Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Even More Elementary School Linguistics

Posted by Neal on April 25, 2007

“Okay, ready?” I asked. All Doug’s classmates put a hand on their throat, and we began: “Aaaaaalaaaaaa.” I couldn’t resist adding, “Peanut butter sandwiches!” One girl said, “Huh?” Other kids just looked puzzled. What had I been thinking? Had I really expected them to catch a 1970s Sesame Street reference? That’s OK; I had no idea what the kids in the back were doing when my “peanut butter sandwiches” line inspired them to start chanting, “It’s peanut butter jelly time! Peanut butter jelly time!”

Now for my Lost/Alias-style transition: 20 MINUTES EARLIER

Last week, I did my third linguistics presentation in Doug and Adam’s school. This time, it was in Doug’s classroom, and of the three I’ve done, I’d say this one went the best. The lesson the teacher and I had decided on was, “When you put an S at the end of a word, why does it sometimes sound like a Z?” I started out by asking them what Mrs. M had been teaching them about English, and then, as with the earlier presentations, moved to the idea of things they knew that nobody had taught them. After the same demo I’d used before (“Who taught you that Chair the on Mrs. M sitting is is wrong?”) I said we were going to talk about something else they already knew how to do, and asked one of the kids, “One block, two…?” She said, “Blocks,” and I wrote the word on the left side of the dry-erase board. Then I wrote elicited beds from another kid, and wrote that down on the right side of the board. We went on until the left side had blocks, cats, mops, Garth’s, puffs, grooks, jups, sneets, and yaffs, and the right side had dogs, beds, ribs, gloves, cars, tails, trees, ligs, drouds, flabe, and splows. I just realized that I forgot to put any words ending with nasal consonants, like thumb, pen, and ring (and similarly-ending nonsense words), but the board was getting pretty full as it was anyway.

The next step was for the kids to figure out why I’d put some words on one side and some on the other. One guessed that it was because some were real words and some were nonsense words, a good hypothesis that was quickly laid to rest when I pointed to examples of each kind of word on each side. Another guessed that one side was for nouns and the other for verbs, so we checked out and dismissed that hypothesis. I gave the hint that sometimes an S at the end of a word sounded like [s], and sometimes like [z], and they made the appropriate Relevance-based inference that that was the basis of the separation.

“And you knew when to say it as S and when to say it as Z,” I said. “I listened to each of you when you put the S on the end, and you all knew exactly how to say the word. Even the words that you never heard before, like flabe. How did you know to say [fleIbz] and not [fleIbs]?” (I’m glad I remembered to throw nonsense words into the mix before I talked about the [s] and [z] sounds. If I’d done it afterwards, I could just imagine some kids self-consciously pronouncing every plural ending as [s].) One of the kids proposed that it was easier to say that way, which was great. So the question then was why it was easier.

“How is an S different from a Z, anyway?” I asked. They made some [s] and [z] sounds, and then Doug said that your tongue was in a different place for them, so I conceded that it might be in slightly different places for some speakers, but there was a bigger difference. A girl in the corner said, “Your tongue vibrates more for the Z.”

Yes! This was even better than I’d hoped for. Then the boy next to her said, “Your teeth vibrate more, too,” and the girl in front of him said the same for the cheeks. This was a great class. From there it was easy to show one more place where you could feel the vibration, by having them place their fingers on their Adam’s apple. “Those vibrations are your voice,” I told them. Voice on for the Z, voice off for the S.

Next step: Vowels are voiced, too. I took some vowel suggestions from the class, and we all said them, feeling the vibrations in our larynxes. (This was a necessary piece of the picture, because in order for them to determine which consonants were voiced and which weren’t, I wanted them to sandwich each consonant between two vowels, so they could feel the voicing turn off and back on again for the voiceless consonants. If I asked them to say just a B, for example, they’d likely produce [p], since word-initial /b/ in English is typically pronounced as [b].) With that established, I wrote “aaaasaaaa” on the board and had everyone say it, paying attention to the stop-and-start of the voicing. Then we did “aaaazaaaa,” paying attention to the nonstop voicing.

“Now we’re ready to solve the mystery,” I said. We then went through every word on the left side, substituting the final consonant before the -s into the [a__a] frame. Having noted that all these consonants were “voice off,” like the S, I asked a couple of leading questions to get to the hypothesis that all the word on the right would end with “voice-on” consonants. We then went through all the consonants for the other words and confirmed the hypothesis with no complications at all, except of course for the peanut butter-related ones. Then it was all over except for reiterating that there were lots of rules like this one, that they followed without even realizing it, and if they paid close attention to the language they spoke, they could probably find more of them.

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11 Responses to “Even More Elementary School Linguistics”

  1. Rachel Klippenstein said

    This is really neat. Thanks for doing it, and for posting about it. I’ve often thought about the idea of doing linguistics with kids and about sorts of experiments one could get them to try, but yours are considerably more sophisticated than the ones I’ve thought of. (I suppose I got started on the idea of linguistics with kids because I have a brother who’s 9 years younger than me and he’s been getting bits of linguistics from me since he was tiny.)

    It would be interesting to put together a set of linguistics ‘science experiments’ for kids.

  2. bkmarcus said

    I’m with Rachel. I hope you’ll consider adding a “kids” or “schooling” category for these elementary-school-oriented presentations. Teachers and homeschoolers would love you for it.

  3. Neal said

    Thanks, Rachel and BK, for the suggestions. I’ve added an “Elementary school linguistics” category to the blog, and if there’s sufficient interest from other people who do or have done linguistics lessons for kids, I’ll put a similar link on my homepage for lesson plans, anecdotes, suggestions, linguistics science projects, etc.

  4. bearing said

    Sort of off topic, but I’m a homeschooler, and when I was first teaching my son (now 6.5) to read, I always spent some time talking about how we produced a sound before introducing the letter or digraph that spells it… “Let’s talk about the sound /m/… Do you have your mouth open or closed when you say /m/? Where is the end of your tongue touching when you say /m/? Do you use your voice when you say /m/?” and then I’d show the “m” card.

    He always thought it was great fun. I guess my “theory” was to reinforce that the sounds in our language came first, and writing is meant to express the sounds, not the other way round. I don’t know if it worked or not… he can read now, so I suppose it must not have been too bad.

  5. caerfalias said

    I am also a teacher (of ESL and Special Education students in the Bronx) and am starting to design my own linguistics curriculum for my class in an attempt to boost reading and writing fluency, and also to infuse English with a scientific/mathematic flavor. Your posts about presentations in Elementary school have been extremely helpful. Any suggestions for other resources? I just began exploring your blog, so I’ll keep browsing. Thanks for the creative ideas!

  6. [...] by Neal on January 15, 2008 What did I do wrong? It worked so well with the second graders last year! The second graders had figured out what made [z] different from [s] in pretty short order. [...]

  7. Have you ever done a presentation to children (and/or to teachers) about how many vowel-sounds English has … and how and WHY linguists classify them featurally?

    • Neal said

      No, I haven’t. I could probably cover roundess, but it’d be a bit harder to demonstrate frontness and backness than articulatory features for consonants. Do you think such a presentation would work well? Have you done one?

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