A Classroom-Based Study of Semantic Entailments: Definiteness, Specificity, and Anaphoric Reference in English, French, and German—Skiffy Bafflegab SpecGram Vol CLXXX, No 1 Contents Teacher, Teacher On The Wall...—Mead D’’Cruft

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Teaching Linguistics in High School

Sven Slater and Ollie Bickford
J.R. Nelson, Jr. High School, St. Cloud, Minnesota, USA


We were required to do an experiment for this year’s High School Science Fair. Our teacher didn’t seem to have any good suggestions for topics, so we called up our old 5th Grade teacher Mr. Olson and asked him if he had any suggestions. He said that linguists have been trying to develop a curriculum for teaching Linguistics in High Schools, and that they probably would appreciate having some basic research to help them. So we decided to undertake a project like that.

We considered doing another Sociolinguistic project like our Duck, Duck, Grey Duck one from the 5th Grade science fair, but this time we decided to do something that didn’t require traveling anywhere for “field work”. We are also tired of our grandmothers’ lemonade.

Research question

We remembered that Mr. Olson told us we always need a clear research question, even when we are doing Linguistics research. So our research question for this project was:

Can Linguistics be taught in High School with acceptable results?

Our science teacher, Ms. Anderson, said that question is good enough for government work, whatever that means. We think that might mean she doesn’t want to tell us that she doesn’t really like it.


We could not require subjects to buy a textbook, because subjects complained that they had no extra money after paying for extra data on their phone plans most months, and buying fashionable clothing.

Also, no class time was available because the State Curriculum Board has pretty much filled up all the class time with subjects that most High Schoolers dislike.

So instead of having a formal class, and we aren’t qualified to teach a formal class anyway, each of us researchers integrated discussion of Linguistics topics across the curriculum. We thought that would impress our teachers because they say phrases like that a lot. And also it gave us something interesting to think about in class.

We evaluated the responses of our subjects in terms of how well they accepted and understood our Linguistics comments. Mainly, if they ever repeated anything we had said, or asked us any reasonably intelligent questions, we decided to score that as “understand”.


The results were bad. We will discuss them according to High School class, because different subjects in different subjects had different problems in understanding different things that we said.

Math subjects were unable to grasp the nature of linguistic terms. They kept asking about “primitives” and expecting things like “noun” to mean the same thing in every language.

Social Studies subjects mostly rejected our explanation that bilingual societies can function smoothly, and that code-switching is an advanced socially adaptive skill.

Science subjects argued a lot. They mostly seemed to think that studying something always means drawing pictures or measuring things. One of them didn’t believe that grammar is a thing. [Note to selves: see if there is some kind of picture that can explain grammar.]

English subjects were literally the worst. They failed to understand the concept that word meanings are not fixed, but vary with social context and have a situational character. They did not accept explanations that meaning is socially negotiated, even though we gave them lots of examples. They consistently displayed Dictionarism, which Mr. Olson told us about way back in 5th Grade.

Music subjects kept tapping on things and drove us crazy, so we gave up on them.


We were disappointed with the results of our study. We had thought that Mr. Olson was too pessimistic when he told us “don’t bother”.

Based on this experiment, though, we have to answer our research question “no”.

But we thought about it and came up with some reasons why things might have gone wrong. So for the rest of this discussion we will discuss those reasons.

It is possible that we the researchers presented ourselves in a manner that was too scholarly for our subjects. Because we are just High School kids ourselves, we doubt that one.

Another possibility is that we chose the wrong classes for our study. Maybe Art or Gym class would have been more successful. But neither of us is taking those classes this semester, and anyway Mr. Olson says that if we can’t teach Linguistics in these core classes, there is no hope of making it relevant to modern life.

Finally, we realized that maybe we could have tried our study with different people. Maybe the subjects we chose did not have a can-do learner’s attitude.

Future research

We consider that final possibility to be the most hopeful one. So now we are planning to re-do the experiment next year, presenting our Linguistics concepts to our High School classmates instead of to our teachers. We are optimistic that this population may be more receptive.

A Classroom-Based Study of Semantic Entailments: Definiteness, Specificity, and Anaphoric Reference in English, French, and GermanSkiffy Bafflegab
Teacher, Teacher On The Wall...Mead D’’Cruft
SpecGram Vol CLXXX, No 1 Contents