Books that bind: How reading unites a community through common vocabulary

By Melodie Jett, English Language Learners Teacher | May 2020

Have you ever encountered an extremely close family that refers to 17th century history like current events and almost seems to talk in code?

Ever sit in a classroom and feel like you’re missing all the inside jokes?

You just might be witnessing the effects of reading together – and the strong bonds it creates.

I was lucky enough to be raised in one of those families. My mom read to us in the womb and continued throughout our childhood. We started with the traditional fairytales and Dr. Seuss books. We read the Little House series and other classic adventures. But our favorite books were The Hobbit and The Lord of The Rings. We read and reread these books. The vocabulary and concepts of these books soon became entwined in our everyday conversation.

If we were arguing with each other, my mom would say, “No more orc talk.”  If we were whining, we’d often hear, “Naughty little hobbit, won’t take his medicine.”  And there was no mistaking the hiss of Sméagol – “my precious” – as we clung to our favorite toy, refusing to share.

My brother once shared a book with us called the Secret Life of Og. The characters used the word “og” for everything. Being around 9 years old, my brother thought that it would be fun to talk like that. Except og was too simple for such children as we were, so it become “sabatog,” and we had a marvelous two months until my mother couldn’t take it anymore. To this day, one of us will say sabatog to each other,
and we start laughing.

The advantages to shared vocabulary

So, what are the benefits of a shared vocabulary? Besides being able to share in the laughter of an inside joke, having a shared vocabulary is crucial to the cohesiveness of a group. Without a shared vocabulary, it is very difficult to communicate (and communicating effectively can be nearly impossible anyway). Much of what we frown at and deem “jargon” is nothing more than the shared vocabulary of a group of professionals.

Learning the lingo is critical to belonging and understanding. For example, once you know that IEP stands for Individualized Education Program, or that a 504 refers to someone who doesn’t qualify for special assistance for academic needs but may qualify under health issues or behavior, you’ll feel more at ease on a special education team. But rather than viewing this language lesson as a painful, Herculean task, try to see it as a fun opportunity. In fact, if done well, learning the jargon or shared vocabulary can seem like a game.

The idea that shared experiences and stories build a culture is not new. One of my favorite episodes of “Star Trek” (“Shaka, When the Walls Fell”) revolves around this concept. Captain Kirk and crew land on a planet where everyone communicates based on their favorite characters or experiences. Because Captain Kirk and crew are not aware of this population’s history and oral traditions, they have little to no idea what the people are trying to say and are at an extreme disadvantage – in fact, they are about to be killed because of their ignorance. Luckily, one of the natives takes pity on them, and is able to act as a translator between the two groups. (Ironically, we learn during the episode that “Shaka, when the walls fell” translates to failure.)

While we may not be in danger of death due to our literary ignorance, it certainly feels uncomfortable when we don’t know what people are talking about because we are unfamiliar with the references they are using. Just how many literary references do we use in standardized English?  Many more than we might realize.

Popular phrases with literary roots

The Bible alone has added such widely used phrases to the lexicon as the following: “see the writing on the wall”; “Good Samaritan”; “at the eleventh hour”; “at your wit’s end”; “the blind leading the blind”; “by the skin of your teeth”; “to cast pearls before swine”; “eat, drink and be merry”; “to fall by the wayside”; and “feet of clay.”

William Shakespeare also made significant contributions to the English language as we know it today. While there is some debate as to how many he actually added, there are 422 we have agreed upon. Some of my favorites include arch-villain, auspicious, batty, beachy, bedroom, cold-hearted, dauntless, hostile, hurly, leapfrog, lament, rascally, revolting, slug-a-bed, yelping and zany.

Greek mythology is another common source for popular words and phrases. Do you have an Achilles’ heel? Are you an Adonis? Or a Narcissus? Are you trying to solve a Gordian Knot? Did you date a gal with the face of a Gorgon? Did you spill the beans? Eat sour grapes? Perform a Herculean task? Are you between a rock and a hard place? The contributions of Greek myths and fables to our everyday language are almost endless.

Additional popular phrases from literature:

  • Seuss gave us nerd
  • Robot, namby-pamby, catch 22, blatant, utopia, thoughtcrime, pandemonium, yahoo and mentor can all be sourced from 21st-century literature
  • The word chortle came from Lewis Carroll’s brilliant poem “The Jabberwocky,” part of the larger work Alice in Wonderland

As you can see, being well-read and having a shared literary history can greatly affect a person’s understanding of the English language. In fact, as an instructor of English language learners, much of what I teach is rooted in understanding idioms, proverbs and other vocabulary that is not easily translated. While my students are able to use Google Translate to learn that “hello how are you” means the same thing as “hola, come esta,” it is much more difficult for them to understand that the colloquialism “raining cats and dogs” does not mean cats and dogs are falling from the sky, but that it is raining hard.

Activities to create shared reading experiences

So how do we as parents and educators make sure that our children and students are reaping the benefits of shared reading experiences?

  • First, READ. Read early and often and make the experience fun. Make sure it is done in a cozy place with a positive atmosphere.
  • Choose books you enjoy.
  • Remember that it’s okay to read for short amounts of time – you can start with 10 minutes and build your way up to an hour. Some days you will have more time than others.
  • Discuss what you have read. Make connections to the book and your own lives and experiences.
  • Slip words and phrases from books into your everyday vocabulary when you can.

Another fun activity I have used over my teaching career to form bonds and common language through literature is to study and analyze song lyrics. We sing our favorite songs all the time, but how much attention do we really pay to the message in the lyrics? Taking your and your students’ favorite songs and analyzing them together accomplishes a few things:

  1. It makes students aware of what they are really listening to and putting in their brain (also a great way to talk about what is and is not appropriate for school and why).
  2. It bridges the generation gaps. Many of the themes in music are universal, so while we may use different slang across age groups, the message is the same.
  3. If you are willing to suspend judgement, it is a way to find common ground with your students.

Furthermore, poems such as “The Jabberwocky” are great for forming common bonds through word play. I have used the poem several times with different classes to teach parts of speech, context cues and decoding. It’s a fun way to level the playing field, and have students connect with the text and each other.

Selecting a diverse & appealing reading list

The most important thing to remember when sourcing books for lessons is variety. Not every book will appeal to every student, and that is okay. If you feel that most of the class is tuning out, reevaluate your choice. It is okay to admit that this book isn’t as well-liked as you thought. It is okay to let students know they can quit a book after two or three chapters (or around 20-50 pages in).

And make sure YOU like the book. It doesn’t matter if it is “the best book” or that “everyone is reading it” or “you haven’t lived if you haven’t read this book.” If you don’t like it, your students will sense it because you won’t read it well. And if you find joy in reading and can show your students how and why it is fun for you, it will likely become fun for them too. Most of the battle in creating a good reader is finding good books. And the books become more fun when they become part of your classroom’s inside jokes.

The common bonds of reading

In conclusion, reading together helps create common bonds. Introducing students to classic literature and its common phrases and idioms will make them more likely to find the value in reading. Shared vocabulary and inside jokes bring joy into the classroom, and joyful readers are more likely to be lifelong readers – lifelong readers that pass that love and skill on to the next generation.

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