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Tzakosta, Μ. & Α. Sfiraki. 2016. Tongue twisters as a teaching technique facilitating morphophonological awereness and vocabulary development in the preschool child. Στο NCYU Inquiry in Applied Linguistics 2015: Linguistics Applied Across Borders. Department of Foreign Languages, National Chiayi University. 23-38.

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Abstract and Figures

Tongue-twisters are language games used cross-linguistically in order to help children develop clear speech and practice the pronunciation of difficult words. In this paper, it is shown that the use of tongue-twisters is not limited to the development of accurate speech or fine pronunciation, rather, their use is related to the acquisition of complex linguistic mechanisms relevant to the development of the morphophonological system and the vocabulary of preschool children. Our tongue-twister's teaching intervention as part of an ongoing piloting language teaching program revealed that, specifically for Greek and at the phonological level, tongue-twisters reinforce comprehension and production of complex segments, consonant clusters, syllabic structures and accentual patterns of the target language. At the morphological level, tongue-twisters help pupils comprehend word internal structures, acquire word formation mechanisms, and, therefore, contribute to vocabulary development. The above underline the pedagogical and teaching/ learning value of tongue-twisters as compact language course giving teachers/ educators of preschool and early primary school pupils the chance to teach various language topics in parallel. Their nature renders tongue-twisters as ideal tools for the teaching of mother and second languages.
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1
Tongue twisters as a teaching technique facilitating morphophonological
awareness and vocabulary development in the preschool child
Marina Tzakosta & Aikaterini Sfiraki
University of Crete
martzak74@gmail.com, martzak@edc.uoc.gr
Abstract
Tongue-twisters are language games used cross-linguistically in order to help children develop
clear speech and practice the pronunciation of difficult words. In this paper, it is shown that the
use of tongue-twisters is not limited to the development of accurate speech or fine pronunciation,
rather, their use is related to the acquisition of complex linguistic mechanisms relevant to the
development of the morphophonological system and the vocabulary of preschool children. Our
tongue-twisters teaching intervention as part of an ongoing piloting language teaching program
revealed that, specifically for Greek and at the phonological level, tongue-twisters reinforce
comprehension and production of complex segments, consonant clusters, syllabic structures and
accentual patterns of the target language. At the morphological level, tongue-twisters help pupils
comprehend word internal structures, acquire word formation mechanisms, and, therefore,
contribute to vocabulary development. The above underline the pedagogical and teaching/
learning value of tongue-twisters as compact language course giving teachers/ educators of
preschool and early primary school pupils the chance to teach various language topics in parallel.
Their nature renders tongue-twisters as ideal tools for the teaching of mother and second
languages.
Introduction
Tongue-twisters (hereafter ToTs) are popular language/ word games which are used cross-
linguistically mostly in order to assist children develop clear speech and practice the
pronunciation of difficult words (cf. Rodari 1994, see also Giannikopoulou 1998, Hortiati 1986,
for Greek). They are considered to constitute small pieces of folk literature and can be perfectly
used in language teaching tasks and activities (Anagnostopoulos 2001). ToTs have also been
reported to facilitate phonological awareness since the repetition/ alliteration of difficult
morphophonological units boost phonological perception and production (cf. Bradley & Bryant
1991, Goswami & Bryant 1991, for relevant discussion). They usually take the shape of short 2-
or 4-verse texts with a complete meaning in which certain sounds, their combinations, rimes and
stress patterns appear repeatedly. Image 1 provides some representative examples of English,
French and Spanish ToTs.
1
1
Tongue twisters retrieved from
https://www.google.gr/search?q=spanish+tongue+twisters&biw=1366&bih=643&source=lnms&
tbm=isch&sa=X&ved=0CAYQ_AUoAWoVChMI25v07bihxwIVyxMaCh35fQZb&dpr=1#tbm=
isch&q=tongue+twisters
2
Image 1. Examples of ToTs
Repeated rimes, sounds and other phonological structures often appear in non-words. In Greek,
ToTs repeated sequences appear in real and novel mostly compound words. Two
representative examples from Greek are provided in (1a) and (1b).
