those kids are behind the first day of kindergarten.
There is a new simplified book about Anne Frank, and it has this cutesy-poo drawing of her on the cover. It seems nearly blasphemous. I realize someone wants to teach about the Holocaust to very young children, but this was done in a crass way.
NO! Do not dumb down words for children to understand. If they don’t know what something means, they usually ask. Not only that, as a story is repeated over and over, they will “get it” pretty much anyway. Now, if your book is basically a ridiculous dictionary that even adults do not understand, forget it. Most one year olds look at the pictures/photographs to fill in the blanks.
I remember my grandmother, when I was 3 years old, reading me “The Little Engine That Could”, and I had no idea that the book was about persistence and not giving up and to continue trying (anything in life). I loved the pictures, and sitting in her lap, and her use of words and the emotions she put into the story that every time I saw her, I bugged her to read me that story. I guess the moral of the story sunk in, because even though she really did not want to read me that, I kept at it, and she finally gave in!
I started reading encyclopedia’s when I was 8, so…Your article doesn’t specify the targeted age group or provide vocabulary samples. I don’t have children, so I can only speak to my own experience.
Actually I feel we should never dumb down anything for any age group. Use the language as intended, encourage questions, encourage research, etc. Let the story be the story. In my writings I translate the words back into their original meaning. Dumbing down has led to gross misinterpretation of many important issues.
I love the idea of a children’s book full of good vocabulary and a glossary! My grandchildren speak “older than their years” and we think its a good thing.
I homeschooled my children and always purposefully filled our home library with books that were beyond their grade level. I enjoyed watching my son reach for and conquer books that expanded his vocabulary. Both my children became avid readers and often awed adults with their mastery of language. Children need to be inspired and challenged to reach for more, so, no, no dumbing down necessary.
Children will rise to the challenge with a little help and encouragement. I live in Panama. I buy and read books in English to my goddaughter who is 5. Immersed in Spanish she is developing a vocabulary in both languages. Her preschool teacher is amazed by her Spanish and English skills.
I agree that the vocabulary in this book should stand! Children’s brains – and minds – soak it all up . . . So much is about the sounds of the words, and the joy that these can bring. I was an early reader and grew up with Dr. Suess books as well as the classics. I’m also an educator, so don’t get me started. My daughter was reading Harry Potter at seven, much to her teacher’s chagrin. I could wax on, but just wanted to give a shout out to NO DUMBING DOWN!
Children develop receptive language skills before expressive language skills. Studies have shown that children who heard more words in early childhood had better overall language skills and success in school. I vote for vocabulary rich children’s books!
I don’t advocate dumbing down either vocabulary or concepts for young readers. Because we favored books that fell in line with our preferences, both of my children were reading well by age 4 and had excellent vocabularies. (When a sweet old lady spied my 3-1/2-year old shopping at a bookstore with me at 7 months pregnant, she asked my daughter so sweetly, “Well, are you going to get a little brother or a little sister?” And my kid looked at her like she was the stupidest lady on earth and said, “Well I won’t know that until it comes out of my mother’s uterus, will I?”
LOVE IT!!!!!!! 🙂
I don’t think it is a good idea. I have read to many kids in the course of my career as a child care professional and writer. They may not always understand, but I have realized that as they grew, they were more comfortable with words, were readers (often with vastly ranging tastes) and could converse much better with all kinds of people.
No do not dumb down the books. Kids are smarter than we think they are. My kiddo was reading after two weeks in kiddiegarter — at the age of four. I didn’t believe it so I got out the newspaper which they had never seen. Next thing you know Mommy is jumping up and down hollering YOU’RE READING! YOU’RE READING! while El Kiddo looks on like what’swith the grownup this time?
Know why? I read to her all the time and made sure she watched the movements my mouth made to form words. When she was two and three.
Dumb down indeed. Yaarrgghhhh.
There’s a great deal of understanding with the way in which a story is read to a child.
What I have found with my own is that children aspire to the level of expectation. The reader who is at ease and enjoying a story invites the child to do the same.
We are teaching many things when we read to children, communicating much more to them than we may realize, and the presentation may be more significant that the story.
Some children will interrupt to ask questions when they feel the need, which in my experience, has often been not when or what I had expected to be asked.
