Better than ABC order

Once again, Ruthie grapples with ABC order, in the January 6th One Big Happy:


The larger context: test tasks for kids, and what they’re for. Eventually this will take us to queens.

Not long ago, in another, very different, confrontation between Ruthie and ABC order: from my 12/29/18 posting “Ruthie x 3”:


The conventional name in English is alphabetical order (or, rarely, alphabetic order). But the pentasyllabic alphabetical is a hell of a mouthful for kids in the early grades, so some teachers have hit on the idea of using something the children already know: the letters of the alphabet in sequence. Hence, ABC order (not in OED3 (Dec. 2011), but obviously useful).

At some point I must have been told why we were learning how to alphabetize lists of words and how to search alphabetized lists. The task is, after all, complex: you need to have the fixed order of the letters of the alphabet routinized for quick access, and then you need to apply this order recursively from left to right. The crucial point is that this order is independent of the interests of any particular person; it’s the same for everybody, so everybody can use it equally. And all you need is the spelling of the word; you don’t need any other information about the word (such as when you first encountered it) or about the word’s referent (such as whether it refers to something large or something small) or about your relationship to the referent of the word (such as whether this referent is important to you or not).

But for what purpose? To allow for quick search through long lists of words (or longer expressions), to find out whether something you’re looking for is on it. We use alphabetized lists of people’s names (in class lists, for example), of expressions in dictionaries and encyclopedias, and so on. Without alphabetization, searching for certain kinds of information would be tedious and difficult.

Now, if we’re going to expect kids to develop skills in creating and using alphabetized lists, they’ll need to see some point in the exercise; otherwise, they’ll just fall back on their own idiosyncratic schemes for ordering things, and they won’t become at all skillful with alphabetization (which is, like it or not, important in alphabet-using cultures in the modern world).  Even Ruthie in #1, who says that she understands the correct alphabetical order of the three words, chooses to use in this particular case an ordering relationship based on a different principle — namely, that supremely important principle of kid culture, fairness.

Why learn it? Learning to deal with alphabetization requires a significant outlay of time and effort, but the rationale for that looks pretty clear. It’s not always clear, to me at least, why certain other things are taught and tested. From my 11/21/18 posting “OBH analyses”:

Opposites for kids. At some point in the history of education in the United States (and probably elsewhere) mastering the vocabulary of opposites — being able to supply an “opposite” word for some given word — came to be seen as a significant goal in childhood education. I know nothing about the history or about the rationale for pursuing this particular task, but I do know that the usual reason given from drilling preschoolers in this task — that they need to learn the vocabulary — is utterly preposterous, since all the words in question are ones the children already know and use, like big and little.

So the exercise must in some way be about conceptual relationships — contrariety, contradiction, and (as we shall see) more, much more — in the belief that internalizing knowledge about these will benefit small children in some way. So, mostly, it’s not about words at all (though the testing materials, like the worksheet Joe is agonizing over in #2 [in that posting], generally do seem to assume that there is only one correct opposite word for any given word), but about more abstract relationships.

… In the big list [of opposites in materials for children], contrary adjectives are clearly the central examples, and they are the ones these materials start with and then diverge from; they form the basis on which kids are to (tacitly) induce what opposite means. But the pairs are all over the map: some are contradictories (man – woman), some are semantic converses (give – get / receive), some have a reversative (fix – break), and so on through quite a variety of contrastive pairings (hello – goodbyesour – sweet?). I really don’t know what kids are supposed to make of this. Or why they should be enaging in the task.

Queens. And then we get to nuggets of specific information that kids are tested on. These I often find deeply mystifying, for a variety of reasons.

First, there’s the difference between information-seeking questions and test questions, a tricky business that takes kids a while to cotton to; some discussion of infoseek vs. test questions in my 8/21/18 posting “Asking questions and giving commands”.

Then there are conventionally expected answers to particular test questions, which kids are expected to induce from their classroom experience; see my Language Log posting of 12/2/09, “What is this question about?”, about the range of expected answers to the test question, “What color is a banana?” (note: WHITE is a wrong answer, even though the edible part of standard bananas is white; and RED is a wrong answer, even though the standard bananas in many parts of the world have reddish skins).

Finally, there’s the raw choice of test questions, which often look they’re just pulled out of a hat; we ask this question because we can. (Kids are supposed to know things, so let’s test some stuff.) In this vein is a test question — with a really clever answer marked wrong (as a general rule, truly clever answers are wrong, from the point of view of the devisers of tests) —  that’s been making the rounds of the net as an image of an actual test item. Surely invented, but a good joke, and not far from examples you can collect from real life:

Name one popular queen.  Freddy Mercury  ✘

A wonderful answer: Mercury was the lead singer of the rock band Queen, and his performance persona was wildly flamboyant, worthy of the label queen. But not, of course, in the ‘female monarch’ sense the test question intends to ask about. RuPaul is certainly a popular queen, but again not in the sense the test question intends to ask about  (and RuPaul wouldn’t have been as clever a wrong answer as Freddy Mercury). Andrew McQueen — also a queen, in the flamboyant sense, but nowhere near as popular as Freddy Mercury and RuPaul — would have been a cute answer, if only for the contrast with butch / macho Steve McQueen. Then there’s Queen Latifah, the Queen of Hearts, the Red Queen, the Queen of Darkness, Dairy Queen, and Speed Queen, plus prom queens, welfare queens, drama queens, opera queens and rice queens (see my 12/19/15 posting “X queen” on the snowclonelet pattern).

In an English-speaking context, Queen Elizabeth I, Queen Victoria, and Queen Elizabeth II would be correct answers, and possibly the only acceptable correct answers; it all depends on what’s intended by popular. I assume Queen Juliana and Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands (and other comparable modern European female monarchs) were insufficiently popular in English-speaking lands, that Catherine the Great of Russia and Queen Isabella of Aragon were powerful but not popular, that Mary Queen of Scots was too unsympathetic to be popular, and that Queen Anne and the Queen Mary of Williamanmary were more sympathetic but still a bit short in popularity on the street. Leaving three prime answers.

Maybe the question should have asked about famous queens of England. Certainly the question seems designed to tap high cultural currency or something similar — so it really is a lot like the banana-color question, a probe about mass enculturation.

So, I ask again, why ask this particular question? What do we expect kids to know, and why?




One Response to “Better than ABC order”

  1. [BLOG] Some Tuesday links | A Bit More Detail Says:

    […] Zwicky takes a look at the idea of alphabetic order, starting with the question of how to learn […]

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