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
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.