Learning about language structures and features
Language is socially constructed and developed through choice so learning about the use of language structures and features is learning about language choices. It is very important to recognise the difference between spoken and written language as young children usually write what they say and, in this way, oral language becomes the starting point for writing.
In The heart and the bottle the main theme of the story is that to experience happiness we will have to risk sadness by opening our hearts. The girl, who is the main character, loses a close family member and to protect her heart she puts it in a bottle until another young girl ‘someone smaller and still curious about the world’ shows her how to release it again and to live a full and happy life. These abstract ideas and the continuing use of the metaphor of the heart in the bottle would be challenging if not for the pictures which help to tell the story.
We need to be able to predict what a text may be about by making a connection between the text and our own experiences. In this story, the loss of a loved one is symbolised visually by an empty chair, a metaphor reminiscent of Granpa (Burningham, 1984). Language reflects the purpose and context in which it is used; this is known as register (Gibbons, 2006). The three variables which make up any register are field, tenor and mode (Halliday, 2004): what the text is about (field), what connection it makes to the reader/listener/viewer (tenor) and how it was developed (mode). This story is told as if it were a literal sequence of events, ‘she found an empty chair’ and ‘the heart was put back where it came from’, but the story told through the pictures enables us to see the girl grow to a woman who wants to learn to love again.
These serious themes, and the use of sophisticated language features like metaphors, will challenge young readers but they will be able to make meaning through connecting their own experiences alongside the combination of words and pictures.
The Australian Curriculum: English now mandates the importance of becoming knowledgeable about multimodal texts. Children can watch the films based on some of Jeffers’ books and discuss the decisions made by the book’s creator compared with the film’s director. For example, the award-winning film based on Lost and found can be viewed and compared with the text (trailer below). The film can also can be bought from iTunes.
The author study in which children spend ‘two weeks with Oliver Jeffers’ emphasises the importance of playing with language, exploratory talk, storytelling, drawing and sharing contemporary literature. Whether in early childhood settings or in the first years of school, parents and educators are enablers of language and literacy development when they choose engaging books, make time for play and explore the big questions of life with young children. This sets a solid foundation for understanding how the reading process works, and where other key elements, such as phonics and phonemic awareness, comprehension skills and critical literacy can be integrated and developed in a balanced fashion. Enabling children’s language and literacy development, where they enjoy, understand and think deeply as they read, using a range of culturally relevant literary texts with rich stories and illustrations cannot be overstated.