Teachers at Work
A column about teaching
Sometimes Words Have Two Meanings, Amelia Bedelia!
Peggy Parish's Amelia Bedelia has been a beloved children's character since her debut in 1963. Through many adventures (39 at last count) Amelia has approached any given task with wide eyed innocence, all the while misinterpreting the key word in a task to humorous and often disastrous effect. Ms. Bedelia's problem with words with two definitions can be an opportunity for the classroom teacher, as a simple and fun way to introduce words with multiple meanings to developing readers.
The flood of new words rushing at a child in the first few years of school can be a little overwhelming, and complicating their understanding of words they might have already been comfortable with doesn't seem like it would make things any easier. What makes an approach using Amelia Bedelia as a stand in for the child so appealing is that the character herself isn't intimidating in the least. A lot of Amelia's confusion can make you laugh, and crucially, everything works out in the end: Amelia is scolded and fired throughout the books, but her travails always end happily, usually with the aid of her baking skills.
Amelia's problems with language may also echo a child's lack of comprehension. When examined closely, many of Amelia's misunderstandings involve a second definition of a word that is an obscure term of art in an area that is unlikely to be familiar to a child, like cooking or sewing, or a metaphorical extension of a concrete usage which, again, a child could not really be expected to know. In other words, whether Amelia Bedelia is to blame or not for a given mishap, the child is blameless, and may fully understand how Amelia could make such a mistake.
In the very first Amelia Bedelia book, simply called Amelia Bedelia, Amelia's employer leaves her a note which simply says, "Dress the Chicken." The chicken, intended for dinner, goes from the fridge into a pair of overalls and cute socks.
As can be seen from this Visual Thesaurus word map, dress has many possible meanings:
To demystify how both a person and a chicken (or a salad) can be "dressed," it helps to break down these uses into what they have in common. In this case, one example might be "putting things on" –a shirt on a person or the garnish on the chicken. By taking a step back and making things simpler in this way, the less familiar use of a word is more approachable. The Fritz Siebel illustration of the "dressed chicken" is a classic, sure to be remembered by anyone who's seen it. By pointing out the second definition's relationship to the familiar one, this new sense of the word can be just as memorable.
Here the common meaning, something on the order of "impress by applying force to" is probably too obscure. A synonym that sounds quite close, however, namely "stomp," can provide something for a teacher to grab onto. We can also use things the child is already familiar with to drive this point home. Although online bill paying may be jeopardizing the postage stamp, coloring stamping for artistic purposes is thriving in many classrooms. It's a short jump from the stars stamped on a piece of paper for a coloring activity to the stamps Amelia Bedelia was supposed to put on those letters. This is admittedly a noisy, boisterous pair, but it uses something the child already knows to help them branch out and make new discoveries.
What about teaching a pair that doesn't seem to have any common meaning at all? Come Back, Amelia Bedelia offers one of these examples too. Asked to file some papers, Amelia Bedelia produces a nail file and starts "filing" away.
In this case the words are not related at all, in fact they historically derive from two different verbs. There's a good chance that a student may know these definitions though, perhaps having seen a parent file their nails with that strange stick. As for filing papers, every child has had to line up "single file" in the gym or schoolyard, and a simple analogy of the papers in a folder, one behind the other just like the students in a row, makes the point clear. As for the fact that these two "files" exist together, it won't be shocking that sometimes things that are very different are called the same thing, especially if you're the kid in class who has another kid in class with the same name.
Exploring the linguistic misinterpretations Amelia makes is a great way to teach students about multiple meanings. Amelia's literalism can open the door to early childhood sophisticated wordplay. Beyond the specifics discussed here, Amelia Bedelia perseveres, whether she is "drawing" the curtains with a pen and paper or "shortening" clothes with a scissors. One of the biggest takeaways from the Amelia Bedelia series is that it's ok to make mistakes — something we all need to be told now and again.