Absolutely brillig

24th October 1997 at 01:00
"Twas brillig, and the slithy toves Did gyre and gimble in the wabe; All mimsy were the borogoves, And the mome raths outgrabe" When I use "Jabberwocky" by Lewis Carroll to look at aspects of grammar, I am amazed by what children at all stages of the junior years (key stage 2) already know about how language works. To make that knowledge explicit, I encourage the pupils to analyse parts of the text, and share this with everyone.

After reading through "Jabberwocky", it's fun to play around with the nonsense words, and enjoy the sound of them. I explain to the children that most of the strange syllables form "compound" or "portmanteau" words - two different words jammed together, or two different ideas packed into one word, as into a suitcase or "portmanteau".

If you take the words, fretful, fuming and furious, all at the same time, and then tried to say all three words at once, the result would be a "portmanteau" word like "frumious". You can have great fun asking the children to guess which words have been joined together, and they then work individually or in pairs to create their own "portmanteau" words.

Next the children focus on the structure of the verse, looking at the patterns of words chosen by the author. I ask them to draw three columns. In the first, they write in all the words that are names, (toves, borogroves, Jabberwocky, Bandersnatch, etc). In the middle column they list describing words, (brillig, mimsy, frumious, etc). In the last column, go words they decide are action words, (gyre, gimble, galumphing). We discuss each stage, pupils justify their lists and give explanations for their choices.

By this point in the lesson, most children have succeeded in correctly identifying nouns, adjectives and verbs without difficulty. They have used their knowledge about language patterns to work out how each class of words makes the text work to create meaning.

Extension ideas include inviting the class to come up with their own version of a nonsense verse, by substituting the author's words in the columns with alternatives. Others may want to seek out the real meaning behind the poem, in which case research into Alice Through the Looking Glass should provide the answers. In the sixth chapter, Humpty Dumpty tells Alice that he can "explain all the poems that ever were invented, and a good many that haven't been invented yet!" I think it's just as much fun to imagine your own definitions!

"Jabberwocky" also provides the opportunity for a whole range of English ideas: creating additionalalternative verses, writing new poems, limericks, creative writing about the creatures in Jabberwocky, interpretations, reading the "Alice" books and other works by Lewis Carroll. It also provides a springboard for a whole range of cross-curricular activities such as artwork, music, and drama.

Pamela Brading is a senior lecturer in primary education at Christ Church College, Canterbury, Kent

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