How can you increase phonological awareness and decrease confusion about ambiguous language?

Find out in this Q&A with the author of Sounds Like Fun: Activities for Developing Phonological Awareness, Revised Edition and As Far As Words Go: Activities for Understanding Ambiguous Language and Humor, Revised Edition

About the author

Dr. Cecile Cyrul Spector

Cecile Cyrul Spector, Ph.D., has worked in the field of speech-language pathology for over 35 years. She has worked in a variety of settings including public schools, private practice, and several universities. Dr. Spector was director of the speech-language department of Long Island University – Orangeburg Campus. She has published and presented extensively on the topics of humor, ambiguity, figurative language, inferencing, and phonological awareness.


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Q: In your new book Sounds Like Fun, you use jokes and riddles to help students develop phonological awareness. Can you provide a simple example along with the steps teachers can follow to help students grasp the concept being illustrated?

A: Using the example items at the beginning of each unit, teachers can discuss possible responses to each question so that a correct pattern of response is set for the intervention items. When discussing an item such as Who is the most badly behaved superhero ... Bratman, for example, ask students to carefully look at the joke and find the word that has a sound added to it.

If the word Bratman is not selected, suggest examining the joke closely for clues. If the correct word still is not selected, say Bratman, and ask what the real word could be. Remind students that the word Bratman has a sound added to it. If Batman is not given, steer students to the location of the sound addition (Look at the beginning of the word Bratman).

If the correct word still is not given, say Batman, and ask students to look at the joke and find the words that give them a clue why it was changed in this way. If students do not respond badly behaved superhero, discuss the fact that a brat is someone who behaves badly, and Batman is a superhero. Point out that the humor in the joke is caused by the use of the word Bratman for Batman because they sound alike. Continue to offer verbal mediation as long as necessary.

Q: How have students responded to these activities? How about the teachers themselves?

A: I have used activities such as those in Sounds Like Fun with students from third grade through high school. After students became familiar with the strategies for understanding the nature of sound changes, they laughed their way through the sessions, and many showed their complete grasp of sound manipulation by offering similar humor items they had found on their own. In fact, during the time we worked on developing phonological awareness, students wrote jokes and riddles based on sound manipulation on slips of paper and placed them on my desk and in my mailbox.

Teacher feedback was quite positive. They were delighted with students' interest in "playing with sounds" and, in a matter of weeks, saw notable growth in reading and spelling skills. Many teachers have collaborated with SLPs on these activities.

Q: Borrowing an example from your experience, can you suggest how an educator or SLP might structure his or her day to incorporate the activities from Sounds Like Fun?

A: Each activity in Sounds Like Fun takes approximately 15 to 20 minutes to complete. Many of the SLPs I know have made Sounds Like Fun activities part of sessions devoted to a wide range of phonological issues, such as learning to break down words into their constituent phonemes or blend phonemes into words. I have seen teachers use one activity each day before lunch, reading, spelling, or, whenever an unscheduled part of the day presented itself. Teachers with assistants have used these activities as "rewards" by having the assistant use them with a small group while the rest of the class completed other class work.

Q: Your new book As Far As Words Go is described as a natural follow-up to Sounds Like Fun ... how so? What do the activities in As Far As Words Go help students understand?

A: Just as Sounds Like Fun offers activities that explore and analyze at the level of the phoneme, As Far As Words Go offers activities for words and sentences.

The activities offer a relaxed context for students to recognize and interpret ambiguous language, identify and explain words and expressions that have both literal and nonliteral meanings, detect and resolve incongruity in humor items, recognize and explain particular elements of humor, and recognize humor cues.

Q: Can you provide an example of what you mean by ambiguous language and show how you can use humor to help clarify ambiguity?

A: We see ambiguity in newspaper headlines (High School Dropouts Cut in Half), magazines (Grandmother of Eight Makes Hole in One), on billboards (If you love your kid, belt him!), and so forth, and much of our verbal humor is based on ambiguity.

Look at the following joke, and see how ambiguity based on a multiple-meaning word is clarified in As Far As Words Go.

Larry: Tom was put in jail for stealing a pig.

Harry: How did they prove he did it?

Larry: The pig squealed.

a. Which word in this joke can have two meanings? (squealed)

b. What does it mean here? (became an informer)

c. What else can it mean? (to make a shrill, sharp cry or noise)

d. Which words or phrases give you a clue to each meaning? (put in jail for stealing, pig, prove he did it)

Q: Where did your own interest in humor and ambiguity in language arise?

A: When I was six years old, I had a sudden insight: The same words can mean different things, and the same meaning can be expressed with different words.

I had just moved from Brooklyn, New York, to Columbia, South Carolina. My family and I were invited to visit with our new next-door neighbors. During our visit, Mrs. Withers said to her daughter, Betty Jean, tote the sack a' suckers in here. I was intrigued. What on earth was Mrs. Withers saying? Why couldn't I understand her? She was speaking English. Well, Betty Jean arrived several moments later carrying a bag filled with lollipops, and the mystery was solved.

My family moved frequently during my childhood, and I was exposed to the speech and language patterns of many different areas. Soda was pop, and Come and see us soon was not really an invitation, but merely a polite goodbye.

I'm still intrigued with language that appears to be saying one thing but means another, and because humor frequently is based on ambiguity, it became an area of great interest to me. When I became an SLP I found the various aspects of abstract language to be very much overlooked. I found my mission—to teach individuals to make inferences, and to analyze, understand, and enjoy ambiguous, figurative, and humorous language!

Q: What was one of the most dramatic instances you've observed where a student gained understanding through the types of activities you've outlined?

A: At a conference with the parents of one of my high school special education students, I was told that their son, Jason, who almost never conversed with the family at the dinner table, told a joke! They were almost in tears about this exciting breakthrough. We had been working on how changes in stress and pausing can change the meaning of a word. For some reason the following joke tickled Jason's fancy, and he was able to grasp and explain the new meaning of the word meatball when the stress changed: Q. Where do butchers go to dance? A. To the meat ball. Definitely a satori moment!

Sounds Like Fun: Activities for Developing Phonological Awareness, Revised Edition

As Far As Words Go:Activities for Understanding Ambiguous Language and Humor, Revised Edition

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