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Tune Children’s Ears To The Beauty Of Creative Language

Develop a love of language with the pleasure and power of the spoken word, says Steve Bowkett

  • Tune Children’s Ears To The Beauty Of Creative Language
  • Tune Children’s Ears To The Beauty Of Creative Language

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An activity I often run in schools is to hold up a black-and-white picture, then ask the children to imagine it in colour and tell me what they see in their mind’s eye.

Often someone will say: ‘The house is made of brown bricks’, and I reply: ‘Oh, listen to the sound of that – brown bricks’. Usually I get a chorus of: ‘That’s alliteration’, to which I reply: ‘Well, yes, we know the name for it, but what I’m interested in is the lovely sound of the phrase’.

Other examples of what I call ‘sound treats’ follow, such as ‘grey pavement’, ‘dripping raindrops’, ‘yellow leaves’ and ‘sinister shadows’. On one occasion a child spoke of the ‘globed moon’ – perhaps, like me, you find it hard to not shape out a sphere with your hands as you say this aloud.

While our naming-of-theparts curriculum rightly wants children to understand figures of speech like alliteration, assonance and onomatopoeia, time should also be spent developing children’s sensitivity to the aural qualities of language. It brings a number of immediate benefits:

  • Children become more discerning in their choice of words when using descriptive language. Many will very quickly think twice about grabbing at clichés such as ‘howling wind’ and ‘pouring rain’. Encourage children in this regard by suggesting, in these cases, that wolves howl, so is that the same sound as wind howling? And we pour water from a jug. Does that make the same sound as the rain you are describing?
  • Reading their own work aloud helps children to spot errors they may not have picked up by reading visually. Subtle insights soon become apparent, such as whether a sentence ‘flows’ or if it jars on the ear.
  • Becoming more aware of, and sensitive to, the sound of words offers a further analytical tool when studying texts, whether poetry and prose.

Here are some ideas for cultivating an audible love of language in the classroom.

Make a sploosh

Give the children a word like ‘splash’ and ask them to imagine what’s happening – a pebble dropping into a pond, for example. Collect other ideas so that every child understands more fully the richness of the word. Then, offer related words – splish, splesh, splush, sploosh, spuh-looshhh – and ask them what’s going on now.

This activity also offers an opportunity for children to learn about the constituent features of sound, which include direction, volume, speed, pitch, tone, pauses, length and cadence. Give them some adjectives they might find useful for expressing their thoughts – brittle, cutting, dry, dull, faint, gentle, harsh, heavy, high, liquid, low, penetrating, raspy, rough, sharp, smooth, soft, strong, sweet, etc.

Sonic safaris

Take your class for a walk around the school, inside and out, and ask children to notice the great variety of sounds they experience. Link this with a ‘sound search’ (this might also be a homework task) where children are asked to note a number of sounds – their footsteps on the pavement, a lorry going by, a kettle boiling. Insist that children try to write these down as accurately as possible, even if they have to make up new words to do so.

Develop the activity by asking children to imagine a ‘sound-busy’ scene and write a list of what they hear – a building site, a shopping mall, a playground at breaktime and so on. Such soundscapes can then be easily shaped into list poems or pieces of descriptive prose.

On a mat up here

That’s how one child I met remembered ‘onomatopoeia’. Encourage children’s love of the sounds of words by asking them to put a picture to a sound. Give some examples to start them off:

  • DAKA-DAKA-DAKADAKA – the rhythm of a water pump.
  • KRUNK! – a metal sheet crumpling as it’s hit by a heavy object.
  • BUDABUDABUDABUDA – a helicopter flying low overhead.
  • BuDOOMMmm!!! – a muffled explosion nearby (and an example of where it’s acceptable to use more than one exclamation mark!)

Then offer others for children to work on, such as:

  • Rch-rch-rch-rch.
  • Slup!
  • Snp-snp-snp
  • Thp-thp-thp-thp
  • Dibba-dibba-dibbadibba- dibba

Extend the activity by asking for possible reasons behind the spelling of onomatopoeic words found in comics. Why, for example, might we see ‘krak’ rather than ‘crack’?

Word clusters

Whether it’s coincidence or not, some phonemes occur in groups of words that are linked by meaning. So, for example, the sound /gl/- is associated with light, as in glare, gleam, glimmer, glint, glisten, glister, glitter, gloaming, glow. Similarly, /b/- often refers to round things: ball, balloon, bangle, bead, bell, berry, bladder, blimp, blister, blob, bowl, bracelet, bulb, bulge, button. And /g/- is sometimes linked to gooiness; glob, glom, glop, gob, goo, gook, goop, goosh, gore, guck, gum, gunk. What other clusters can the children find?

Sounds good ‘Euphony’ comes from the Greek meaning ‘sweet-voiced’ and refers to a word or phrase that has a soothing or otherwise pleasurable effect on the ear. Its opposite is ‘cacophony’, meaning ‘confused noise’. Show the class some examples and ask which words or sentences sound or flow best? Do any jar on the ear? What combinations of sounds (phonemes) make a word or sentence sound good? ‘Cellar door’ is thought by some to be the most soothing grouping of phonemes in the English language. Say it aloud slowly 10 times to appreciate its relaxing effect.

Compare:
  • ‘Cellar door’ and ‘Shed door’
  • ‘Grey pavement and Grey wall’
  • ‘Brown stairs’ and ‘Brown bricks’
  • ‘Jagged stone’ and ‘Round moon’
  • ‘Rippling liquid’ and ‘Clattering shoes’

Developing this awareness of euphony helps children appreciate its use in poetry, including metre and rhyme, and in prose it helps them to look at how the way words are used together influences aspects of the writing such as pace and flow.

Make some noise

Here are some further ideas for playing with word sounds.

Sensory cross-match

Ask children to search for words that can be applied to more than one of the senses. ‘Sharp’, for instance, can be a word relating to taste or touch. Other examples are ‘soft’, ‘silky’, ‘heavy’, ‘light’, ‘smooth’, ‘long’, ‘short’, ‘high’, ‘low’, ‘rough’.

Words in waiting

I prefer this term to ‘nonsense words’. Offer some examples and ask children to suggest meanings, and encourage them to invent their own words that are just waiting to have meanings attached to them. Here are some a Year 6 class came up with after we’d read the poem ‘Jabberwocky’: ‘reebs’, ‘grasting’, ‘decapedes’, ‘snoodled’, ‘houring’, ‘breathly’, ‘gladeland’, ‘opticus’, ‘gaart’, ‘dawnflower’.

Take the activity further by linking the ideas to parts of speech. ‘Houring’ for instance comes from ‘hour’ which is most commonly a noun, but here is used as a verb or adjective. Ask for examples of sentences using it in that way, e.g. ‘He spent all day houring away his time.’

About the author

Steve Bowkett is a children’s author who runs creative workshops in schools.

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