Tag Archives: vocabulary

Say it isn’t so

Is this why kids are struggling with reading?
Is this why kids are struggling with reading?

My maternal grandfather loved newspapers. When I visited the farm, he would have snippets ready to read aloud – items that had caught his eye or columns that made him laugh. Maybe that’s when the newsprint leaked into my veins. Pa Ern also indulged in the Readers Digest word quizzes and actively strove to improve the household vocabulary.

Fast forward several decades and I’m spending a day with Yr 8 students, explaining how a newspaper is put together. I cover where news stories come from, who crafts them and how they end up on the page. In her preface to these sessions their teacher says that many students have no real understanding of what a newspaper is. They don’t read newspapers and are clueless when it comes to locating traditional elements such as obituaries or editorials. The few families that still subscribe to papers often receive them electronically with the effect that they tend to be seen and consumed solely by adults. Given that I started out in newsrooms before we had Internet or email access and mobile phones were a misnomer, I feel like a complete fossil…

I’ve also been working tutoring a VCE English student. In Year 12 a substantial portion of the English mark is derived from ‘language analysis’ tasks. Students need to read a linked trio of media items (for example an opinion piece, a letter to the editor and a cartoon) and ascertain how language and imagery manipulates their thinking on an issue. Let me condemn myself to the age of the dinosaurs forever; if your principal source of ‘news’ is Facebook and your curiosity about current affairs is limited to who is snogging on Big Brother, you can take it as read that language analysis is going to be arduous.

Lastly, my wife and I have a business where we help children hone their literacy and numeracy skills. After their work is complete, students wait for their parents in a foyer area, surrounded by books. Many of them ignore our library or, if coaxed, pick up a book and flick through it without actually reading. I find that the only way to engage them in a story is to read it to them. I wonder if this happens in their homes.

And so to the graphic that kicked off this post, an Alan Kohler special from the 7pm ABC News recently. If we want young people engaged with the world and able to prosecute their opinions and causes, we need to turn this tragic chart around. Books and newspapers need to be back in front of our kids, crammed with stories that make them gasp, laugh and cry. Maybe we need to switch screens off for an hour a day, just to give tree books a chance.

Book Week questions

Here’s a belated sample of the questions I answered during Book Week – and my answers, as best as I can recall.

Q: Who are my heroes?
A: Corny as it will sound, my heroes are the folks out there helping people, not for fame or money, but because they can and want to.

There are many authors I admire (generally influenced by what I’m reading) but a stand-out in recent years is Markus Zusak who uses words and tells stories in such unexpected ways (and sells oodles of books doing so).

I also admire His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, who embraced the role assigned to him as an infant and became a true world leader, emphasising the importance of tolerance, empathy, compassion and arguing for the independence of the Tibetan people.

My Dad deserves a shout-out here, too. He’s a selfless man of peace who has followed his beliefs for a lifetime.

Q: Which superhero do you think would be funniest to write a spoof story about?
A: Now that’s my kind of question. I’d have to say the Hulk because he’s green and only has superpowers when he’s chucking a tantrum.

Q: How can I improve my vocabulary?
A: Wow. Read widely, then read some more. Use a dictionary when you find a word you don’t recognise or understand. And listen to people, too. Listening to how people speak is a great way of learning A) new words* and B) how to write dialogue. (*You probably won’t need everything you hear.)

Q: How do I make a short story longer?
A: For starters, short isn’t necessarily bad. I don’t believe in ‘padding’ – writing extra words just to meet a word count. Your story should determine the number of words you require. If you’ve written something that isn’t important to the story, define and delete it. If in doubt, cut it out.

However, if you want to enhance your story, rather than pad it, think about the characters? What do they want? What’s stopping them getting what they want? This should open up new ideas to explore.

Q: Do I ever feel embarrassed writing about myself/putting my own life into stories?
A: (Smiling) I’ve never deliberately set out to write about myself although bits of me and my life do creep into stories. In Game as Ned the story settings were based on places I had lived, worked or visited on holiday.

In Five Parts Dead the lighthouse setting was inspired by a family holiday and the five near-death experiences were built from things that actually happened to me. I think authors are like bowerbirds. We shamelessly take/borrow/pilfer bright and shiny ideas from all around us and use them in stories. Some of those things might just be from our own lives.

Q: Do I believe in ghosts?
A: I’m not entirely sure. I do believe in places where a sense of history lingers close to the present, so we can almost feel the people that lived before us. I’ve also had people tell me ghostly tales of things they have seen, things I can’t explain. I used a couple of these spooky stories in Five Parts Dead.

Pretty good questions, all of them. Thanks to the students who were brave enough to pick my brain or approach me for a chat.

The refrigerator repair man

I like to listen to people speak – not polished public speaking but everyday yammer. I listen for the slang they use, idiosyncratic phrasing and vocabulary that I don’t hear from other people.

Our fridge-freezer expired over the weekend and we had a repairman visit early today. He poked about briefly and pronounced the machine to be deceased. Mr Repairman hailed from Sri Lanka, spotted our reasonably new washing machine and then proceeded to lecture me on using it correctly. If you can imagine the sub-continental accent, the conversation went a bit like this:

Him: “You know you must use the proper setting for the whites. Use the machine correctly. By using the ‘whites’ setting you will not be needing bleach or anything like that and the clothes will be coming out whiter than white.”
Me: “We use cold water.”
Him: “Oh no! You must be using the correct setting and just normal powder. It will wash at 90 degrees and you will be very happy. I tell my wife ‘you must use the white setting’ as my singlets, they are cream. People seeing me work in my singlets will be thinking ‘you are a shabby man’. But aaah, no, she does not…”

Language and verbal mannerisms go a long way to making the voice of your characters authentic. It’s why Lauren Child’s Charlie & Lola books are such fun to read – the characters are coming to grips with adult language and misusing words deliciously.

So treat every conversation as a chance to tune in on language. Listening is research for every story you write.