Overall Course Plan

The linguistics for kids course would meet for two hours on each of eight Saturdays. The first class would be devoted to an introduction of the teacher, the students, and the subject – linguistics. During the next six classes, students would explore different branches of linguistics: phonology, morphology, semantics, syntax, historical linguistics, and sociolinguistics. On the first day, students were told that they were expected to work on a project related to one of the topics. They were free to choose any topic they found interesting. On the last day of the course, students would present and discuss their projects for the benefit of their parents, who were invited to attend that day. The students’ projects would also be displayed around the room so that parents and the other students could take a closer look.

A couple of months before the class met for the first time, the researcher presented the teacher for the course (referred to here as MA) with basic information she would need about the different branches of linguistics. She could use the information to create lessons for the children as she saw fit. She was encouraged to help the children explore the topics – even if she herself was unfamiliar with them. In other words, she could explore along with the children. She was not expected to know all the answers.

One week before the Saturday program began, the researcher contacted MA to go over the lesson plans she had created for the course. At this point, MA stated that she had been busy and had not prepared any lessons. She added that since she had taught grammar to gifted children before, she did not see a problem in proceeding with the lessons, even without any plans. To ensure that the students covered the material planned for the first day, the researcher created a general plan (Appendix 1) as well as some materials to give to the students and emailed it to MA three days before class.

Day One – What is Language?

MA began the class by introducing herself and the topic of the course. She then passed out a handout (Appendix 2) explaining what linguistics is and told the students that the class would be looking at language the way linguists do. Next had the children play some games that the researcher had recommended. First, each student was given a piece of paper with a number from one to seven on it. The students were then asked to line themselves up in numerical order without doing any talking, gesturing, or revealing their number. After some effort and a little frustration, the students were able to line themselves up. Second, students played a game of charades. Each student was given a slip of paper with a word or a sentence on it. The words represented feelings like sad, happy, surprised, and confused. The sentences represented more complex ideas like “I don’t understand why you are here.” Those students who had single words to act out had no trouble getting others to guess what they were trying to convey. Those students with the sentences were unsuccessful in getting the others to guess what was on their slip of paper. They did not try very hard, though, because they realized immediately that conveying such a complex idea through gestures alone would be difficult. When they revealed their sentences to the other students, everyone laughed and made comments like “What?” expressing their understanding of the impossibility of communicating complex ideas through gestures.

Once the game playing was done, MA asked the students what life would be like without words. The answers they gave included “boring,” “hard,” “miserable,” “dumb,” “dull,” and “quiet.” This would have been a good opportunity for MA to ask the students why they answered as they did and to relate their answers to the games that were played at the beginning of the class. However, she seemed to have trouble sorting out what the students said or relating the comments to the games.

At this point, MA asked students what language is and whether animals have language. All the students responded that language is communication and communication is language. They had more interesting things to say about whether animals have language. They agreed that animals communicate and provided these examples of the ways communication took place with animals: dog’s bark, bees dance, birds chirp. Because animals communicate, students concluded that they must, therefore, have language. MA then handed out a sheet to students outlining the characteristics that most linguists believe languages possess (Appendix 3). They discussed these characteristics, but some of the students still thought that it was possible that animals were capable of “deep” thoughts. One of the students even said that “animals are very smart, smarter than we think they are and could be discussing parties and past events, but we just don’t know it.”

MA allowed students the freedom to say whatever they believed about language. The atmosphere that she created made the students feel comfortable. That kind of atmosphere is helpful in any classroom since it allows students to freely explore a topic. Unfortunately, the students were given no guidance to help them understand why they might or might not be correct. MA did not wrap up the lesson. That is, she did not help students understand how linguists define language or whether animals have language – even though she had been provided with this information. Students were left thinking it was possible that animals could very well be discussing past events and parties.

For homework, students were asked to think about how many sounds the English language has. They were given a handout that illustrated how sounds are made and introduced them to the concepts of “phonemic inventory” and “minimal pairs” (see Appendix 4). This would be discussed in the next class. They were not required to do any research, just to think about it. Students were also asked to visit the Web site, a site about Koko, the gorilla that uses sign language.