I believe if the author has a glossary in the back with pronunciation etc., then no the
children’s book should not be dumbed down. I have 5 adult children, and 16 grandchildren
and they love reading and the adult can explain the vocabulary as they read, also, or interact
with the child while reading. Asking what they think the word means?
I once knew a children’s book editor who told me, “When it comes to writing for children, you should always ‘play UP’ to your audience, never ‘down.’ Always assume that the kids who read your books are smart, sophisticated, and knowledgeable. Never try to ‘dumb down’ a subject for them, or they’ll get bored and stop reading. (If they wanted a ‘dumbed down’ subject, they wouldn’t be reading. They’d be watching TV.)”
“As a children’s book editor, I reject about a hundred manuscripts a year, where the author is talking down to the kids…As for vocabulary, don’t be afraid of including big words or new words…it helps kids to build their own personal vocabulary.”
This author seems to understand children. An explanatory glossary in the back is a great idea and clever learning tool.
I’m responding to your question about “dumbing down children’s books”. As a retired teacher and librarian, the question intrigued me. In my experience, I found that children need books that respect their intelligence, but they also need reading material that is not overwhelmingly difficult for them to read or they will just give up. Communication through a book is a delicate dance between an author and a child reader. Children become bored if the book is too easy or too “baby” for them. But they also do not have the skills and focus that adults can bring to a book that enables them to thrive in deep thinking themes or challenging vocabulary. I don’t know if the question is so much about “dumbing down books” as it is in finding the right book for the right child. What is “dumbed down” seemingly may be exactly what one child needs as long as it is respectful of their development and abilities. What is challenging for one child may be dismissed by another as being “too easy”. I think, though, for all children, if they find too many challenging words and the context of them does not give an idea of the meanings and they have to continually look at a glossary for the meanings, the thread of enjoyment of reading may be lost and they will just reject the book.
I definitely don’t think that children’s books should be dumbed down. Studies have shown that children are very good at picking up language, and watering down words does them no favors. If you look at time-honored children’s books — LITTLE WOMEN, ALICE IN WONDERLAND, BLACK BEAUTY, BAMBI & BAMBI’S CHILDREN, ANNE OF GREEN GABLES, the Narnia series — the writers did NOT talk down to readers. (Granted, BLACK BEAUTY was not originally written as a book for children, but it quickly became one.) Even Beatrix Potter, who wrote for fairly young children, did not talk down to her readers, as novelist Madeleine L’Engle pointed out in A CIRCLE OF QUIET.
How can children develop a big vocabulary if they do not hear it? Use whatever words you like for children. Add an explanation or make the meaning clear in context. That’s all you need to do for a child of average or greater intelligence in a book in the child’s native language.
As long as the book’s story/message comes through beautifully, I’d say KEEP those more complex words in place! As a preschooler, I was enchanted by the flow of words, their musicality, the beauty of language. Even when many of the words were mysteries to me (as in Grimm’s fairy tales), I felt intrigued and swept away. Revving a child’s imagination with the unknown, along with the known, is always a good thing.
Depends way too much on the kids age and what they can already understand.
It might be better to list the words in a story with explanation before using them.
Then the story would help reinforce understanding.
It’s more important than ever to push critical thinking into our children. To be successful in this effort, we must start with building solid vocabulary foundations for our children that includes a vast collection of words – not just the simple and basic ones. There’s nothing wrong with building a hefty vocabulary at a young age. We know that young children absorb foreign languages with little effort. Why not build a strong foundation in their primary language at the same early stage of life? Parents can choose if they want to expose their children to books with higher levels of vocabulary. However, if those books don’t exist, the parents, and children, will have no such choices in which to choose.
I don’t think vocabulary needs to be dumbed down since explaining the meaning can help make reading to a child interactive and improve vocabulary -unless the difficult words are so frequent that explanations interrupt the flow of the story and begins to bore the child
It’s good to have a variety of books for children – different vocabulary words, writing styles, artwork! Children take in everything.
If one of the rules of authorship is “never underestimate the intelligence of your readers,” then it follows that this rule also applies to the intelligence of listeners of books read aloud, even to little children. I say do NOT dumb down the book for kids. ESPECIALLY because of the glossary and pronunciation guide.
