“Dad, have you got something I can subitise?”
“Subitise. It means to count something just by looking at it.”
I am a 40-something writer, with an A-level in maths, two science degrees and over 10 books to my name, but I’ve never, ever encountered the word subitise before.
She is a 4-year-old girl in Reception class, and already her vocabulary reaches places mine has never ventured.
Holly is not being precocious. The whole class had a lesson on subitising. And it seems the modern curriculum is full of words that just weren’t part of growing up in my day. “Phonics” is another one. She brought that treasure home from a nursery class while scarcely three. It was a new one on me, though I’ve since learnt it’s a core part of teaching these days.
I’ve also been impressed by the range of cultural words picked up in school. I’m ashamed to say I’d never encountered Rangoli -- the traditional patterns made during Hindu festivals such as Diwali -- until this autumn term, when Holly came home brimming with enthusiasm for the activity. She’s also been teaching us about Jewish and Muslim traditions. When I was her age, I don’t think I’d even been introduced to the idea of religion.
Then, of course, there are all the unfamiliar words picked up from watching children’s TV -- though I’m not sure “Tumbletap”, “Octonaut” and “Makka pakka akka yakka ikka akka oo!” are particularly useful additions to the adult vocabulary.
All of this got me thinking… what words have other parents learnt from their children? I decided to ask the Kidadl Facebook group for examples. You didn’t disappoint.
Dienes: Kidadlr Gemma suggested a term that I thought I knew. Having a chemistry background, I’m au fait with dienes, which are chemical compounds sporting two double bonds. But apparently there’s another meaning. Dienes in a primary school sense are small cubes, or columns of cubes, used to help children learn basic mathematics. That one passed me by.
Digraph and Trigraph: Kidadlr Clio suggested this pair. They come from phonics. A digraph is simply two letters that make one sound, like Sh, Th or Wh. A trigraph, as you’ll readily guess, is a three-letter combo that makes one sound, like ‘-igh’ in sigh, or ‘-ore’ in manticore (see, I can use fancy words, too). These concepts are apparently encountered aged 5, even though they sound like the kind of fearsome terms we saved till teenage grammar classes. You can even get split digraphs, though I think I’ll let someone else explain those.
Fronted Adverbial: A more complicated bit of jargon, it’s hard to fathom. The fronted adverbial was suggested by Kelly. To put it simply, they’re statements where the verb bit comes after the adverb bit -- as in the first sentence of this section. A useful concept, I think you’ll find.
Grapheme: I had to look up Nicole’s suggestion, too. It’s another joy from phonics. If I’m getting this right, a grapheme is simply a way of writing down a sound. So ‘m’ is a grapheme, but so is ‘th’. If I’m getting this wrong… well, ask your five year old.
Homophone: Another suggestion from Kelly. Homophones are two words that are pronounced the same but have different meanings, like brake and break, or two, to and too. (Or bear and beer if you come from the same, slightly odd northern town that I do. These regional homophones have led to some embarrassment in the pub over the years.)
Jackhammer: What the Americans call a pneumatic drill. Kidadlr Nicki learnt this from her three-year-old, who had in turn got it from Paw Patrol.
Modal Verbs: Everyone’s familiar with common-or-garden verbs. To fish, to run, to sing, to play, etc. But verbs come in more exotic flavours. Take “can” for example. I can, you can, they can… it seems to be a normal verb, but you can’t do that ‘infinitive’ thing and say “to can”. That’s because it’s a modal verb, a term suggested by Kidadlr Jo. Modal verbs are ones that often crop up alongside well-behaved verbs to imply permission or ability or probability. So, I might write more about modal verbs, if I may be so bold, though I could be out enjoying the fresh air. The emboldened words are modal verbs, rubbing shoulders with the main verbs of ‘to ‘write’ and ‘to be’. I should think. I’m learning all this too, you know. Here’s a more studied explanation if you should need more information.
Number Bonds: A KS1 term suggested by Kidadlr Jasmine. These are pairs of numbers that add up to the same thing. So, for example, the number bonds of 10 are 1+9, 2+8, 3+7, and… well, you hopefully get the idea.
Phoneme: Chloé completes our phonics lesson with a word that means a spoken sound. It’s the audible equivalent of a grapheme. “Oo”, written here on your screen, is the grapheme that tells us how to pronounce the phoneme. Do small kids really learn this stuff? Amazing. Chloé also tells us that her son came back from Reception class loaded with thoughts on the hippocampus, prefrontal cortex and amygdala. We’re breeding a generation of brain surgeons here.
Vertices: Kidadlr Dilveer reminds us of the fancy word for the sides of a shape or object. The singular is vertex, which sounds like one of Alan Partridge’s house bands.
So what words have your children taught you? Feel free to join in the Facebook conversation.
Although originally from the Midlands, and trained as a biochemist, Matt has somehow found himself writing about London for a living. He's a former editor and long-time contributor to Londonist.com and has written several books about the capital. He's also the father of two preschoolers.