Day Two – Phonology

Because the material for the first day had not been fully covered, some time would have to be spent continuing the discussion about language and linguistics and then discuss phonology. MA began by telling students that they would spend the class talking more about language and start a discussion on phonology. She then asked students about “phone” and “phonology.” She was able to get them to see the connection between “phone” in “telephone” and “phon(e)” in “phonology.”

MA then talked to the students about Koko, the signing gorilla. Only one student, Jake, had visited the Koko website. He was also the only one who had missed the previous class. His mother, however, had gotten the materials and homework for him. Jake was also the only student who thought animals could communicate without language. He commented that communication is instinctive, but it doesn’t necessarily include thoughts. Another student replied that we can’t prove that animals can’t “talk.” We just don’t know their language. At this point, the researcher commented that linguists do not all agree on exactly how to define language.

The students continued talking about language and were discovering that language changes over time. Jake commented that “some ‘idiot’ couldn’t pronounce ‘break fast,’ so it became ‘breakfast’.” He added that humans have a voice box, but animals don’t. The students then began to talk about the sounds in English. MA asked how many sounds English had. Sam thought there were 26 letters and 44 phonemes. Lucy thought there were 34 sounds. Jake thought each letter had two sounds so there must be 52 sounds. Talking about sounds led to some comments about rhyming, at which point, Sam brought up Cockney rhyming slang and provided a couple of examples for the students.

MA asked the students to make a sound, any sound. Then she asked them to make the sound of a drum. Penny said, “snare,” and MA had to point out that “snare” was the name of a drum rather than the sound a drum makes, but she was able to get the students to see that sounds of a language have to have some “meaning.” Not all sounds we can make are part of the English language.

Students then stopped for a scheduled 15-minute break. When they returned, they wanted to play the game Mad Gab. Mad Gab is a game that takes a phrase and breaks the sounds differently to create different words. Players must figure out where the breaks belong to determine the real phrase. For example, a game card might have the words “Thigh Sing Gone Thick Ache” on it. Much of the fun of the game comes from players trying to different breaks and emphasis to discover the real phrase. In this example, the phrase is “the icing on the cake.”

The idea had been to introduce students to the sounds of language and how they are put together in order to create words. Playing Mad Gab would then provide a fun way to introduce the concept of suprasegmentals. However, although MA was able to create a comfortable atmosphere and guide students in some discussion of language, she did not seem attempt to help students draw any conclusions. At the end of the second class, students still did not seem to understand how linguists define language, whether animals have language, or even that linguistics is the scientific study of language. Every idea was treated as equally valid. What seemed to be most important was that the students have fun. If the course continued at this pace, the students would not learn about the scientific study of language. It was also not clear whether there would be enough time to cover the remaining topics in the five classes that were left.

After the students left, the researcher talked with MA about how to get caught up. We determined that we would blend the remaining information on phonology with the lessons for the next class on morphology. While the researcher had provided MA with a general plan for the first day, she had hoped that MA would be able to create one for the second day based on the materials she had provided for MA prior to the start of the program. However, MA did not have one prepared and was not covering all the material that needed to be covered. To get caught up and moving forward, the researcher decided to create a specific lesson plan with specific goals and objectives. MA would get the detailed lesson plan in an email a few days before class met again in case she had any questions.

Day Three – Language, Linguistics, and Phonology Again

The third class would be the first time that MA worked with a detailed lesson plan provided by the researcher. Before the students came in, MA asked to speak with the researcher. She wanted to talk about the researcher’s “approach and said that she does not like working with a “script.” She said that she was very busy and did not have time for it. The researcher replied that she understood how busy MA was and thought a detailed lesson plan with goals and objectives would help save MA preparation time.

In spite of MA not wanting to work with a “script,” she followed the plans for the class (Appendix 5). She talked about what language is, providing helpful examples and asking questions that engaged the students and got them thinking. When talking about the creativity of language (the potential to create an unlimited number of phrases and sentences never before heard), she asked students to come up with phrases to describe a new toothpaste they invented. The students responded with ideas like “brush and bright.” MA was able to take the researcher’s lesson plan and adapt it to the class, coming up with her own examples and questions.

