Playing with Language

(This article first appeared in The Homeschool Journey, December 2003)


I’d like to share a poem with you. I’d like you to read aloud the following poem (which many of you will probably know) and just relax into the words. For those of you whose first language is not English, don’t worry. It doesn’t matter a bit because the poem does not ‘make sense’ in English either.


Go on – read it out loud!

`Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
  Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
  And the mome raths outgrabe.

“Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
  The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
  The frumious Bandersnatch!”

He took his vorpal sword in hand:
  Long time the manxome foe he sought —
So rested he by the Tumtum tree,
  And stood awhile in thought.

And, as in uffish thought he stood,
  The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
  And burbled as it came!

One, two! One, two! And through and through
  The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
  He went galumphing back.

“And, hast thou slain the Jabberwock?
  Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!’
  He chortled in his joy.

`Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
  Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
  And the mome raths outgrabe.


                                     The Jabberwock, Lewis Carroll



So, what was it like to read it aloud? Did you feel silly? Was it fun? Did your five year-old run in demanding to know what you were doing? Good! Now read it to him! Play with the words. Draw them out. Exaggerate them. Fill them with meaning.


Now – explain to me why your (hypothetical) five year-old knows exactly what this poem is about. (And, for goodness sakes, don’t spoil it by asking her what she thinks it might mean) How does she know what it’s about?


With this wonderfully whimsical, outrageous, funny and preposterous poem, we adults can get a tiny little glimpse into the way children grow to understand language. The Jabberwock does not ‘make sense’ to us: but to a young child it makes as much sense as any well-written musical, poetical, image-laden piece of writing. Often with great writing, the ‘sense of it’ lies not only in its literal meaning but in its rhythms and ‘sense-sounds’ which create images in our minds.


When children acquire language, vocabulary and word-meaning, like grammar, are only a part of what’s going on. Young children acquire language by ‘getting a sense’ for meaning, not by literally analyzing what something means. When children are tiny, we don’t say things to them like, “Okay, this is a casserole. Can you say casserole – CASS-ER-OL. Good. It comes from the French word…” My goodness no! We just talk. We breathe life into our conversations with our children and they absorb meaning. This is how language grows and becomes part of each person and also why it’s vital to read to your child. Read to your child, read to your child! Read, read, read – way past the time he learns to read to himself. And read worthy, worthwhile books so that the images and language that penetrate his very soul are nourishing and sustaining.


Read that poem out again. Print it out and have a great time with it. Shout it, whisper it, dance it. Your baby will love it! Act it out. Encourage your child to draw a picture – or two or three – illustrating it. Just don’t ever, ever analyze it. Let it live, don’t put it on the dissection table!


Enjoy poetry with your children. We have a lovely ritual in our family, which occurs from time to time, called “Poems in Mama’s Bed”. We get in the big bed, cuddle up together, and I read my sons the same poems from the same book that we have been reading for almost ten years! The magic words of Blake, Emily Dickinson, R.L. Stevenson, William Carlos Williams and Shakespeare, amongst others, have penetrated right to the core of my children. Language, the Word, has power. Choose carefully what language you surround your growing children with and choose that which will nourish and strengthen them.

Posted on June 17, 2006 in Language Arts

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