2
(1a) Aspri petra kseksaspri kai apo ton ilio kseksasproteri
white stone off-white and from the sun off-whiter
(a) stone whiter than white and whiter than the sun
(1b) O papas o pahis efage pahia faci. Giati papa pahi efages pahia faci?
the priest the fat ate fat beans. Why priest fat you ate fat beans?
the fat priest ate fat beans. Why did the fat priest eat fat beans?
In (1a) two consonant clusters, /ks/ and /spr/, repeatedly appear in the ToT. /s/ is a
March 28, 2015.
2
The ToT is provided in the first line of (1) and (1b). The second line provides a word-by-word translation of the
ToT while the third line is an ascription of it.
3
‘problematic’ sound in Greek but also cross-linguistically, in the sense that numerous analyses
have been proposed in order to depict its theoretical substance (cf. Drachman 1989, Fudge 1969,
Giegerich 1992, Selkirk 1982, Tzakosta 2009). However, /ks/ is reported as one of the most
frequently attested sounds in adult Greek (Protopapas et al. 2012), unlike /spr/ and other three-
member clusters. This vague and ambiguous behavior of /s/ renders its combinatorial power
unstable (cf. Tzakosta 2009, 2013, Tzakosta & Vis 2009a, and more references therein). The
teaching ‘usefulness’ of the ToT in (1a) is that the placement of /s/ in various combinations and
word positions in the word or the ToT as a whole may help children accurately perceive,
produce and reproduce /s/. In (1b), on the other hand, we notice the repetition of an ‘easy’ and a
‘difficult’ sound. More specifically, /p/, a labial segment which is attested frequently in adult
Greek (Protopapas et al. 2012) but also in child speech cross-linguistically (cf. Davis &
MacNeilage 1995), and /h/, a difficult segment due to its palatalized nature (cf. Protopapas et al.
2012), coexist in the ToT. We assume that the movement of the tongue from a labial to a palatal
position causes the twisting effect. Therefore, the ToT in (1b) also aims to help children
overcome this motoric ‘problem’.
Although, ToTs tend to be popular word games cross-linguistically there are only a few
detailed studies on how they affect vocabulary and/ or morphophonological development. FMRI
studies on the neurological basis of ToTs effects have demonstrated that ToTs have a great
impact on phonological processing and storage (cf. Corley et al. 2011, Keller et al. 2003) and,
eventually, production (Kupin 1982). It has characteristically been claimed that ToTs are
“difficult to process because they twist not only the tongue but also the brain” (Keller et al. 2003:
200). In addition, ToTs effect have been reported to affect phonological activation in reading
sentences and reading comprehension, in general (cf. McCutchen et al. 1991, McCutchen &
Perfetti 1982, see also Hanson et al. 1991, Robinson & Katayama 1997, Zhang & Perfetti 1993),
and phoneme repeats seem to affect error distributions (Wilshire 1999).
This study is part of an ongoing research on the effect of ToTs teaching on vocabulary
development of preschool and early primary school children. Aim of the study presented here is
to demonstrate that the use of ToTs is not limited to the development of clear speech or fine
pronunciation, rather, their use is related, first, to the acquisition of complex linguistic
mechanisms relevant to the development of the morphophonological system and the vocabulary
of preschool children, and, second, to elaborated morphophonological processing. Focusing on
Greek, we aim to show that ToTs reinforce comprehension and production of complex segments,
consonant clusters, syllabic structures and accentual patterns of the target language at the
phonological level. At the morphological level, we expect that ToTs help pupils comprehend
word internal structures, they are, therefore, anticipated to contribute to vocabulary development.
If the above assumptions prove to be correct, then, the pedagogical and teaching/ learning value
of ToTs as compact language courses giving teachers/ educators of preschool education the
chance to teach various language topics in parallel is undoubted.