Before moving on to a discussion of phonology, MA talked with the students about linguistics – what it is and what linguists do. She noted that linguistics is the scientific study of language, to which one student replied, “I hate science.” MA responded by saying that “the study of language is hard if you don’t know it, just like science.”

MA then turned the discussion to phonemes. She had the students form sounds, altering the shapes of the lips, the position of their tongues and so on. This exercise generated some laughter, but also some interest. The researcher interjected at this point to get students to understand the difference between voiced and unvoiced phonemes. She asked the students to place their hands on their throats and then make a “b” sound and then a “p” sound, then a “d” sound and then a “t” sound. The expression on the faces of some of the students was one that accompanies a feeling of surprise or amazement.

MA then handed out an English phonemic chart (Appendix 6), which the students were asked to fill in. In the previous class, students had discussed the number of sounds they thought were in English and gave a variety of answers. For homework, they had been asked to come up with a word to illustrate each sound of the English language. They could work together with other students see if they could figure out the sounds. Before they could finish filling in the chart, however, it was time for a break.

When the break was over, MA handed out a chart of the English Phonemic Alphabet (Appendix 7). The chart provided information on how the sounds are formed (where in mouth, where the tongue is, whether voiced or unvoiced, etc.). It included the phonetic symbol and a word the illustrated each sound. MA asked the students to make the different sounds and pay attention to where what they were doing with their mouths, their lips and their tongues. Some students also remembered the tip about voiced and unvoiced sounds and placed their hands on their throats to note whether they could feel vibrations.

To get the students thinking more about sound and meaning, MA gave students a handout on language sounds (Appendix 8). It asked students to consider which words in a made-up list referred to something big and which referred to something small. Each of the words contained either [i], [I], or [u]. Interestingly, the students first tried to think of what the words meant. Once they got past that, almost all the students thought the words with [u] referred to something large. MA let the students know that these sounds in more than one language often refer to something large, while the [i] and[I] refer to something small.

Finally, MA told the students to think about the game Mad Gab they had played during the previous class. She asked them what they had to do to guess the correct phrases. One student said that she had to divide the letters up differently, so MA asked if it was the letters or the sounds that had to be moved. The students all agreed that it was the sounds that had to be moved. Then MA asked what it meant to move the sounds. “When you move a letter, you attach it to other letters. How do you move a sound?” The students seemed to understand, but had difficulty articulating the answer. They gave answers like “You just say it with the other sounds.” At this point, the researcher asked, “Do you mean you pause in different places?” The students either nodded in agreement or shouted out “yes!” The researcher then let them know that sounds that are grouped together are called “morphemes,” and they would learn about those in the next class.

To reinforce the learning of English phonemes, the researcher had created a “Phonetic Scrabble” game. It makes use of a regular Scrabble board, but instead of letters on the tiles, there were phonetic symbols (see Appendix 9). Students did not have to have memorized the sounds that are represented by the symbols; a word, with the letter representing the sound underlined, appeared on each tile. Other than this difference in tiles, the game is the same. Players have to create words using the tiles that they have, as well as any tiles that are available on the board in words already played. The children seemed to enjoy this game. They were laughing quite a bit and frequently challenged one another on the words, attempting to sound out the word using the phonemes on the tiles. When it was time for class to be over, some of the children did not want to stop playing and were eager to show their parents the game when the parents arrived to pick them up.

Day Four – Phonology and Morphology

Starting with what the class had covered during the third class period, the researcher created another lesson plan for MA to use during the fourth class period and sent it to her in an email three days before class was to meet (see Appendix 10). The fourth class would continue with lessons on phonology and then cover morphology.

While waiting for all the students to arrive, MA talked about palindromes, providing a couple of examples, like pop. Then she asked the students to think of some on their own, which they eagerly did until it was time for class to begin. MA later told the researcher that she thought playing with palindromes would be a good warm-up since one of the topics for the day included “words.” This suggests that MA not only looked at the lesson plans she was given, but also gave them some thought and came up with her own idea on how to get students started for class.

