Writing for young language learners

The challenge of writing for young language learners:

Whether I’m writing for young language learners, teenagers or adults, there is nothing I enjoy more than playing with words. The process of writing and rewriting until every word is perfect, the rhythm of every sentence is just right and the text flows effortlessly gives me great pleasure. However, when writing for young language learners, there are a few extra challenges in comparison to writing for native speakers. That’s because, of course, your readers don’t really know all that many English words! That doesn’t mean you can’t tell a good story, though – you just have to keep a few things in mind.

Simple and concise language

As someone who loves words, the hardest thing for me when writing for young non-native speakers is using simple and concise language. My first draft of ‘Ruby’s story’ was much longer and contained many more difficult words than the final manuscript. Once I had a rough draft, I then went through and simplified as many words and sentence constructions as I could without losing meaning or making the text sound clunky. For example, ‘She soared up, high above the trees’ became ‘She flew up, high above the trees.’ ‘Her tummy rumbled’ became ‘Her tummy made a noise.’ Although I was sad to lose some of these words, the result is a story that is much more accessible for a young language learner.

Redundant phrases

Whilst I try to write concisely, I do also purposely build in a few redundant phrases. I wouldn’t do this for a native audience, but when writing for young language learners it can be helpful. For example, in ‘Ruby’s story’ I wrote the lines, ‘She decided to look for something to eat. Food first, family later!’ The concept of the verb ‘eat’ is repeated in the noun ‘food’. Another example would be, ‘Ruby lived with her family in the rainforest. She lived with her mum, her dad and her two brothers.’ These redundant phrases not only consolidate a young language learner’s understanding, but also bring together words that belong to the same semantic field.

Repetition of phrases and ideas

Something else I try to include is some repetition of phrases and ideas. For example, in ‘Ruby’s story’, Ruby’s love of bananas comes up time and again, as does her father’s warning of the dangers of the North Atlantic Ocean. Repetition is found in picture books for native speakers, too, but is even more important when writing for young language learners. Repeating phrases and ideas gives young readers something familiar to keep coming back to. It can also serve to confirm and consolidate their understanding of elements of the story.

The role of pictures

Moving away from the words themselves for a moment, I’d like to consider the role of pictures. In a traditional picture book, the interplay of text and illustration is such that one adds to the other. Whilst there is overlap, the two complement rather than mirror one another. When writing for young non-native speakers, the pictures need to reflect the content of the words much more closely. The pictures play a crucial role in helping the child to better understand the text. For example, in ‘The giant called Ed’, the line, ‘Muffin falls over, hits the floor with a bump!’ is reflected in the fact that, in the picture, Muffin’s cherry is lying on the ground a little away from Muffin himself. This suggests that Muffin hit the floor hard – and therefore consolidates the meaning of ‘bump’. Similarly, in ‘Ruby’s story’, the word ‘reflection’, which is not necessarily a word that all young language learners would know, is made much clearer through the picture in which we see Ruby and her reflection in a skyscraper. So whilst pictures are important for any young reader, for young non-native speakers they can also hold the key to understanding the text itself.

The fun element

Finally, let’s not forget the fun element. Just because you are writing a text for a classroom doesn’t mean the story can’t be fun. If the child enjoys the story, they will learn more from it and want to read it to the end. That also means lots of action to drive the story forward and not too many wordy descriptions!

Writing for young language learners is a challenging but very rewarding process. One of my most satisfying author moments to date was being contacted by a pupil giving his first ever book presentation in English on ‘The giant called Ed’ and being asked for my autograph so he could show his friends at school. Knowing that my writing has engaged even just one child makes all the hard work totally worthwhile.

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