We have dumbed down society far too much! Time to begin smartening UP everyone. And that starts with our youngest members.
Hi Angela, thank you for affording me the opportunity to participate.
Dumbing down is always a failed idea.
Since no one is in the heads of little ones who can actually say on what level any child is on.
I never talked baby talk babble to my children or grandchildren. I talked to them as I would another human being. When I used what some called adult vocabulary I always told them the definition of the word in a language they could understand. For example, if I used the word afford I would tell them what I’m saying when I use the word afford is you’re giving me or I’m giving you.
To not teach vocabulary and language is denying a child an education that will put them in the driver’s seat.
Regarding “dumbing down books,” it depends on the age for which the book is intended. If the book is for very young beginning readers, the words should be basic and easy to sound out, but as children get older they need to be challenged by more complex words. This will help build vocabulary and create more intelligent speech. Dumbing down will result in children who aren’t reaching their potential.
About dumbing down children’s books: I wouldn’t agree with it if an editor wanted it done. My first “middle reader” book is being published this month (Attacked At Sea, Macmillan pub) to take its place alongside my coauthor’s other 3 middle readers. The wartime topic can be challenging for kids, but isn’t that what learning is about? Our editor did not ask us to avoid anything that might be deemed too adult for the age group, we simply made the language a bit easier to understand and streamlined the narrative (from the adult version of the story, called So Close to Home, Pegasus pub).
Dumbing down a children’s book (any level) – absolutely not!
I can’t stress this enough – little children aren’t stupid. They need to hear regular words spoken and used in the proper context. This is how we all learned as we grew.
It is one thing to have short, meaningful sentences throughout a children’s book, it is quite another to use ‘baby-slang’ to fill them.
Big words, small words, words in between,
What joy in words, there is to be seen;
So let all words fly to a child’s heart, like a dove,
Reading to them with patience, joy, and love.
I hope we “olders” aren’t reading to very young children in order to teach them vocabulary and grammar. Instead, let us read to them for at least these two reasons: so they will enjoy the experience, and to instill in them a love of reading.
I believe you could read a telephone book (remember those?) to a very young child and they would enjoy it, if you were holding them on your lap, cuddling them, having fun with them, letting them turn the pages, and make it a time of laughter and love.
Children are not like teacups, where you have to be oh so careful how you pour to avoid spilling any of the precious liquid you’re serving. Rather, children are like large oaken barrels into which you can pour more, and more, and more and they can take it all in.
I can sit across a desk and read age-appropriate books to my child all day long … but much better, I believe, to spend 30 minutes with my child sitting on my lap, feeling me breath and hearing the fun, eagerness, goodwill, and love in my voice.
Even as I write these words (at 78-years-old) I remember my mother reading to me as I sat beside her on our living room couch … fond memories … and for the life of me, I can’t recall if the words were dumbed down or not.
adult vocabulary makes the book more interesting for them and gives them an opportunity to explain hard words to their children. All of us read books with words we don’t know. That’s what dictionaries are for.
Re: Dumbing Down. Children need to be challenged and what a wonderful opportunity that book would be. I am not in favor of dumbing down, in this instance, and over all.
Using only the limited vocabulary a child knows deters him from expanding his vocabulary. Sure, it’s proper to use age-appropriate language, but throwing in more advanced words that can be discerned from the context helps the young reader learn.
The fall of the American intellect, so pervasive in our secondary schools and universities, has had an adverse effect on this idea that is called America. Yes, our history reveals sharp disagreements and includes a civil war that tore our republic apart. We slowly mended that horror, and with the clarion call of unity, we, in long past decades, overcame these razor sharp divisions and survived.
The schools are the major contributors to national discord, starting in nursery school. Children are eager for knowledge. Their brains are sponges that attract new ideas like bees to honey.
We have a 5 year old grandson. I always send him intellectually stimulating books and toys. No, do not give them materials to “dumb them down.” It is bad enough that most natural born citizens cannot pass a citizenship test.
I lay the blame for that on: promiscuous and downright silly shows on the television, and the shocking decline of cordial debate, and also the suppression of differing ideas in our schools. I am 69 years old, and I fondly remember a 10th grade English teacher who taught us the art of skepticism. Now, we are teaching our children what to think; we should be teaching them to think.