Once class started, MA reminded the children that sounds are the smallest building blocks of a language. To illustrate the concept of meaningful sounds of a language, MA had the students write words on the board that would make a minimal pair with words she listed on the board. She first wrote some examples of minimal pairs on the board: cat / cap and mat / rat. After explaining that the change in one sound changed the word to a different word, MA asked students to take turns coming to the board to make a sound change. The students seemed to focus more on letters than on sounds, in spite of the playing they did in the previous class with the phonetic alphabet. For example, one child wrote eat as a change from sat, changing the s to an e. Eventually, one child wrote kit as a change from cat, recognizing that the two initial letters might be different, but the sound they represented was the same.

MA then had them play a “minimal pairs game,” but this time they would speak the words rather than write them on the board. She started by writing a word, like hall, on the board and then students took turns creating a minimal pair with the last word given. The game worked better than writing words on the board since students paid attention to the sounds without being distracted by seeing the letters on the board. When the game concluded, MA talked more about minimal pairs, explaining it in terms of enunciation. She then began talking to the students about the made-up words of Dr. Seuss, providing some examples such as Yertle the Turtle. However, she did not tie her discussion of Dr. Seuss in to minimal pairs.

MA next wrote the following on the board: ik kæn ciŋtυt. She was not an completely familiar with the phonetic alphabet or which symbols to use for which sounds, but she wanted to get the children started playing with the phonetic alphabet and she let the students know that she was learning just as they were. She and the children then took turns writing words and phrases on the board using the phonetic alphabet for everyone else to guess. They seemed to be enjoying themselves as they tried to remember the sounds and then blend them together in order to guess the word or phrase. They were able to recognize incorrect symbols and were quite competitive in getting the correct answers.

After the break, MA reviewed much of what they had covered during the first half of the class and reminded them that sounds blend together to make words. One of the students noted that words have meaning. MA then began talking about words rather than morphemes. For example, as she talked about prefixes, roots, and suffixes, she said that some “words,” like mouse can stand alone. After some discussion of roots and affixes, MA gave the students a “morpheme” game to play (see Appendix 11). The game is a card game that plays something like “Rummy.” Players start with cards that have roots, prefixes, or suffixes on them. They have to combine cards to create words. At first the students were trying to make “real” words and were also concerned about spelling. For example, one student wanted to make the word “created” with the root “create” and the suffix “-ed.” But other students at her table told her that she could not have “createed” because that wasn’t a word. The researcher reminded them about sounds not being the same as spelling and then explained that they could consider the “-ed” as a morpheme that has the meaning “past tense.”

It is impossible to include every root in the English language in a card game. It’s not even possible to include too many of them or it would require a number of cards that would end up being unmanageable. Therefore, the students had a limited number of roots and affixes to work with, so creating “real” words would be difficult. Students quickly stopped trying to create only “real” words and began combining morphemes to create words which they would then define for the other players. The students then began making up additional rules for the game as they went along. For example, they decided that a word would be acceptable if the player who created it gave a definition of the word that made sense to them. “Viewtion” would not be accepted because the player who created it could not come up with a definition that satisfied the other players.

Before the students left for the day, MA gave them a morpheme homework sheet (Appendix 12) that had sets of morphemes for them to work with. These included roots and suffixes that they would use to create words that matched a given definition. They then had to put the right word in sentences each of which contained a blank spot for one of the words. The sets came from “Word Roots” software by Critical Thinking Books & Software.

Day Five – Morphology and Syntax

When the researcher entered the classroom, MA was already there. She had come early to hang a poster on the wall of “Lingua Corporis” for the students, which illustrated different signs of body language. As the students came in, MA got them started with a warm-up activity. She asked them to draw a picture of sayings with double meanings and provided “No fly zone” as an example. The students seemed to enjoy the activity, drawing pictures and sharing them with the others to see if they could guess the sayings. Once all the students arrived, MA followed the lesson plans the researcher had prepared for the class (Appendix 13).

MA then asked the students to get out the morpheme homework they had been given the previous week in class. All but one student had completed the homework, and the one who did not have it done had been absent during the previous class. MA had the students share their answers by putting the words they created by combining morphemes on the board. Only one student had trouble combining the morphemes – the student who had been absent. In spite of missing the lesson, however, this student was willing to put his “guesses” on the board. Students continued with the morpheme activity until it was time to go on a break.

