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Teaching Our Children to Speak Well

Years ago our then three-year-old son Andrew and a neighbor friend were playing with a little wooden train set.  A minor dispute arose over the proper shape for the tracks.  Andrew placed them the way we had previously.  The neighbor boy said he didn’t want them to be in a circle.  Andrew said, “It’s an oval.”  In a tone of exasperation his friend asked, “What’s an oval?”  Pointing at the tracks, Andrew responded, “That’s an oval.”

When our older son was about four, a somewhat similar incident occurred.  One of the ladies in our church asked Aaron what his favorite animal was.  He said that he liked dinosaurs.  She then made the fatal mistake of asking him which dinosaurs he liked.  After Aaron, whose delight in primeval reptiles knew no bounds at that age, had rattled off tyrannosaurus, stegosaurus, diplodocus, pterodactyl and who knows what else, she wisely hugged him and told him that she loved him.

Without even considering doing otherwise my wife and I had taught our sons to identify an oval as an oval and a circle as a circle and the proper names for dinosaurs.  Why would we as parents teach them something less exact or even erroneous that would have to be corrected later?

A young child’s mind is perfectly capable of grasping the difference between two geometrical shapes and remembering dinosaur names.  Indeed, they actually enjoy learning.  Unfortunately, we adults, who have often lost our childlike desire to learn, feel that children should be spared as long as possible the drudgery of developing an extensive vocabulary and the arduous task of accurate speech.

The problem is not new.  In her historical novel, Pallas and the Centaur, Linda Proud quotes Quintilian (c. AD 35-c. 100), “See that the child’s nurse speaks correctly and do not allow the boy to become accustomed even in infancy to a style of speech which he will subsequently have to unlearn.  There should be attached to the boy one person who has some knowledge of speaking who can correct any errors.”

I teach at Cair Paravel Latin School in Topeka, which is a classical Christian school.  I had the privilege of observing an elementary school art class.  The teacher used proper artistic terms and the names for artistic movements and their characteristics.  I thought about taking notes, but I was too embarrassed.  The children already knew the terms. I later asked the teacher why she didn’t use simpler terminology.  She answered that the children were capable of understanding the terminology and that there was no reason to teach them some supposedly simpler vocabulary that they would have to relearn later.  She was right, of course.

Our high school is also called the rhetoric school because at this stage we want to stress teaching our students to express their ideas accurately, eloquently and persuasively.  With this goal in mind I give the students vocabulary lists from their reading that they are expected to know.  I share a classroom with another teacher and am sometimes a disruptive force.  During his class, I interjected a playful rebuke to a student, using one of the new vocabulary words.  She answered, accurately using a different vocabulary word.  I responded in kind, and she hit me with another vocabulary word.  Then the teacher told us to behave.  It was fortunate for me, because I was out of words.  The student had beaten the master.  What fun and what a joy for me!

When I was in college, the highly respected District Attorney for Indianapolis was asked what the two most practical courses that he had taken were.  Without hesitation he responded, “Logic and Latin.  Logic because it taught me to reason accurately, and Latin because it taught me to speak clearly.”

As I survey the lack of eloquence, accurate reasoning and clarity of expression in today’s public speaking, I like to think that Cair Paravel and schools like it will be producing tomorrow’s leaders who will plead eloquently for the oppressed, apply accurate reasoning to society’s thorny problems and clearly proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ to a world that needs to hear from the one whose truth will set us free.







4 thoughts on “Teaching Our Children to Speak Well

  1. I couldn’t agree more, Dr. Isley! When Haven, who will be in 3rd grade at CPLS this year, was about 3 or 4, I took her to her yearly checkup at the pediatrician. As part of the checkup, the doctor drew a shape on paper and asked her if she knew what the shape was. She said matter of factly “An oval”. The doctor paused, then laughed, somewhat embarrassed. He said ” You’re right! I meant for it to be a circle, but I made it pretty flat! I’m impressed that you know what an oval is!” In that moment, I knew we were making some good choices in the way we were raising and speaking to our kids.

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