Reading – The Power of Children’s Books

This blog post will discuss how to utilize children’s books to learn languages.

Reading children’s books is a crucial staple in my language learning routine. My study sessions are often centered around reading these texts, learning the vocabulary, pronunciation, and associated grammar. Children’s books give you the opportunity to absorb just about every aspect of the language that you’re learning – and sometimes the culture.

Why are children’s books so helpful?

Children’s books are powerful in their ability to teach a foreign language because they often contain all of the following:

  • A simple story line – beginning, middle, and end. This aids in capturing our natural curiosity.
  • Highly-contextualized and simple vocabulary.
  • Repetition of phrases and ideas – sometimes rhyming.
  • Useful, simple, and high-frequent past tense verbs (said, got, was, were, went, thought, saw…).
  • Supporting visuals to aid comprehension.

Where can I find children’s books? 

There are a surprising number of children’s books available online for free or cheap. I’ve provided some links  to websites that I use below:

  • Children’s Library (use the top-right drop down list where it says “show [any language] books” to find your language.
  • Children’s Books Online
  • Children’s Books Forever (books available in Afrikaans, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, French, German, Indonesian, Japanese, Norwegian, Spanish, Swedish)
  • Amazon! (search for the language you’re learning and “children’s book” and you’ll be surprised what will pop up. If you have a Kindle, you can buy them for 2 – 3 dollars usually!)

Which ones do I choose?

  • Choose short and simple
  • Lots of visuals
  • Something interesting to you. Look up the title and decide if it’s something you can read enjoyably.
  • Ideally, your book should be written by a native speaker for a native speaker (authentic resource). However, I use translations often and it’s not a big deal (some people might not agree with that). The important thing is that you’re reading, learning vocabulary and structure, and engaging the language. However, as you get more advanced, authentic resources will become more and more important.

OK, I have a children’s book. How do I learn with it?

So you’ve got your hands on a children’s book. Now what? Here’s what I do when I read a children’s book.

  1. Cold read first. I read the first page. I read it slowly, word for word, out loud in my best accent. I do not look up any words. I utilize the visuals in the story and my own prior knowledge.
  2. Re-read the first page – out loud, slowly, in your best accent. (Have fun with it!)
  3. Go back and look for what I know. Make meaning from the text and say what it’s saying in English.
  4. Look for nuances of the language – are endings changing? Is word order changing? What agreement (or lack of agreement) do we notice? Why do you think it’s happening?
  5. Guess the meaning of words – can you tell what some of them might be? Make a list on paper.
  6. Look up what you don’t know. Check your answers through translation. Google Translate works just fine for this – or an online translator. Some of you may hate me for saying that, but it works for our purposes here.
  7. Keep track of your new words/phrases on a piece of paper.
  8. Re-read the first page again – attaching meaning the new words using your new words. Act out what the story is saying as you read it out loud, visualize what is happening in your mind, say it loud and proud, and have fun!
  9. Read the second page. Repeat steps with each page.
  10. At the end, add new vocabulary to a vocabulary set on Quizlet and practice with that context in your mind. Quiz yourself the next day and see what you remember. I hope you’re as surprised as I am!

Do you see how much I take my time with it? You need to attach meaning to the story for it to be useful. Don’t rush – what’s the hurry? Enjoy it!

** A corresponding video featuring me going through this process will be posted in the near future. **

Vocabulary – Forming a Communicative Task

OK – so you want to learn some new vocabulary. You’re sitting at your desk saying “OK- bring it on.” What do you learn next? What do you learn first? What’s useful? What’s relevant? What will help you in the future? What words should you focus on?

In order to maximize retention and usefulness, the vocabulary that you learn should be centered on some kind of communicative task. What do you want to do with the language? What do you want to be able to accomplish with these words or phrases?

You do not want to just make a huge list of words and commit them to memory. Textbooks and outdated guides are notorious for illustrating with ridiculous examples and memorizing useless vocabulary. You need to stray away from that and make sure that the vocabulary that you learn is contextualized and useful.

Here are some examples of communicative tasks:

  • I want to introduce myself.
  • I want to order a simple meal.
  • I want to talk about what my hobbies are.
  • I want to talk about my family.
  • I want to ask questions about someone else’s family.
  • I want to express my opinion on the state of the environment.
  • I want to talk about the political problems in my town.

All of these topics lend themselves to a related, contextualized, and distinct set of vocabulary. Additionally, you may have noticed that they increased in difficulty and complexity going down the list. The words you learn will be meaningful to you and the world and they will serve a communicative purpose. All of these are crucial in ensuring good retention, solid practicality, and serving you in the world.

Let’s start with the simple example: talking about family.

So you want to be able to talk about yourself and your family. What are some things you say to talk about your family? Open up your mind and think practically and creatively. What vocabulary phrases and words do you need to accomplish this? Here are some things that come to mind for me:

  • In my family…
  • there is / there are
  • I have
  • a, an, some (indefinite articles)
  • I have a mom
  • I have a dad
  • Do you have brothers?
  • Do you have sisters?
  • brother
  • sister
  • grandma
  • grandpa
  • her name is
  • his name is
  • he’s ___ years old
  • she’s ____ years old
  • I’m ____ years old
  • dog
  • cat

Start simple and easy – then branch out once you have those words underneath your belt. Decide what is most important to you and focus on those.

I recommend making a new flash card set in Quizlet and centering that set on that communicative task. Label it “Finnish – Talking about Family”

Lastly, your communicative task will open the door up for studying grammar as well. You may notice that in these phrases there is the verb “to have” (super useful) and “indefinite articles” (a, an, some). This is your opportunity to get your head around the grammar surrounding this topic and apply it in other circumstances.

Speaking – Automatic Phrases

One great way to build proficiency (that is, useful functioning with a language) is to focus and cue in on a few, what I like to call: ‘automatic phrases.’ This is not a novel or new idea. This is just my own twist and definition to it.

What are automatic phrases?

By my definition, automatic phrases are at least three (ideally four) things:

  1. A group of words that are learned together, remembered together, and said together.
    • Don’t isolate the words – don’t need to know meaning of individual word.
  2. Phrases or expressions that are memorized to the point of automaticity.
    • This phrase is something that is engraved in your language arsenal.
    • This phrase, expression, or question is something that should spill right out of your mouth without thought.
  3. Serves communicative purpose – express need, desire, opinion, emotion, clarification. Don’t memorize useless phrases.
    • Can owls turn their head 360 degrees?
    • What is the distance of the sun from Earth?
    • Do you build snowmen in the winter?
  4. Ideally, these phrases are questions or expressions that can be applied in various situations – but not necessarily.

Can I get an example, please?

For example, in Spanish there is the question “a qué hora?” It means “at what time?” This is a group of words that are learned together, remembered together, and said together.  In my Spanish 2 class, this question is memorized to the point of automaticity – they shouldn’t have to think about this question. This phrase should be locked away in their language arsenal and easily accessible in any situation without thought. This question is useful in all kinds of different situations: What time does it start? What time does it end? What time are we meeting? What time is it?

I know them in all of my languages: At what time? A qué hora? Um wieviel Uhr? Mihin aikaan?

What are some other good ones?

Examples of good automatic phrases:

  • Who, What, Where, When, Why, How
  • Do you need?
  • I need
  • What do you want?
  • I want
  • Do you have?
  • I have
  • At what time?
  • I don’t understand
  • Repeat, please
  • What do you like?
  • I like…
  • Where is…