After the break, MA began a lesson on syntax. She reminded students that sounds make morphemes, morphemes make words, and then words make sentences. She then wrote the words “boy went” on the board and asked the students to add words and phrases to make it longer. Students took turns writing in words and phrases to go from the two words MA provided to a much longer sentence as illustrated below:

The boy went.
The boy went to school.
The boy went to school at 8:00 in the morning.
The boy went to school at 8:00 in the morning with his books.
The boy went to school at 8:00 in the morning with his red books.
The boy went to school at 8:00 in the morning with his heavy red books.
The boy went to school at 8:00 in the morning with his heavy red math books.
The boy went to school at 8:00 in the morning on Tuesday with his heavy red math books.
The boy went to school at 8:00 in the morning on Tuesday behind the bus with his heavy red math books.
The boy went to school at 8:00 in the morning on Tuesday behind the bus with his heavy red math books, and said, “I hate school.”
The dark-haired boy went to school at 8:00 in the morning on Tuesday behind the bus with his heavy red math books, and said, “I hate school.”

MA then talked to the children about the importance of word order in English. She wrote the following sentence on the board and asked the students to explain what they thought it meant: “The dentist used tongs to pull out the man’s teeth which were like pliers.” The students laughed and agreed that the sentence made it seem as though the man’s teeth were like pliers. After distributing a handout about syntax (Appendix 14), MA talked with the students about meaning in addition to syntax. She went over the handout with them and spent time with them on Chomsky’s sentence “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously,” asking students to consider first whether the sentence was grammatically correct and then whether it made sense. Students had no trouble recognizing that it was grammatically correct. They also didn’t think it made any sense, and did not seem to have a problem recognizing why. For example, one student said that “something can’t be green and colorless at the same time because green is a color!” Another student suggested that “someone might be able to sleep furiously if they moved around a lot in their sleep,” but another student pointed out that “furiously means you’re mad and how do you sleep mad?”

The rest of the class period was spent doing a sentence activity. Each table of students was given a pile of slips of paper on which were words of different parts of speech (see Appendix 15). They were to take turns adding words together to create sentences, which might or might not make sense. Since some combinations were no more logical than Chomsky’s, the students came up with some funny sentences. They seemed to have more fun creating nonsensical sentences than sentences that made sense.

Before the students left, MA asked the students if they had started working on their course project yet. On the first day of the course, the students had been given a sheet that gave them some ideas for a project they could work on (Appendix 16). Most of the students said they had. MA said that she would like them to share their ideas at the beginning of the next class.

After the students left, MA told the researcher she had something to say. She said that she had been wrong about what the students could do and what they would enjoy about the course. She added that she now believed the researcher had been right and that the students seemed to be enjoying the class and the language study very much.

Day Six – Syntax and Historical Linguistics

Once again MA had come up with a warm-up activity for the students as they waited for the rest of the students to arrive. This time she had them create “name pyramids.” Each student would write the first letter of their first name at the center top of a sheet of paper. They then had to create a pyramid by writing words under it that started with the same letter. The words had to describe them and be longer than the word above it. Once the students had arrived MA asked them about the projects they were working on. Several of the students were creating language games, two of which were based on the phonetic alphabet. One student was working on a project about whether animals have language.

MA then talked to the students a bit about the kinds of errors that spell and grammar checkers will not catch. These “errors” included nonsense sentences like Chomsky’s sentence that they had looked at the previous week. She noted that while such sentences do no make sense, they are grammatically correct. At this point, MA began working with the lesson plan for the day that the researcher had provided (Appendix 17).

The plan for the first hour was to work with some nonsense sentences (Appendix 18). Students were asked to try to figure out why those sentences did not make sense. The students knew that the sentences were not “right,” but rather than explain why they weren’t right, they focused on possible metaphorical meanings or changed words in order to “correct” the sentences. For example, one student explained “young toast” as a metaphor for “new toast” or “fresh toast.” The students recognized that the sentences had something wrong with them, but they were unable to explain what the problems were. MA seemed to have as much trouble explaining the problems as the students had. She could not offer any suggestions for the problems. Before going on break, the researcher explained a couple of the problems. For example, in the sentence “The young toast taught the sad paper,” she noted that toast is not capable of teaching. Toast does not have that quality. Paper cannot be sad because it does not have the quality feeling emotions.

