The Jabberwocky (post 2)

Building a Lesson – The Jabberwocky (post 2)


I began the lesson today by asking Tung to read The Jabberwocky aloud, so I could identify issues with pronunciation. 

Part of Tung’s job involves giving presentations which describe various technical processes.  As these processes can be quite complicated he has to work hard to keep his audience’s attention.  This, he claims, is the reason that Tung has a naturally atmospheric, storytelling quality to his voice.  It sounds an unlikely reason but having heard him describe such technical processes, I can attest that there is definitely a similarity.

As he read, Tung tried to keep a rhythm to the poem without ‘stumbling’ over words that he didn’t know how to pronounce.  Accepting the fact that there were many words he didn’t know, Tung persevered and wasn’t fazed.  In previous sessions we’d practised speaking more slowly (especially when reading something aloud) and allowing the eyes and brain time to process the words.  During this first ‘reading’ I was relieved to hear that several of Tung’s mistakes related directly to the spelling and pronunciation ‘rules’ I had chosen to look at during the session.  He pronounced brillig as /ˈbraɪlɪɡ/, for example, whereas the CVC rule (which states that in letter combinations of consonant-vowel-consonant, or consonant-vowel-double consonant, the vowel sound is usually short) would suggest that it be pronounced /ˈbrɪlɪɡ/.  Similarly where Tung pronounced jub jub /ˈdʒuːb dʒuːb/, the same rule would suggest it be pronounced /ˈdʒʌb dʒʌb/.

After this initial reading we went on to look at several rules relating spelling and pronunciation, including brainstorming examples and looking at where these rules could be applied in the poem.  A few examples:





CVC (consonant-vowel-consonant) or CVCC = Vowel is short (99% true) rat, hen, sit, not, cut brillig, jubjub
V-C-E (vowel-consonant-e) = Final e makes the vowel say its name  (99% true) stone, blame, name, joke, bite, flute, scene have, live, move, above, some, come, none, gone toves, wabe, outgrabe
Hard C:  c+a / c+o / c+u = / k / (doesn’t matter if vowel is short or long) con, cone, can, cane, cut, cute callooh, callay
Multi syllable words: consonant-y= / iː / many, constantly, immunity, equality deny, reply, reply, apply, supply, July, multiply slithy, mimsy
u at start of a word= / ʌ / uncle, umbrella, until, unable, unimportant words where the root is uni or use uffish

These are some of the examples that relate directly to words from the poem, but we also looked at other rules connected to these above.  When we looked at the Hard C rule for example we also looked at the Soft C rule, and the Hard G and Soft G rules.  There were also 2 further rules for words ending in y, and different pronunciation for words beginning with u where the root of the word is uni or use and we looked at these too as I felt it would be amiss to only discuss one rule in a group where there are variations and exceptions.

Next I used some questions to elicit the word class of a number of words in the poem and stimulate discussion as to the possible meaning.  I asked Tung ‘what were the toves like?’ for example, and ‘what did they do?’ and as Tung identified the possible word class of each nonsense word we experimented with replacing these with ‘sense’ words – rewriting the first verse of the poem:  ‘Twas sunny and the flying birds / did swoop and sail in the sky / all sleepy were the bears / and the foxes awoke.  We also discussed the possible meaning of some of the nonsense words and already Tung was beginning to get a ‘sense’ for some of the words, saying that brillig seemed to him positive as it reminded him of brilliant but also cold as it reminded him of chilly.  As part of my planning I had read many of Carroll’s own explanations of the poem, and wondered whether to include them at this point, but decided that doing so may go against my aim of helping students to realise that they can understand a lot from context – without explanations.

After looking at word class I introduced the topic of portmanteau words by explaining the meaning of a portmanteau (a large heavy suitcase that opens into two parts) and eliciting the two parts of ‘motel’.  We then used a matching activity I had created in which Tung had to:

  • Match 6 vocabulary items to their definitions
  • Match 6 further vocabulary items to their definitions
  • Match the 12 vocabulary items together to form portmanteau words which can be found in the poem


Tung was glad to learn that two of the portmanteau words from The Jabberwocky, chortle and galumph, have now become part of the English language.  We then brainstormed (and I elicited) some other portmanteau words and their root words.

I then asked Tung to read the poem again.  His second reading showed a clear improvement in pronunciation and as he read I could see him referring to his notes to apply some of the spelling & pronunciation rules.  Encouraging as this was it also demonstrated that further practice of these rules is needed.  Although it lost something of the rhythm, Tung’s delivery was far more cohesive in terms of storytelling and it was evident that our discussions about word-type had led to a more considered reading.  His pauses indicated more clearly the relationships between words and although the language of course remained ‘nonsense’, as a listener I was struck by how much more vivid the poem became.

To end the lesson I asked Tung whether and how he felt the session had been useful.  His response was very positive and he remarked on how much more he understood of the poem without my having actually explained anything of the meaning to him.  This started me thinking about how we are able to deduce, or speculate as to, the meaning of a word not only from its context but also from its sound/s.  As with onomatopoeias, words have ‘sound’ qualities when spoken aloud which can provide a feeling for the meaning.  This quality of language is something that I need to think about more in order to determine whether it’s something that could/should be taught or is just something for students to consider and be aware of.

In terms of the lesson’s effectiveness, what became clear today is that, whilst I would deem the lesson successful (particularly for Tung), there are large elements that need to be addressed.  Although it begins and ends with the poem, and there is clear development between the two ‘readings’, the lesson feels somewhat disjointed and each of its major components lacks a natural progression from one to the next.  I had already decided during my planning not to include practice of phonemes and phonemic symbols as the topic seemed to belong in a separate lesson.  I felt the ‘word class’ section was an area of the lesson which needs further thought and development in order to ‘guide’ students toward a fuller understanding of the poem.  The lesson also needs to provide a ‘eureka moment’ for students in which they realise how accessible language can be even when we don’t know its meaning.

Of course with a group class, as opposed to one-to-one, the lesson will be very different, and Tung is not reflective of all language students as he has a particular interest in pronunciation and delivery – not just in English but also in German – and hopes to improve his speaking work with a voice coach in the future.  So it will be interesting to see how the lesson changes not only with a different student but also with a group class – but it certainly needs some more thought before its next ‘excursion’.

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