Venn diagram with first grade spelling

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Drawn by a seven year old in Los Angeles:

It boggles the mind to think that a seven year old first grader could conceptualize the relationship between her teacher and herself in this sophisticated, abstract way.  I don't recall having been introduced to Venn diagrams until high school or perhaps even college.

Equally striking to me is the resourcefulness of this student in expressing herself with a richly informative and precise vocabulary despite not knowing the standard spelling for all of the words.  I thoroughly applaud Laurelo for just forging ahead and writing down phonetically all of the words in her impressive vocabulary, and I commend Mrs. Campos for letting her do that.

Contrast this with the graduate students from China who, when they try to write the Mandarin word for "sneeze" (pēntì), which all of them, of course, can say without any difficulty, nearly all fail miserably.  Only two out of around fifty whom I tested on this during the last three years could write the second character correctly.  Here's typically what happens:

I do not blame the students for being unable to write the second character of such a common word; I blame the devilishly difficult writing system.

Here's the correct way to write dǎ pēntì ("to sneeze") in characters:  打喷嚏 (simpl.) / 打噴嚏 (trad.).  For the purposes of this discussion, we may ignore the first syllable / character, since its function is to turn the noun pēntì ("sneeze") into a verb, dǎ pēntì ("to sneeze").  Dǎ 打 is a very high frequency verbalizing morpheme, the character for which consists of only five simple strokes, so someone with even a low level of literacy would almost certainly be able to write it.

Only one of the seven students I surveyed this year stumbled on pēn 喷 / 噴 and crossed it out once before getting it right.

None of the students got 嚏 exactly right, although two came close and one tried to finesse the character by making it more complicated than it actually is.  One student stopped writing part way through, one crossed out a failed attempt and wrote the pinyin (tì) instead, one just wrote "tì", and one simply wrote "i".

I should mention that, as soon as I handed out the little pieces of paper and asked the students to write down the characters for dǎ pēntì ("to sneeze"), they all groaned, because this word has been much in the news in China for the last few years, ever since David Moser (see below) and I have been carrying out surveys in which it is included, and it — along with the Mandarin word for "toad" (làiháma 癞蛤蟆) — has been a staple in Chinese "spelling" bees.  So, despite the fact that Chinese students are very much aware of the problems with 嚏, they still can't get it right.  Now, however, with all of the attention to the Mandarin word for "sneeze" in the media, more of the students are getting closer to writing it correctly (in years past when I did these surveys, there would be more crossing out or just pinyin, and fewer attempts to approximate the shape of the character (I haven't kept all the little pieces of paper from previous surveys, but I remember that most students could barely begin to write 嚏]).

There are at least fifteen other variant forms for 嚏, some of them quite exotic in appearance, which may be found here (near the top and to the right).

As you will see, some of the students just give up.  Some stop after a few futile strokes or none at all, while others scribble out the incomplete character.  One even initially choked on the first character used to write the Mandarin word for "sneeze".  I actually applaud those who fill in the blank second syllable with the pinyin syllable tì.  That's the spirit of little Laurelo!

Cf., among many other relevant posts:

This mixing of Chinese characters and pinyin was permitted, even encouraged, in the ZT experiment in China.  The students began with pinyin only and later characters were gradually introduced, but even in higher levels students were allowed to freely substitute pinyin for characters they didn't know how to write.

On the ZT experiment, see the following posts:

In “The ‘Z.T.’ Experiment in the PRC,” Journal of the Chinese Language Teachers Association, 31.3 (1996), pp. 33-44, John S. Rohsenow makes the point that the use of pinyin mixed in with Chinese character writing by school children is like the British Initial Teaching Alphabet and American "invented / inventive spelling", such as that done by Laurelo in the Venn diagram pictured at the beginning of this post.

When I carry out such surveys in my classes, the students are often embarrassed at not being able to write common words in characters, but this year there was a new twist to their reaction that I found quite adorable.  Several of them said, "It's all the fault of the Americans for inventing the iPhone that we're forgetting how to write Chinese characters!"

[h.t. John Rohsenow; thanks to Linda Greene]


  1. Bathrobe said,

    September 29, 2016 @ 6:54 pm

    I actually liked the "lost five teath" "Stoodent" part. Rather sophisticated pun.

  2. K said,

    September 29, 2016 @ 7:33 pm

    Is the kid's name maybe actually Laurel and she styles herself Laurel♥ (Laurel-heart)?

  3. Matt McIrvin said,

    September 29, 2016 @ 8:09 pm

    I think Venn diagrams started being introduced in early-grade math curricula as part of the New Math back in the 1960s, which included simple concepts of set theory. New Math didn't last very long (it was a target of vilification similar to the politicized things people say about Common Core), but some ideas from it have gone in and out of style since then.

  4. Jim Breen said,

    September 29, 2016 @ 9:12 pm

    嚏 and the variant 嚔 are known and used in Japan, but most of time people use the kana form くしゃみ (kushami) for "sneeze". The kanji can be used as a verb too, e.g. 嚏ひる (hanahiru), but that's regarded as rather archaic. Usually it's くしゃみをする (kushami wo suru); literally "to do a sneeze".

  5. Surly Duff said,

    September 29, 2016 @ 10:01 pm


    You clearly have never had a 7-year-old daughter.