After the break, MA handed out a sheet on some theories that linguists have suggested to explain how language began (Appendix 19). She had the students take turns reading the theories out loud and the students seem to find them quite amusing. MA then distributed a handout on the history of language (Appendix 20), which explained that languages are alive, that they change over time. When a language is no longer spoken, it is extinct, – dead language. MA then handed out a copy of the Indo-European Language Tree, taken from Daniel Short’s Web site ( The discussion over language families was quite lively as students looked to see which languages were related to other languages and which languages developed from which languages. They discovered that English is a Germanic language. MA then handed out a Word Match sheet (Appendix 21), which asked the students to match English words with their German cognates. They had no trouble matching the words.

After the students left, MA and the researcher discussed some ideas for the next class session, which would be the last one in which students would be learning about language. The researcher would incorporate some of the ideas into the lesson plans for the seventh day of the course.

Day Seven –Historical Linguistics and Sociolinguistics

The students enjoyed learning about the history of language so much in the previous class session that the lesson plans for this last session (Appendix 22) were primarily about how languages in general change and how English specifically changed over time. MA had created a timeline starting at 55 BC and ending with “After 1600.” The years for other significant events in the development of English were marked on the timeline, which stretched across half of one wall in the classroom. MA handed out notecards to the students on which she had printed a number from 1 to 13, along with the date and a brief description of one of thirteen major events in English language history. Next, MA asked the students to read their cards in order and then tape their card to the correct place on the timeline on the wall.

After the timeline on the wall was complete, MA handed out copies of the timeline and a sheet with more complete descriptions of the major events (Appendix 23). The students seemed to enjoy learning about these different events and the ways they influenced the English language. It was interesting to not that based on their comments about the Great Vowel Shift, students seemed to think that except for those changes in vowel sounds, English today does not sound that much different from earlier forms of English. They thought that the changes involved different words and some different word endings. (One student said that people in Shakespeare’s time said things like “We goeth home.”) The researcher had provided MA with some sound files to play for the children. One was a reading of the Old English poem “Deor” and another was a reading of the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales in Middle English. Before playing the readings, MA handed out copies of these works. The students were surprised by the look of Old English, some saying that it did not look anything at all like English. One student proclaimed that “it doesn’t even have the same letters! “

When MA played the sound files, the children were surprised at how different old English sounds from Modern English. Their eyes widened and they exchanged glances with one another. Some of them laughed and some made comments like “No way that’s English!” After listening to the sound file of Middle English, the students made comments suggesting that it still sounded “weird,” but not as “weird” as Old English. One student said that at least it was possible to recognize some of the words.

MA then played more sound files, all readings of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18, but in different dialects. These dialects included Shakespearean, Dublin, Sussex, Lowland Scottish, County Kerry, Yorkshire, and Cockney. Students had a copy of the sonnet so that they could read along as they listened to the different readings (Appendix 24). The handout included a short explanation of how linguists know the way words were pronounced when we have no recordings of them. Since one of the students had been interested in Cockney rhyming slang, the researcher thought the class might enjoy learning more about it. MA handed on an exercise sheet that described Cockney rhyming slang and explained how it is created (Appendix 25). The students had trouble understanding the slang terms. They were looking for logical semantic connections rather than just recognizing that it is based on rhyming.

MA then led the class discussion back to the Timeline of English and to the influence of English in the world. Students knew that many people around the world speak English and that many English words are borrowed by other languages. They discussed language change and the influence of English until it was time for their break.

After the break, MA gave the students a handout on “Where Words Come From” (Appendix 26). It listed just a few of the languages from which English has borrowed words, followed by a list of words that were borrowed. Students were asked to guess which language each of the words came from. After about five minutes, they were given the answers. They seemed to enjoy learning where the words came from.