This should start with toddlers and be present in our primary schools. Discipline must be present and parents, instead of blaming teachers, should keep their children respectful of their teachers. That is my old-school belief. Children’s books if done correctly, should teach a 5-year old how to think. We should be challenging them to think, while keeping it playful and fun, from the time they are walking and talking.
Critical thinking is vanishing. Let us not dumb our children down. Instead, challenge them at an early age to, as our teachers used to say, “Put on your thinking caps.”
Many adults could use a thinking cap as well.
Donna S Cohen RN
First off, thank you for your weekly newsletter. Appreciate this input very much and keeps me inspired.
The children’s book you are speaking of sounds wonderful and as you say…the author is on the ball. What a great idea including a glossary, pronunciation.
As an older person/writer, I want future generations to embrace vocabularies that enhance their lives. Children are awesome sponges…absorb and learn so much-bring on books that help them think beyond simple words and one sentence pages.
Do not dumb it down. It sounds like the way it’s written, it’s going to be good. I would have bought this kind of book for my grandson. He could read the simple books at 3. Many children can read early and can’t find something like this.
Never dumb down kids books – they should be age-appropriate, engaging, and educational.
In our home, we had books for all reading levels, as well as magazines. Books with pictures on all pages make things fun, but there is a lot a child can take away from other books as well.
Children are young adults in training. So, instead of trying to protect them from the ways of this world, we need to start preparing them. In fact, the preparation is the protection.
Ignorance is as far from bliss, as death is from living. When our children are properly prepared, they’ll know what to avoid by recognizing the signs. If we don’t teach them what we feel they’re to young to know, someone could come along and take full advantage of their naive nature. The second a child is able to comprehend, should be the moment the hard lessons begin. We won’t physically be with them forever but the wisdom we instill in their minds, will immortalize us in their hearts.
I think that the one that can answer this question the best, is the target reader himself/herself.
If I were a children’s book author (and I’ve been considering it since a long time now -I’m a graphics artist,) then I’d definitely test both the manuscripts and illustrations with different groups of children. I have read many times that no matter how good a book sounds and looks to adults, you can’t truly evaluate it without its intended audience: children and their parents (parents are also important to consult for impressions and advice, after all, they’re their kid’s agents, kinda, haha).
I’m not a product developer, but it looks like the same process, I feel.
I hope this helps a bit, have a good day 🙂
Always aim one or two levels above a child’s level of knowledge and skill. Raising the bar is what education is all about. If that story is enjoyable, if the young readers are able to educate themselves with it or if helpful siblings and adults can help them with the glossary, then this is GOOD2GO.
My niche of writing is the mental health field. I’ll be delighted to prepare an in-depth article for Writers Weekly that explains the principles mentioned above. Let me know if you’d like that, Angela.
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I definitely believe in NOT dumbing down books, and that goes for adults as well as children. If some readers don’t like the book, they have plenty of others to choose from. But some will prefer the book not be dumbed down.
I see this in movies all the time, too. In one scene from “Love, Actually,” Keira Knightly goes to her husband’s best friend for video from her wedding. He’s reluctant to show her, and she thinks it’s because he’s always been so standoffish and doesn’t like her. But when he shows her the footage, we see that almost all of it is closeups of her, over and over. We, as the audience, finally realize what’s going on. He’s in love with her and that’s why he’s kept his distance. But then the writer (or the director) has the character played by Keira say, “It’s all pictures of me.” It deflated the entire scene. She should have just looked at him with realization. I could list dozens of examples from other movies and books.
We can figure things out. And kids will rise to what we expect of them. I don’t think there’s a one size fits all, and there is definitely room for children’s books with big words.
“Dumb Down.” The very sound of it is terrible. I have lived a long time and have seen a general dumbing down in this country nearly everywhere over the last 25 years especially. However, young children even at the age of 2 can easily use a cell phone, download apps and use them without direction. They are very smart technically. Emotionally, however, many children have difficulty for a variety of reasons having to do with the technology they master. My colleagues and I are often shocked at the decreasing ability of people to think deeply about complex ideas, reason well, analyze problems, or govern their emotions with maturity equal to their age. Ellen Langer studied this deeply and found that the neuro-nets of children are indeed developing differently than previous generations due to their constant use of technology and disconnect from the outside world where life is actually lived. They miss so much. . WE have concluded that many people today have become intellectually lazy and cognitively indifferent. We are concerned about the ability of future generations to maintain the systems and professions of the country they will come to depend on. Ray Newkirk
No. Children’s books should challenge children. A chess player does not get to be a Grand Master by playing other players of lesser caliber. The trick is to make it challenging but not impossible.
