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.

Come Back, Amelia Bedelia offers another example. Told to stamp some letters, Amelia uses her feet to stamp them into the floor.

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.


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Adam Cooper studied linguistics at Brandeis University and The University of Chicago. Since 2010, he has been working with The Endangered Language Alliance in New York City on documentation and preservation projects. Click here to read more articles by Adam Cooper.

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Comments from our users:

Thursday October 3rd 2013, 8:45 PM
Comment by: Betje K.
Fun read, thank you. While Amelia is the topic, may I tap into your brain with a nagging question? I am searching for a word that encapsulates Amelia's special kind of error when she takes words too literally. What is a joke or a mistake based on "hyper-literality"? It's certainly not a "pun" which sparks outward and multiplies interpretations. Hyper-literalism halts. It produces a reversal, a regression, or a limitation--an "anti-pun." What makes these situations funny? Amelia really is a special case because she can always cookie her way out of peril or dishonor.Is there a word?
Signed, Auntie Pun in Austin (aka Betje)
Friday October 4th 2013, 12:37 PM
Comment by: Oriel V. (Buenos Aires Argentina)
This is an absolutely great article which will most certainly be useful to those of us who teach English as a Foreign Language (EFL to use the common acronym).

I put this question to the readers: I am trying to locate the articles on SLANG that I read in this publication (meaning Visual Thesaurus). There must have been at least three or four articles. Inadvertently I failed to make a note of the date of publication or even the names of the authors. Could any kind reader assist me? There is no category (or rather subcategory for SLANG either in the Words or Vocabulary section in the Visual Thesaurus. A real shame if you know what I mean.

Perhaps you will be kind enough to help me and direct me to those articles. Contact me at my address orielv7@yahoo.com.ar I will say a healing prayer for you. Thanks. Oriel Villagarcia, Buenos Aires, Argentina
Friday October 4th 2013, 4:10 PM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus ContributorVisual Thesaurus Moderator
Oriel: If you want to search for articles on a subject, you can use the "search the site" box on the VT home page (halfway down on the right side). You'll find numerous articles on slang in our archives. One that may be of particular interest is our interview with Orin Hargraves about teaching slang to English language learners.
Saturday October 5th 2013, 2:54 PM
Comment by: Monisha G. (Easton, PA)
Thank you for the memories! Great article - almost 30 years later I'm suddenly understanding why I loved these books so dearly! Well done.

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