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Tuesday, March 18, 2008

On oral language

Oral language -- language that is similar to the way kids speak and hear it -- is vital in fiction books for struggling readers. According to Kylene Beers’s book When Kids Can’t Read What Teachers Can Do, “fragments, run-ons, short sentences, and slang all help create what readers call ‘real talk’ or ‘slang lang’ in a book.” This is the language kids hear in their heads. When this type of language is used in a book, it becomes easier for them to relate to the text on the written page.

This is something the editors at Stone Arch Books are constantly thinking about. We want our characters to sound real. Characters who speak with words and phrases appropriate to the situation, and are contemporary without being too trendy, help the reluctant reader enjoy the story. No kid wants to read about a hero who sounds like a grammar textbook. Bullies should sound mean, not literate. We take care to make our books sound the way kids talk, paying close attention to things like contractions, limited narrative passages, lots of dialogue, and sentences ending in propositions. They’re not always a part of exceptional literature, but they help students get into reading and eventually transition into more difficult literature.

In short, oral language gets kids reading. Specific elements of oral language, however, need to be kept to a minimum, or sometimes even deleted, to aid the struggling student. These include figurative, or flowery language, unnecessary use of idioms, homophones, and homographs. Whatever is not a part of a kid’s natural speech habits needs to be introduced in small and deliberate doses.

This approach extends a helping hand and gently moves the reader from oral language to the basics of written language, and then upward to more complex and more engaging material. No one will read Hamlet unless they can first get excited about ghosts, graveyards, and swordplay. And no one can get excited about ghosts, graveyards, and swordplay unless they are given the material in words that are familiar. At Stone Arch Books, we want to get kids excited about reading. To do so, we take time to make sure that our books echo kids’ words as well as their world.

--Michael Dahl
Editorial Director, Stone Arch Books

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