  6. Rebecca said,

    September 29, 2016 @ 10:48 pm

    Venn diagrams and other sorting/classifying schemes are definitely used in 1st grade and younger. First introduced, usually, to classify things the children already are familiar with, eg. classifying animals in various ways, such as living on land or water (or both).

    The "lovely hearts…" description is sophisticated for that age, but the rest is square in the 1st grade wheel house.

  7. Keith said,

    September 30, 2016 @ 3:44 am

    I was about that age in 1976 – 1977, and we were doing simple set theory and Venn diagrams in my school in the UK. After Venn diagrams, we went on to notation with symbols like ∈ and ∩.

    We would have two sets like "fruit" and "vegetables", with the intersection being "can be eaten raw".

    This of course would lead to philosophical discussions between, for example, those who placed tomatoes in the fruit set and those who insisted that they be in the vegetable set. And then there would always be one (guess who) who would insist that it is possible, if not enjoyable, to eat a raw potato.

  8. Keith said,

    September 30, 2016 @ 3:53 am

    I just read the post again, and was reminded of when my own kids were in elementary school in the US. They were very actively encouraged by their teachers to write, write, and write again, and not worry about getting the spelling wrong.

    The teaching philosophy was that an overly strict insistence on correct standard orthography would discourage creativity and make the kids hate school.

    "If you don't know how to spell the word you want to use, don't let that stop you. Just use your kindergarten spelling!"

  9. Ralph Hickok said,

    September 30, 2016 @ 8:40 am

    My oldest grandchild went to an elementary school with the same philosophy. She's now a teacher but she still doesn't know how to spell :)

  10. Bloix said,

    September 30, 2016 @ 11:15 am

    Laurel's spelling has the pedagogical name "invented spelling" and it's commonly encouraged in kindergarten. Given that Laurel is a first-grader now and it's still September, it's clear that she came to elementary school already knowing how to read and write. She was probably not taught standard spelling in kindergarten and was allowed to spell words any way she wanted to in order to encourage her to write creatively. Now that she's a first-grader, her teacher will probably start to correct her spelling, but only gradually so as not to discourage her from writing.
    It's interesting to me that she spells "lovely hearts" – both words with silent e's – correctly, and I wonder if that's a phrase she has copied from somewhere. Note that some other words have lost their silent letters – spred, gron-up, evryone.

  11. J.W. Brewer said,

    September 30, 2016 @ 11:50 am

    My kids had similar pedagogical experiences and were more or less transitioned smoothly into standard orthography by maybe second grade (the one who took more time to get the hang of that was, by third grade, generally only making the sort of spelling errors conventional for people exposed to the more traditional/draconian pedagogy but not quick studies at it). The interesting bit was that my second daughter who had a bit of delay getting all the fine details of English phonology down often did her "kindergarten spelling" reflecting her idiosyncratic "kindergarten pronunciation." In particular, she took longer than usual to master the "th" sounds (both unvoiced theta and voiced edh) and thus often wrote words spelled with a "th" as she said them (generally "f" for unvoiced and "d" for voiced) in free composition while writing the same words with a "th" when they were doing exercises where they were supposed to write down the words the teacher was saying (and presumably enunciating in an exaggerated super-careful fashion).

  12. wanda said,

    September 30, 2016 @ 1:42 pm

    I recall doing Venn diagrams in 1st grade. We used them to compare and contrast characters in books, for example. I'm 33 this year if it makes any difference.

    As for spelling, my teachers didn't care until maybe 2nd grade, but my mom cared from day 1 of kindergarten and wouldn't let me submit misspelled work for homework. That was never a big hardship for me because I was a pretty good reader who had decent sight recognition of words. In contrast, I had a good college friend whose pre-college teachers never cared about spelling and who is also slightly dyslexic, so he didn't pick it up naturally. His spelling was so poor that only about half of his IMs were intelligible. His other friends and I had to stage an intervention in freshman year where we cornered him in his room and explained to him that he needed, for both personal and professional reasons, to learn how to spell. Overall, I think that spelling is indeed important for communication and for appearing to be a well-bred, educated person and intend to emphasize spelling early on with my child. It doesn't worry me that doing that might discourage him from writing. So much writing is required now that he's going to have to do it, so he'll get practice doing it whether or not it's enjoyable for him.

  13. Bloix said,

    September 30, 2016 @ 10:28 pm

    Wanda – "he'll get practice doing it whether or not it's enjoyable for him."

    How sad for him, that his mom doesn't care if learning will give him pleasure.

  14. tangent said,

    September 30, 2016 @ 11:54 pm

    We would have two sets like "fruit" and "vegetables", with the intersection being "can be eaten raw".

    Something is both a fruit and a vegetable if (and only if) it can be eaten raw? Is a carrot a fruit? I don't follow.

  15. tangent said,

    September 30, 2016 @ 11:55 pm

    Drat HTML fail

  16. David Morris said,

    October 2, 2016 @ 1:17 am

    I noticed the yod-less spelling of 'stoopid'. I wonder if an Australian student (where this and similar words are pronounced with /j/) would write 'styoopid'.

    Google shows 3m + results for 'stoopid' and 1710 for 'styoopid'.

  17. Tomoko said,

    October 10, 2016 @ 10:19 pm

    Wanda didn't say she didn't care. Just that he will benefit whether he enjoys, gets pleasure, or not.
    Why would it make you feel sad that her son will learn and benefit?
    Or, is it that one should, must never do anything other than for pleasure?

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