Methodology
In this section we describe the methodology adopted for the teaching of Greek to preschool
children native speakers of Greek by means of ToTs. The working hypothesis underlying our
study is that the use of ToTs is not limited to the development of accurate speech or fine
4
pronunciation but is also related to the acquisition of complex linguistic mechanisms relevant to
the development of the morphophonological system and the vocabulary of the preschool child. If
our working hypothesis is verified by our findings, tongue-twisters can be perfectly used in
language teaching.
Tool and participants
For our experimental task we used a newly designed word game and not one of the already
existing folk Greek ToTs. Our word game did not take the shape of a classical ToT, namely, it did
not have the form of a two- or four-verses linguistic construction. Rather, it took the shape of a
full story which kept the fundamental characteristics of a ToT, namely the continuous repetition
and alliteration of certain morphophonological structures which are considered to be
theoretically and/ or perceptually difficult in Greek (cf. Tzakosta 2009a, b, Tzakosta & Vis
2009a, b, c).
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More specifically, we produced a 7-verses story with a complete meaning. We
preferred to elongate the methodology of the ToTs design because stories (story reading, story-
telling and story reproduction) keep pupils’ interest alive and are widely reported to be positively
related to vocabulary development and language development, in general, not only of preschool
children but also bilingual children, second language learners (children and adults),
disadvantaged and/ or impaired children and children at risk (especially regarding their language)
(cf. Dickinson & Smith 1994, Huang 2006, Isbell et al. 2004, Karweit & Wasik 1996, Morrow et
al. 1990, Speaker-McGrath et al. 2004, and more references therein). The ToT used in our study
is provided in (1) below:
(2) Sta patόmata
4
patúsa me ksipόliti patúsa
Perpatúsa páta-páta ke patáo mia patáta
Háno héri ke poδári, pétaksa os to patári
Patikόno patatúka ke xtipiéme táka túka
Ke parapatό ke páo ston ajéra kolibáο
3
See also Levitt & Healy (1985) who argue that phonemic ‘strength’ is attributed to phoneme frequency. In other
words, the more frequent certain phonemes are the more solid they are in perception and production.
4
Here, we provide the glosses of the words participating in the twisting effect:
- patόmata ‘floor-ACC. NEUT. PL.’
- patúsa - ‘foot-1 SG. PAST
- Perpatúsa ‘walk-1SG.PAST’
- Patáo ‘step on-1 SG. PRES.’
- patáta - ‘potato NOM. FEM. SG.
- Héri ‘hand-NOM. NEUT. NOM.’
- Poδári ‘foot-AUGM . NOM. NEUT. SG.
- Patári ‘attic-AUGM. NEUT. SG.
- Patikόno ‘press – 1 SG. PRES.’
- Parapatό ‘stumble – 1 SG. PRES.’
- páo ‘go – 1 SG. PRES.’
- kolibáο ‘swim-1SG.PRES.’
- Patό ‘step on – 1 SG. PRES.’
- ston páto ‘at the bottom (of the sea) – ACC. MASC. SG.’
- ton páto ‘at the bottom (of a shoe) – ACC. MASC. SG.’
5
Ke patίs me ke patό se, fίle, péfto, héri δόse!
Blum! Vutjá ίsja ston páto, mes stu paputsjú ton páto
5
Image 2 illustrates the phonological constituents, i.e. phonemes, rimes, phonemic combinations
and stress patterns, which are emphasized, alliterated and repeated in the ToT. We chose to
combine /p/ and /t/ - which are considered to be ‘easy’ sounds (cf. Tzakosta 2009a, b) frequently
attested in adult (cf. Protopapas et al. 2012) and child speech (Tzakosta 2009, Tzakosta & Vis
2009a, b, c) - with all Greek vowels /a/, /e/, /i/, /o/, /u/. This combinations were found in various
positions in the word and engaged in various stress patterns. The activities we designed were all
based on the ToT.
