Alphabet books and prototype theory

This is about a project I studied at University, about 10 years ago. I interviewed about 40 children aged from 4-8, asking them to come up with an alphabet. I then compared these with about 40 alphabet books. I was asking the question what differences there would be between the children’s alphabets (thought up by children) and those imagined by adults, writing for children. I also put some questionnaires in the childrens’ section of the library and got a few replies back.

Eleanor Rosch, psychologist, came up with what is known as prototype theory in the 1970s. She said that there are prototypes for any category of everyday items. If you ask someone to come up with an example of furniture, they are much more likely to say “table” than “stereo” or “hoover”, for example. Prototype theory has also been applied to quite unusual sets like odd numbers – people have found that “31” is “more odd” than “569” – even though the concept has no mathematical meaning. There are also fuzzy boundaries between what you might think are well-defined concepts. This came up in my project, with some children placing “xylophone” under “z” instead of “x”, due to the sound of the initial phoneme.

So what were my findings? Not a lot. I had hoped that children would invent new words and use words like the names of Teletubbies, “P is for Po” that adults would never consider. However, there was, depressingly, little difference between the two sets – the children unimaginatively copied adult examples they had heard at school.

However, there were some differences. The children’s examples used more sweets, whilst the adult alphabet books had more vegetables – one even had “q is for quiche”. Surely this is an example of childish rebellion against healthy eating?

I also discovered that alphabet books were more advanced (with significantly more syllables in the words) than the words children routinely chose. This flies in the face of prototype theory. The best words to chose would be those which would come naturally to the learner. The most common words were also concrete nouns – although less so in the verbal interviews, as books rely on illustrations.

An alphabet based on prototype theory:
Aa is for apple
Bb is for ball
Cc is for cat
Dd is for dog
Ee is for elephant
Ff is for fish
Gg is for gate
Hh is for hat or house
II is for ink
Jj is for jumping
Kk is for kite
LI is for lemon
Mm is for mum
Nn is for naughty
Oo is for octopus
Pp is for pig
Qq is for queen
Rr is for rabbit
Ss is for snake
Tt is for tree
Uu is for umbrella
Vv is for vase
Ww is for witch
Xx is for x-ray
Yy is for yo-yo
Zz is for zebra

Lastly, thank you very much to all those who helped with the project and a big thank you to the brilliant Dr Julie Coleman at Leicester Uni.

Click to read the text of the full version (the full results were originally in the form of pie charts for each letter, but along the way the Excel file became corrupted, so this has I am afraid been lost.

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