Figures of speech
         Imagine your child’s confusion when she hears about having a chocolate moose for dessert, a gorilla war being fought in another country, somebody being a little pigeon toad, or a person having a frog in her throat. The images don’t make sense to young children. How could they be true?

         Welcome to the world of figures of speech, idioms, homonyms, and metaphors. They can be especially confusing to young children, who are themselves just coming to grip with the intricacies of the English language.

         Language is power. The uninitiated are powerless if they do not understand what they hear. Your child has greater linguistic power if you use figures of speech in your own daily exchanges. The only way to do this is to take the time to sit with and explain what these expressions mean and how they can be confused with other ones. Let’s look at an example:

         The word “reigned” is pronounced exactly like “rained.” Furthermore, your child is more likely to have experienced rain than a monarch’s reign. It stands to reason that hearing about a king who reigned for forty years will bring a quizzical look from your young one.

         That brings us to the title of a wonderful children’s book that illustrates the point quite well. The King Who Rained (1970) was written and illustrated by Fred Gwynne, whom you may remember from his years as one of The Munsters. Three other books in the same vein are A Chocolate Moose for Dinner (1976), A Sixteen Hand Horse (1980) and A Little Pigeon Toad (1988). (All the books are published by Simon and Shuster.) They are chock-filled with images that can be misunderstood in the way that only children, with their limited knowledge of English, can misunderstand.

         If you yourself are not a native speaker of English, I encourage you to spend some time in this endeavor with your child. It’s a fun way for you to learn together about the language.

         Children rely on the adults in their lives - mostly parents and teachers - to expose them to vivid and creative language. This is an excellent foothold into linguistic power, and something that parents can help to develop. 

         This column has been incorporated and expanded in Teach Your Children Well: A Teacher’s  Advice for Parents.

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