“I Saw a Ogre!”: More Elementary-School Linguistics
Posted by Neal on January 30, 2007
Last Friday I delivered my second linguistics presentation at Doug and Adam’s elementary school. I’d mentioned to Doug’s first-grade teacher from last year that I’d done a presentation in Mrs. K’s room, and could do one for her if she wanted. She said sure, and asked if I could do something about when to use a vs. an. Let’s see, should I tell about the way I did the presentation, or the way I should have done the presentation? We’ll go with the way I did do it.
So I figured I’d go in, start off with the same syntactic shtick I did the week before (“Who told you it’s ‘Ms. L. is sitting at the desk,’ and not ‘Desk the at sitting is Ms. L.’?”) to introduce the idea that they knew things about English that nobody had ever taught them, and then have them inductively figure out why some words go with an instead of a. I didn’t say anything about a or an; I just had Ms. L. start a pattern with me, where I’d say a noun to her, and she’d say it back to me in the frame I saw a(n) . Then I walked around the room, continuing the pattern with each student. If they used a, Ms. L. wrote the word on one part of the blackboard; if an, on another part.
My plan was that when everyone had had a turn, and we had words on the board starting with every possible English word-initial vowel and consonant, only then would I open up the questin of why had been said with a and some with an. I was prepared for the occasional a with a vowel-initial word. If that happened, I’d just have Ms. L. put it with the consonant-initial nouns, give a few other students the same word, and once I got an an, have Ms. L. put it up with the vowel-initials, too.
So a few words into my list, I threw out the first one starting with a vowel. “Elephant,” I said to the next kid.
“I saw a elephant,” he responded. Ha. No problem. I nodded to Ms. L. to put in with the consonant-initial list.
“OK, let’s do that one with you, too,” I said to a kid a couple of tables away. “Elephant.”
“I saw a elephant,” she said. So did the next kid. I had to move on.
I did a few more consonant-initial nouns, and then gave the next kid Easter egg.
“I saw a Easter egg,” she and the next two kids told me. And so it went for almost all my other vowel-initial nouns, except for ape (thanks to Adam, who had come with me) and ant. Oh, and then there was the kid I gave ogre to.
“What’s an ogre?” he asked me. (I should have had Ms. L. write it down right then!)
“A kind of a monster,” I said. “Shrek is an ogre.”
“Oh! I saw a ogre.”
After the data-gathering was done, as I tried to figure out how to salvage the lesson, I talked about the time when I was a first-grader (true story) and had occasion to say an apple. On that particular day, I suddenly asked myself why I said an apple, when I said a banana or a pear, and for the next day or two, made a special point of saying a apple before I went back to saying an. Then I went to the lists we’d made and pointed out that ape and ant had been said with an, too. Why?
Since I couldn’t frame the lesson anymore as how they already knew where to use an, I instead framed it as how they already knew where not to use it.
“Tarantula,” I said. “OK, how many would say an tarantula? Wow, not a single one of you. OK, how about a tarantula? Just about everyone. Now how about umbrella? How many would say an umbrella?” Hearing me say it, several of the kids raised their hands, so I was able to put it on the other list. “And how many would say a umbrella?” The majority raised their hands, but that was OK. All I cared about was that at least some kids would say yes to an for each vowel-initial word, and that none of them do so for any consonant-initial word. Once that pattern was established, it went smoothly, and one smart girl proposed immediately that words starting with a vowel could go with an. We tested that rule out on every other word, and finished off with unicorn (which they were able to sound out as starting with a [y] sound) and hour.
So it didn’t go too badly overall; Ms. L. didn’t rule out the possibility of another such presentation. The next time I do this piece of morphophonology for first-graders, though, I’ll just cut straight to my first-grade memory and then go to the judgments on a and an.