Image 2. Repeated items in the experimental tool
The participants in the experiment were ten (10) preschool children (age range 03;10-04;06
years) living in Ierapetra, a small town located in the southwest part of the island of Crete in
Greece. Childrens ages, national origin and mother languages are illustrated in table 1. We
decided to keep bilingual Anna-Maria in the participant’s group because, as will be pointed out in
the discussion section, her errors are similar to those of the monolingual participants.
Table 1. Participants’ info
Age
Origin
L1s
Niki
03;10
Greece
Greek
5
I was stepping on the floors with a bare foot. I was walking making the “pata pata” noise till I stepped on a potato.
I lost my hand, I lost my foot till I was found on the attic. I press my foot making the “patatuka” sound and I strike
making the “taka tuka” sound. I stumble, I keep on walking, I swim into the air. And I step on you and you step on
me, I fall down, friend, give me a hand. I dip to the bottom, the bottom of the shoe.
6
Anna Maria
04;00
Albania
Albanian-Greek
Emmanuela
04;06
Greece
Greek
Ester
04;03
Greece
Greek
Pinelopi
04;02
Greece
Greek
Nikoleta
04;03
Greece
Greek
Nektaria
04;01
Greece
Greek
Haralambos
04;02
Greece
Greek
Nikos
04;00
Greece
Greek
Mihalis
04;01
Greece
Greek
Our experimental procedure was divided in three distinct phases. During the first phase (Phase 1)
we measured the Mean Length of Utterance (MLU) of each child. The MLU is a measure of
children’s linguistic productivity and is considered to be calculated by collecting 100 utterances
of spoken speech per child and by dividing the number of morphemes by the number of
utterances. The MLU is proportional to language development, i.e. the higher the MLU the
higher the level of language proficiency (cf. Bishop & Adams 1990, Brown 1973, Hickey 1991,
Rice 2010). In our procedure, the MLU measured the mean number of words not morphemes -
children’s sentences consisted of. MLU was measured through free speech interaction with the
participants for approximately 10 minutes (image 3).
Image 3. Phase 1
During the second phase (Phase 2), the teaching of the ToT took place in class for 45 minutes
and lasted for two days. During the teaching intervention, the experimenter presented a doll
7
coming out of a ‘magic box’ to the participants. The class was set in such as way so that the
participants were facilitated in order to participate in the kinetic part of the activities (cf. image
4).
Image 4. Phase 2 day 2
During the first day of Phase 2, the participants were asked to kinetically participate in the
activities. More specifically, the hero-doll which came out of the ‘magic box’ was named ‘Pata’
and she presented her friend ‘Tapas to the participants. ‘Pata’ and ‘Tapas’ whose names are
made up of the segments which are repeated and alliterated in the ToT start a dialogue with each
other. Then, ‘Tapas sings the (story of) the ToT and ‘Pata shows pictures of a ‘patάta’, a ‘patύsa’
and a ‘papύtsi’ whenever they emerge in the story. Children are encouraged to sing the ToT
twister together with ‘Pata’ and ‘Tapas’. ‘Pata suggests that everybody dance and make the
movements of the words in the tongue twister. In the end of the song, all children end up in a
huge “papύtsi” (= shoe). Then, children say ‘goodbye’ to their new friends.
During the second day of Phase 2, children were asked
to remember and retell the story,
to sing the ToT song,
to produce the ‘magic’, i.e. the twisted, words of the word game,
to participate in the kinetic game
to make a drawing related to the content of the ToT for Pata (cf. image 5).
Image 5. Phase 2 day 2
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Finally, during the third phase (Phase 3) the MLU was remeasured again through free speech
interaction with the participants in order to evaluate whether there was vocabulary growth after
the teaching of the tongue twister.
Results and discussion
In what follows, we present the findings stemming from the procedure described above. Table 2
shows the MLUs per child/ participant as these were measured before and after the ToT teaching
intervention. We may observe that MLUs’ growth ranges between 0.01 and 1.61. Of the ten
participants, Niki is the only child for whom no improvement is reported. This might be
attributed to the fact that Niki is the youngest participant. However, MLU growth is also very
low for the eldest participant. Therefore, we could be in the position to conclude that MLU
development is not directly related to age.
