Storing Up Treasures in the Grammar Stage

I’ve been reflecting recently on the essential work of storing up language in children.  I don’t mean merely learning individual phonics sounds or word families or even isolated vocabulary words.  No, this important exposure to words is deeper than that.  In her book, Proust and the Squid, author Maryanne Wolf highlights the significance of a child’s exposure to the language of ideas at a young age.  She writes:

“Years ago, the cognitive scientist David Swinney helped uncover the fact that when we read a simple word like “bug,” we activate not only the more common meaning (a crawling, six-legged creature), but also the bug’s less frequent associations—spies, Volkswagens, and glitches in software.  Swinney discovered that the brain doesn’t just find one simple meaning for a word; instead it stimulates a veritable trove of knowledge about that word and the many words related to it.  The richness of this semantic dimension of reading depends on the riches we have already stored, a fact with important and sometimes devastating developmental implications for our children.  Children with a rich repertoire of words and their associations will experience any text or conversation in ways that are substantively different from children who do not have the same stored words and concepts.”[1]  (emphasis mine)

If a child’s exposure to and storage of words and ideas long before she can manipulate them has such drastic implications for her ability to read deeply and think critically later on, then classical education may be ahead of the game.  In fact, this is one of the driving aims of the grammar stage: exposure to words—stories of history, descriptions of art, the language of math, rhythms of literature, and naming the natural world.  Teachers (and parents!) of students in the grammar stage have a unique opportunity to place deposits into the bank of student knowledge—and it will grow exponentially.  Classical educator and author Susan Wise Bauer defends the importance of this storage act:

“Young children are described as sponges because they soak up knowledge.  But there’s another side to the metaphor.  Squeeze a dry sponge, and nothing comes out.  First the sponge has to be filled.” [2]

Perhaps for us as parents and classical educators—those who are already convinced of the need for exposing young children to important words and ideas—the question to ask is: Are we filling up sponges?  Are we giving grammar-stage students an overflowing treasure trove of information from which to continue their intellectual growth, or are the jewels scant?  Here are a few suggestions for filling the sponges full:

  1. Use the power of story as a vehicle for exploration. History comes alive when viewed through the stories of its characters. One excellent resource for this is Susan Wise Bauer’s Story of the World.  Bauer’s winsome stories transport students into faraway places and encourages their understanding of diverse cultures and historical events. Historical fiction, such as Susan Olasky’s Adventures in the American Revolution, also offers an opportunity for students to be transported into history.  Good fiction tales also expose our children to rich words and ideas they might not otherwise learn.  Maryanne Wolf writes of such tales:

“No parent typically produces sentences with [so] many descriptive adjectives, prepositional phrases, and clauses, much less words such as enchanted, long-accursed, and in vain.  This is the secret language of story found nowhere else that starts the spell with that exciting, long, tingling word onceuponatime and goes on to develop multiple aspects of oral and written language—like semantic knowledge…syntax, and even phonology—with no one and everyone the wiser.”[3]

Of course, the benefit of reading stories to children in the grammar stage extends far beyond their exposure to new vocabulary, places, and cultures; such stories also contribute to the building of a child’s character as he comes into contact with themes such as justice, compassion, service, and sacrifice. Filling sponges includes more than merely depositing academic concepts!

  1. Listen to different voices. The skilled grammar-stage teacher will expose his students to a variety of voices in their learning experience—both literally and metaphorically. From research in the fields of linguistics and second language acquisition, we know that students exposed to a variety of speakers (different genders, ages, accents) acquire proficiency in a target language more readily.  However, a variety of texts and authors is also beneficial for storing up critical knowledge of culture and ideas.  Do we only read books about or by Americans?  Do students only hear the teacher’s voice?  Do students know the stories of children from other countries, cultures, and time periods, or are they only familiar with their own?[4] What drastic consequences the answer to these questions may have!

Audiobooks can be an excellent resource for facilitating exposure to a variety of words, ideas, cultures, and even actual voices.  My own family is deep into The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place[5] in audiobook form, and I have already noticed (with great delight!) my children picking out archaic words and phrases, often mimicking the humorous accents of the characters.  Audiobooks are a great medium for exposing children to stories from different cultures and parts of the world, as you can literally hear other people’s stories without leaving your home or vehicle!  Our family is planning some international travel soon, and I hope that with every audio tour of a museum or conversation with a foreigner, they will tuck away words and experiences that will broaden their views of the world.  I know my own world has been shaped by such voices!

  1. Utilize rich, winsome materials. From my beginning days as a homeschooling mom of a preschooler until now, I’ve always loved classical education’s emphasis on primary texts, rich literature, and beautiful art.  However, our responsibility for exposing our students to these things doesn’t end with curriculum selection.  Libraries of good books for free reading and exploration are perhaps among the most important gems we can offer our young pupils for their treasure store of knowledge.  In my short twelve years as a parent, there has been a steady pattern of selection in my children’s reading habits.  Among their favorites are: The World of Narnia Collection (a beautifully illustrated children’s version of C.S. Lewis’s classic Narnia stories)[6]; The Little Lights set of Christian biographies; Usborne books on art, science, and space; Ella K. Lindvall’s colorful Read Aloud Bible Stories; and the masterfully illustrated Jesus Storybook Bible.  What books are at home in your classroom or school library?  Do they spark imagination?  Add understanding to vocabulary?  Promote character?  Display beauty?  Explore culture?
  1. Link younger students with older ones—or guests! It goes without saying that a child exposed to a broader world than his or her own will have a greater store of words and ideas from which to attach future understanding.  Yet it isn’t always possible to export students outside of the classroom for this exposure to otherness.  One remedy for this is to link younger students to older ones.  Invite upper school classes to present their own projects to your grammar stage students; solicit guest readers for story time; involve older students in your classroom presentation of new material when appropriate.

When possible, invite “resident experts” to talk to your students about their fields of work or study.  Let students hear why artists create, what scientists are researching, and how missionaries are working in the world.  And when it’s not possible for experts to come to you, go to them!  Let students listen to musical performances, attend a lecture, watch theater productions, and visit the dairy farm.  Let the children hear all of the words and ideas wrapped up in such experiences and broaden their worlds.

For the classical Christian educator, the grammar stage is not only about exposing children to the language of ideas, but indeed the very creativity and words of God himself.  As we lead grammar-stage students through God’s Word and world, may it be a winsome walk; may they find Him in everything that is True and see Him at work everywhere.

“This is my Father’s world…

He shines in all that’s fair;

In the rustling grass I hear Him pass;

He speaks to me everywhere.”[7]




[1] Maryanne Wolf. Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain. p. 9. New York: Harper Collins, 2007.

[2] Susan Wise Bauer. Well-Trained Mind: A Guide to Classical Education at Home, pp. 21-22. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2019.

[3] Maryanne Wolf. Reader Come Home: The Reading Brain in the Digital World. p. 139. New York: Harper Colllins, 2018.

[4] For an excellent guidance in addressing this problem, see Jamie C. Martin’s Give Your Child the World: Raising Globally Minded Kids One Book at a Time. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016.

[5] The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place by Maryrose Wood.  (If you haven’t read these to your children—or listened to the audiobooks—you simply must!)

[6]The World of Narnia Collection is children’s version of C.S. Lewis’s Narnia stories beautifully illustrated by Deborah Maze; published by Harper Collins.

[7]Babcok, Maltbie B.  My Father’s World. 1901. Public domain.

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