Once the students completed the exercise on borrowed words, MA began talking about another way English adds new words – coining. She first distributed a handout that explained different types of coined words and then gave them a sheet to fill out (Appendix 27). After discussing the different ways words are created (acronyms, clipping, etc.), MA asked the students to try to figure out the meanings of the coined words in the list. These words included “mathlete” and “frienemy.” The students had fun with the exercise, but they seemed to be more interested in coming up with “clever” answers to get a laugh from the other students than they were in figuring out a logical meaning for the newly coined words. For example, one student said that “frienemy” meant a “fried enemy.” Some of the students also made up words of their own, most of which were acronyms, but one student came up with “musipencil,” which she said was a pencil that played music as you wrote with it.

The class went on to discuss the ways words can change meaning over time. After handing out a sheet that provided some brief explanations (Appendix 28), MA had the students take turns reading the explanations and then talking about what they mean when they used the word “wicked.” The last task the students were given involved social uses of language. The original idea for the course had been to spend an entire class on sociolinguistics, but due to problems during the first two days, there was very little time left for any discussion. MA gave the students a handout on social uses of language (Appendix 29), which briefly explained that different groups of people might use language in different ways; men and women don’t always use the same kind of language, nor do adults and teenagers. Students talked about the different ways they might express the same idea if they were talking to different people – close friends, parents, teacher, etc. They also talked about words that they might use that their parents don’t use. Unfortunately, there was an insufficient amount of time left to allow them to explore these ideas fully.

Day Eight – Presentation of Final Projects

The last session of the course focused on the projects that the students had created. Parents were invited to attend and see what the other children had done. Desks were set up so that each student could display their project. Each student had an opportunity to show the other students and the parents what they had created, what it was about, and, if necessary, how it worked.

Three of the students created games involved the phonetic alphabet. Katie had altered the game “Upwards” to use phonetic tiles in much the same way that the Scrabble game they played had been altered. Liana created a game in which slips of paper which had a phonetic symbol on them were placed into a bag. Players would take turns picking slips of paper out of the bag until they could make a word. The one with the word that had the most sounds won the round. Zach created a board “spelling” game. Players would roll the die to move forward. Depending on the square they landed on, they would pick from one of two decks of cards: “easy words” or “hard words.” They then had to “spell” correctly, using the phonetic alphabet. Answers were provided on an answer sheet. If they answered correctly, they moved forward another space. If they answered incorrectly, they moved back one space.

Two students created games involving morphemes. Mary created a rather elaborate board game with game play that had players rolling a die and moving a token around the board. They picked up roots, prefixes, and suffixes along the way. The object of the game was to create as many words as possible. Parin created a game that was similar to the one played during the class that focused on morphemes. She had slips of paper with roots, suffixes, and prefixes. Players had to put them together to create words.

The other two students created poster reports on language. Jason’s report illustrated the ways dogs communicate and the ways dog communication differed from human language. Priscilla’s report was about what language is. This student also prepared handouts to distribute on sign language and Morse code. She had the other students try to spell out “hi,” “mom,” and a few other words in Morse code.

After the presentations, students and parents had a chance to take a closer look at the projects. A number of the students spend time playing the different games that their classmates had created. Before the students left, they completed a course evaluation sheet.


To determine whether it is feasible to teach linguistics to young children, four issues need to be considered: the ability of teachers untrained in linguistics to teach it, the ability of young verbally gifted children to comprehend it, and teachers’ views of what it means to be gifted and the way the gifted should be taught. Therefore, this exploratory case study sought to answer the following questions:

  1. Will a teacher untrained in linguistics be able to teach linguistics to his or her students?
  2. Will verbally gifted children be able to understand, appreciate, and enjoy learning about language beyond the concepts of traditional grammar?
  3. How can linguistics be presented to elementary school age children?

Will a teacher untrained in linguistics be able to teach linguistics to his or her students?

The teacher in this study seemed to resist learning about linguistics and teaching it to the students. She had told the researcher that she enjoyed grammar study and enjoyed teaching grammar to gifted children, but that did not prove to be an indication that she was interested in linguistics. She did not read the explanations the researcher had provided to help her understand the basic principles involved in the various branches of linguistics, which she was supposed to use to create lessons. For the first two class sessions, MA talked with the students about language and even some phonology. However, the students were not gaining an understanding of what language is or how linguists study it.