I have 4 sons–My wife and I never talked “bay talk
” to them–I still think talk actual talk and keep the vocabulary at a realistic level–NOT DOWN–just normal!
We ahdb noe drug issues-when most parents of 4 would have had at least 1 with that issue. We had 4 in the USA military at the same time! All are extremely successful. All 4 have good jobs and are still married to #1wife –oldest past 30 years. Shortest marriage now about 123 years ago and still holding strong.
Please do not DUMB DOWN to the modern “indoctrination” standards!
Absolutely do NOT dumb down books for children!!
This is how children learn. Just be ready to answer their questions, correct their pronunciation and have great patience.
They will excel if they are challenged not if they are catered to.
Just look what the dumbing down of programming has done to the adult population!!!!
When is it a good idea to dumb anything down? We have people believing in a conspiracy with Nazi roots while debating whether the world is flat or not and whether we should wear a mask or not. We need to reboot our brains, stop this anti-intellectual trend and have our kids fall in love with knowledge and education.
For one of my education classes I had opportunity to delve into picturebooks – and it was quite an eye opener. These 32 page books are found in the childrens section of the library but can have some very complex and deep themes even without using words – the story is told with images and words. It would seem logical to develop books that children will read independently to a particular reading level – however, interesting parents enough to have them read to children may be more successful with elevated language and themes – and that parent-child interaction may be very beneficial. Word definitions seem like a good idea as well. I think these questions may even be worthy of an actual academic study.
If it is a picture book, meant for preschool children, then simpler vocabulary is usually a better option. The book may be intended for parents to read it to the children, but that’s not always the way it works out. If the kids read it to themselves, the advanced vocabulary might just fly over the reader’s head, at best, or confuse the child, at worst.
That said, having higher expectations for children is not necessarily a bad thing. Kids will often meet the expectations placed upon them. Low expectations, low results; higher exceptions, better results.
Also, if this is a book the author is looking to self-publish, with the full knowledge (as your account suggests) that the vocabulary is a little advanced for the category of book, then I think the author should be allowed to achieve what he/she is setting out to accomplish and publish the book he/she wants to publish–whether it is ultimately “successful” or not (with a lot of leeway for the definition of “successful”.)
As a writer who had himself written kidlit stories, I know how it feels to chafe under the usual restrictions for what is considered appropriate (in literary terms) in writing for kids. Expanding horizons all around is generally a good thing. I wish this author well, and I hope this book is published and finds an appreciative audience.
Angela, It’s not dumbing down if the words used are just too difficult for kids in the target age range to understand. I can think of an exception, though: words that will sound funny. If the book is designed for adults to read to their children/grandchildren, some words will sound funny. Two I can think of that a kid might not know but might enjoy an adult saying are “highfalutin” and “preposterous.” Words like these might make youngsters laugh and make them curious to learn about these grown-up words. Unfortunately, my answer to your question is “it depends.”
I totally agree with you Angela. Kids do need to increase their vocabulary like the rest of us, a few at a time. If the book has a glossay at the back with the words and their meanings, that is excellent. Kids can learn all the words at their own pace through re-reading the book, or listening to it repeatedly. None of us would grow emotionally or intellectually if we were given the same concepts and words from childhood, never advancing to more difficult concepts and words.
Don’t dumb down any story! Particularly when the glossary is right there. A book that is being read with children presents a great opportunity for the reader. And books that are read without “adults” allow kids to use a dictionary or ask. I was a voracious reader as a kid, my reading was never censored (although my father was outraged when he discovered what I had been reading in my teens – but that was a different country and a different century) and I loved “big words”. Kids figure it out.
Just like any target age group, one would want to use language fitting for the age group. A writer would not want to use language and terms ment for a YA in the hands of a child. Simplify the wording for those who are young.