Table 2. MLUs per child
Child
MLU pre
MLU post
Difference
Niki
3
3
0
Anna-Maria
2.25
2.625
0.375
Emmanuela
1.94
1.95
0.01
Ester
3.9
4.1
0.2
Pinelopi
3.05
3.06
0.01
Nikoleta
3.8
3.87
0.07
9
Nektaria
4.68
6.29
1.61
Haralambos
3.15
3.68
0.53
Nikos
3.05
3.1
0.05
Mihalis
3.4
3.51
0.11
Table 3 illustrates the summary of MLUs measurements during the pre-teaching procedure
while table 4 provides the same information for the post-teaching procedure. Finally, table 5
displays the MLU difference between the pre- and post- procedure. More specifically, the mean
MLU for all participants in the pre-teaching phase is 3.222 words while in the post-teaching
procedure it is 3.518. The difference between the two phases is .2965.
Table 3. Summary of MLUs (pre)
Statistics
Pre
N
Valid
10
Missing
0
Mean
3
3.
.2
22
22
20
0
Table 4. Summary of MLUS (post)
Statistics
Post
N
Valid
10
Missing
0
Mean
3
3.
.5
51
18
85
5
Table 5. MLUS’ difference (sum)
Statistics
10
Improvement
N
Valid
10
Missing
0
Mean
.
.2
29
96
65
5
As far as the phonological acquisition of the participants at the segmental and prosodic level is
concerned, table 6 depicts the successful attempts in the production of the phonological variables
tested in the tongue twister. What is illustrated in the table, /p/ and /t/ were accurately targeted
across-the-board by all participants. This verifies the statistical and qualitative analyses discussed
above, namely that /p/ and /t/ are the most frequently attested segments in child-directed speech
but also the most frequently produced segments in Greek and cross-linguistically. /ks/ was also
correctly produced at a rate which reached a 70% again verifying the assumptions that /ks/,
though made up of difficult segments, is successfully produced due to its internal coherence (cf.
Tzakosta 2009, Tzakosta & Vis a, c).
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/r/ was correctly targeted in 60% of the attempts. Finally,
/ts/ is correctly produced across-the-board providing support to the claim that /ts/ is a complex
single segment (cf. Tzakosta 2009, Tzakosta & Vis 2009a, c).
Table 6. Phonological variables tested
Child
/p/
/ks/
/r/
/t/
/ts/
Niki
Χ
-
Χ
Χ
Χ
Anna-Maria
Χ
-
-
Χ
Χ
Emmanuela
Χ
Χ
Χ
Χ
Χ
Ester
Χ
Χ
-
Χ
Χ
Pinelopi
Χ
Χ
Χ
Χ
Χ
Nikoleta
Χ
Χ
Χ
Χ
Χ
Nektaria
Χ
-
-
Χ
Χ
Haralambos
Χ
Χ
Χ
Χ
Χ
6
/ks/ is not a tautosyllabic cluster in Albanian (cf. Kappa 2012), but given that Niki and Nektaria who are
monolinguals do not successfully produce it, we assume that Anna-Maria’s failed attempts cannot be attributed to
her being bilingual.
11
Nikos
Χ
Χ
-
Χ
Χ
Mihalis
Χ
Χ
Χ
Χ
Χ
The participants perform worse when it comes to prosodic variables. More specifically, four out
of the 10 participants fail to produce the tongue-twister’s rime correctly. Rime accurate
production is again not related to age or linguistic background.
Table 7. Use of rimes
Child
RIME
Niki
-
Anna Maria
-
Emmauela
Χ
Ester
Χ
Pinelopi
-
Nikoleta
Χ
Nektaria
-
Haralambos
Χ
Nikos
Χ
Mihalis
Χ
Finally, accurate word production is directly related to single phoneme/ cluster successful
production (compare tables 6 and 8). Table 8 further displays that accurate production of the
tested variables (table 6) is related to word length, i.e. number of syllables, and word complexity,
i.e. derived vs. monomorphemic words.