When the researcher presented MA with a detailed lesson plan for the third class session, MA not only told the researcher she did not like working with a script, she also appeared resentful. She said that researcher was attempting to gear the class to just one child, although she would not say which one. At least two students at this point had shown an intense interest in language study and had come to the class with some understanding of language beyond simple grammar: Jake and Zach. MA also said that she did not believe children would enjoy learning about linguistics, although she thought they would have fun playing with language. Her idea for the class had been to just let the students talk about language and then play some games. She seemed to believe that if students had to be led to any conclusions, the classes would no longer be fun. If the students wanted to think animals had language, it would not matter, as long as they were exploring language and enjoying themselves.

However, after the researcher provided a detailed lesson plan for the third class session, MA began to show more interest in working with the students to learn some of the basic concepts of linguistics, in most cases developing her own examples to use in class. MA was no longer required to use the materials that the researcher had supplied months before the program began; instead she was working with the same explanations that the researcher created for the students. For the remaining class sessions, MA was able to guide student discussions, using the materials the researcher provided for the students.

Will verbally gifted children be able to understand, appreciate, and enjoy learning about language beyond the concepts of traditional grammar?

Looking at the first two class sessions of the course, the conclusion would be that elementary age students might not be interested in studying language the way linguists do. In the first class, students did enjoy talking about language and sharing their thoughts about language and animal communication, but they seemed to care more about that sharing and not so much about understanding. In the second class session, MA covered some of the same material again on language and linguistics and then started to talk to the students about phonology. However, after the break, the students were not interested in any more discussion. They wanted instead to play a game, so they spent the entire second hour of the session playing Mad Gab.

However, after the third session, students began to show more interest in the material. They often lost track of the time and did not ask about when it was time for a break or if they were going to play a game. In fact, in some sessions, they continued to discuss some of the concepts during their break, as they ate their snacks. The student projects and their presentations of them also suggested that the students enjoyed learning about linguistics.

The evaluations of the course also indicate that the children not only enjoyed the class, but learned about language as well. Every student either agreed or strongly agreed that they had a better understanding of what language is and learned things they didn’t know about language. None of the students found the material too hard or too confusing. All the students agreed or strongly agreed that the class made them think more about language, and all but two strongly agreed that the class made them want to learn more about language. One of those neither agreed nor disagreed and the other had failed to circle any answer. Some of the students also wrote some comments on their evaluation sheets: “I ♥’ed this class,” “It was awesome,” “This class was really fun,” “I learned alot and its a fun class,” and “It was fun.”

How can linguistics be presented to elementary school age children?

The present study sought to avoid the problems Goodluck (1991) and Fabb (1985) had with their studies on teaching linguistics to elementary age children. Rather than provide explanations of linguistic concepts through lecture, lessons in this study used a more hands-on approach. Students were first provided with some thought-provoking questions and allowed to explore answers to those questions. For example, in the first session, students were asked what language is and whether animals have language. At the start of the lessons on phonology, students were asked how many sounds were in the English language. After some discussion, students played a game, giving them an opportunity to apply the concepts they were learning. In addition, the sessions did not present the information at too complex a level for elementary age children.

Because students were introduced to several different concepts in linguistics, little time was available to cover any of the concepts in depth. Therefore, it was not possible to determine whether students would be able to approach language scientifically, creating their own rules for language by studying it as a linguist would, for example. However, since the children in the present study did not find the material presented too difficult or confusing, further lessons on a topic could build on what they learned.


A teacher with no background or training in linguistics should be able to teach young children some basic linguistics concepts, if they believe it is possible to do so. However, the teachers cannot be expected to read about linguistics in order to prepare lessons. Materials should be provided that are as fun for the teacher as they are for the children.

Although there were only seven students in this study, the researcher concludes that young, verbally gifted children can find the study of language both fun and interesting. The students in this study did not get bored by the material or find it too difficult and the class generated more interest in the study of language.

This study suggests that providing elementary age students with a combination of hands-on activities and thought-provoking questions is an effective way to introduce them to the study of linguistics. Once they have had an opportunity to think about a linguistic concept and work with it, they would be ready to explore it in more depth.

Gifted children should be given the opportunity to explore their area of strength and this study suggests that it is possible for them to be given that opportunity. However, additional studies that include a larger number of children and that allow them to study linguistics in more depth should be done.

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