Clip Clop and Tick Tock and Chit Chat

There’s a grammar rule you’ve probably never broken, not once. At least none of my students ever did.

They might have come to class saying, “I ain’t got my homework done, Mrs. Swartz.”

But when it came to ablaut reduplication, they never messed up.

Tip top, they’d say, never top tip.

They’d say Kit Kat and chit chat and jibber jabber and clip clop. They followed the ablaut reduplication rule without thinking because the other way—top, tip and chat chit—just sounds wrong.

So I never explained the rule to them. We never discussed that in these repeating kind of words, the first word always uses i as its inside vowel and that the second word uses an a or an o. My students never understood that a mouth makes i’s in the front and a’s and o’s further back, and that, for English speakers, a mouth works easier from the front to the back.

In bringing rhythms to language, what comes first matters.

And it matters in teaching, though how to begin doesn’t come so naturally.

For too many years, I got it wrong. Teaching, I reasoned, is about growth of the mind. And so I’d begin by offering a concept to my students. This would intrigue them, I reasoned, draw them in.

But the rhythms of my classes were off. I was working the hard way, by engaging the head first.

I should have remembered the example of my professor in a graduate-level statistics class. I walked into that class with a giant-sized pit in my stomach.

“How many of you are dreading this class?” the professor asked.

And it was all of us.

“Let me tell you something,” she said. “I failed statistics twice in college. And when I figured out why, I decided to teach statistics—and in a way students can understand it, actually like it.”

She had us.

Even in a class as logic laden as statistics, she knew the right order: the heart first, and then the head.

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