Table 8. Accurate word production
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Child
Patύsa
Patάta
pata-
tύka
perpatύsa
patάri
Pοδάrι
Hέri
pέtaksa
ksipόliti
papύtsi
N
Χ
Χ
Χ
Χ
Χ
Χ
Χ
-
-
Χ
A-M
Χ
Χ
Χ
-
-
-
-
-
-
Χ
Emm
Χ
Χ
Χ
Χ
Χ
Χ
Χ
Χ
Χ
Χ
Es
Χ
Χ
Χ
-
-
-
-
Χ
Χ
Χ
Pin
Χ
Χ
Χ
Χ
Χ
Χ
Χ
Χ
Χ
Χ
Νikl
Χ
Χ
Χ
Χ
Χ
Χ
Χ
Χ
Χ
Χ
Νekt
Χ
Χ
Χ
-
-
-
-
-
-
Χ
Χar
Χ
Χ
Χ
Χ
Χ
Χ
Χ
Χ
Χ
Χ
Νik
Χ
Χ
Χ
-
-
-
-
Χ
Χ
Χ
Μih
Χ
Χ
Χ
Χ
Χ
Χ
Χ
Χ
Χ
Χ
To summarize, the present findings did not exhibit exceptionally positive effects of ToTs on
MLU growth. Nevertheless, we would rather claim that this is attributed to the fact that, first, our
findings stem from a small-scale research, and, second, ToTs’ teaching has not been systematic.
Overall, phonological (segmental and prosodic) development and MLU growth do not seem to
be related to children with ‘rich’ or ‘poor’ vocabulary, age, origin or linguistic background
(monolingual vs. bilingual/ multilingual children). Therefore, ToTs may function as unified
language teaching tools directed to mixed populations of pupils. ToTs create the conditions for
the active and effective engagement of children in language activities and satisfy children’s needs
as far as the curricula requirements regarding language teaching are concerned. In that sense,
ToTs have been shown to be a fine tool in order to underpin but also assess children’s
morphophonogical and vocabulary development. We expect that our forthcoming findings will
verify and clearly support our assumptions.
Conclusions
Aim of this study was to investigate the degree to which ToTs, first, reinforce comprehension and
production of complex segments and consonant clusters, (complex) syllabic structures and
13
accentual patterns of the target language, and therefore, provide evidence regarding the order of
phonological acquisition, second, help pupils comprehend word internal structures and acquire
word formation mechanisms, and, third, contribute to vocabulary development. We presented a
small scale study which verified our working hypothesis, namely that ToTs’ teaching contributes
to phonological and vocabulary development. However, our findings did not exhibit impressive
positive results. We assume that this was attributed to the fact our intervention, in particular, but
also at the teaching of language games and ToTs in the Greek school is not systematic. We
assume that positive effects of ToTs’ teaching will be reported if it applies in linguistic activities
at preschool age and it is encouraged by the teaching curricula.
To sum it up, the findings of the present experimental task underline the usefulness of
organized daily program activities regarding language development. Especially, for preschool
education we consider that the enrichment and improvement of activities which target language
development should be compulsory. The Greek teaching curricula stress this requirement, though
in practice, little attention tends is paid to this appeal. We assume that the use of various kinds of
literature, for example, folk literature, creates the conditions for the active and effective
engagement of children in language activities and satisfies children’s needs as far as the teaching
curricula are concerned. Finally, we believe that the pedagogical, teaching and learning value of
ToTs is undoubtable in the sense that the latter constitute compact language courses; they
provide language teachers the possibility to teach various language topics in parallel. Therefore,
the nature of ToTs renders them as ideal tools for the teaching of mother languages to preschool
and primary school pupils and second languages to children and adults as well as language
impaired children.
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