I’m Reading and I’m Loving It! part 4

Don’t forget to mention the important thing in choosing books, Sue.

Yes, I haven’t forgotten.  My sister Ju reminded me last week about a pertinent point:  when choosing books, watch the English used in the books. Books are like friends.  The more time we spend in them, the more we will talk like them.


Our family has always read voraciously.  All of us.  Maybe that’s one reason why we all donned spectacles by age seven.  Nevertheless, if our eyes suffered for the reading, our vocabulary definitely didn’t!  While analysing our reading habits, I accidentally discovered an interesting phenomenon:  at various stages, depending on what we happen to be reading at that time, our choice of vocabulary and sentence structure changes!

There was a time when The Talisman (by Sir Walter Scott) became the subject of our most lively discussions.  During that time, we adopted such obselete vocabulary as couched, devoir and pennon. Strange, isn’t it!  Our sentence structure also changed, to assimilate them into our daily conversation.

Now, lest you get carried away thinking that we’re a family of serious linguistic students, let me quickly add this explanation:  we started by copying funny expressions that struck our fancy.  You know, things like, “It becometh not a slave to desire guerdon for the discharge of his devoir.”  If you don’t know what that means, it’s all right.  I didn’t either until my sister looked it up and told me!  But after we had used them often enough, many good English phrases became a part of us, lock, stock and barrel.  Yes, you do pick up the English (both good and bad!) of your reading diet.


Especially as your children get older, keep an eye on the books they’re reading.  Most beginners books tend to use standard English because of the simplicity of their content.  However, as the stories get more complex in more advanced readers, flip through the books and look for these things:

  1. Do the characters (or the authors themselves!) use a lot of slang?
  2. Do the characters speak standard English?
  3. What sort of English is used throughout the book?

If the English used is identical to the average English spoken by us Singaporeans, chances are, the book is not going to be very helpful to your child.

Take a look at these examples.

BAD (ungrammatical):  “Not long time I already go home.”

SINGLISH (substandard):  “[Ai yah] soon I’ll go home already.”

STANDARD INFORMAL (acceptable in conversation):  “I’ll be leaving soon.”

FORMAL (used in formal writing):  “In a little while, I shall take my leave to return home.”

What you want is to have your child speaking standard informal English, and writing formal English when it is called for (essays, compositions, etc).  Singlish, while occasionally acceptable, should not be his consistent choice of expression.  Accordingly, look for books that use standard informal English.


Now let me wax moralistic (I did tell you, didn’t I, that my students’ morals matter to me?) and mention one other growing concern.  There is a reason why I stayed away from ghost stories, horror thrillers and other potentially harmful books in my childhood.  When I was younger, my parents were quite relaxed about the kinds of books they allowed in our bookshelves.  Over time, however, they realized that we were becoming like the characters we admired in our storybooks.

We picked up not only the language used by them, but also the attitudes and actions we read about.  They decided to go through our bookshelves, throwing away books that were a bad influence on us.  I did not understand their decision at that time; but as I grew older, I came to appreciate it.  I remember things my sisters and I had trouble with, and see my younger brothers and sister spared from them.

The types of books your children are reading, matter!  Be very careful about what they read!  The English is important, but the morals (or lack thereof) are even more important.  I see lower primary children coming into my classroom talking about killing their “enemies” (schoolmates they dislike).  I read about it in the news.  I hear about it from concerned people.

Television, computer games and bad books are all part of the problem.  And here’s the weightiest part:  you are the one who can regulate, remove and remedy these areas. Don’t be afraid to do it.  One day, your child will thank you for it.  You’ll save yourself the heartache of a wayward child if you choose to deal with the problem now.

All right, stop preaching, Teacher Sue. :)  I hope you’ve enjoyed this series and found it useful… it has been a trip down memory lane for me!  Thank you for reading, and keep up your good effort!  Found any children’s books with good English?  Share them with us!

For those linguists out there who might still be wondering, guerdon is a French word that indicates “reward” and devoir means “obligation or duty.” :)

If you’ve just joined us, a warm welcome to you!  You may want to go back and pick up the first three parts to this series, under the Reading Category.


One thought on “I’m Reading and I’m Loving It! part 4

  1. Oh, forgot to mention: an interesting children’s series is Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House in Big Woods. I grew up reading those voraciously. The English is great and the stories and illustrations equally great! :) To find them, just google Little House in Big Woods. There’s a whole series of books following that first book.

    Berenstain Bears are also great. Reading that series with your child is a good idea. The illustrations in those books are also wonderful! :)

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