English/Auslan PL: Strong and weak verbs

This keeps coming back to bite me.

On my final teaching placement, it was decided that we would transcribe texts the children had been reading as part of an author study and they would highlight all the weak verbs they could find. I still don’t really know why they were doing this – it was just a directive.

Okay, thought I, that’s easy enough.

Except it wasn’t, because as we went through the texts… there just weren’t that many weak verbs.

I was confident I understood it correctly. A weak verb (or a regular verb) is a verb in which the vowel does not change when you change it to past tense (or to form the past participle). Generally, you just add a suffix, usually -ed or -t. For example, add is a weak verb, as to make the past tense you add -ed to make added. Dream is a weak verb as to make the past tense you add -t to make dreamt.

By contrast, sing would be a strong verb as to make the past tense you change the vowel (/i/) to (/a/) to make sang.

This befuddled me, and the kids, and after a week of scratching our heads I went back to planning to say I really wasn’t sure what we were meant to do with the students’ performance data. They clearly knew what weak and strong verbs were and were able to articulate that there weren’t many in the texts. Was that the point?

It turns out that what the school meant by strong and weak verbs was something else entirely. To them, jump is a weak verb – leap is a much stronger verb.

Ah, thinked me, that makes sense.

It makes sense, but it isn’t what those terms mean. I thought it was just that school, until last year… my first year of teaching. The same thing came up again. Students had to identify ‘weak’ verbs in their own writing and ‘uplevel’ them to ‘strong’ verbs.

The problem, as my very clever kids pointed out, is that that’s just not how writing works. If they wanted to say a character leaped from a building, they probably would have. He didn’t leap – he jumped. The idea was to make their writing – in this case a narrative – more exciting and engaging, but as they said, it was actually requiring them to change the story and, in some cases, the plot and characterisation.

That was largely my influence. I drill into my kids the importance of choosing language carefully and being as unambiguous as possible. They chose the verbs they chose primarily because they were an accurate way of detailing events – only a handful chose verbs due to a lack of available options.

In fact, we dedicated some time to verbs. My kids would have written leap if they wanted their character to leap.

I tried to make it abstract – what are ‘stronger’ ways of saying ‘jump’? But my kids knew all too well that ‘leap’ is a different action to ‘jump’. Oh well.

The thing is, none of that really applies to Auslan.

In Auslan, ‘jump’ and ‘leap’ would be represented identically, by the sign for JUMP. However, you can make it ‘stronger’ or ‘weaker’ by how you express it. An intense, determined expression on your face would modify the verb to be something more alike in meaning to leap, whereas a neutral or bored expression would indicate a less energetic, more apathetic release of kinetic energy in the legs.

And that’s only one way of modifying a verb in Auslan – you could of course explicitly sign an adverb, for example. PRO2 JUMP KEEN(ly), I guess?

The benefit to teaching this in Auslan is that it encourages children to think about exactly what they want to express, and to express that.

One downside is that it contradicts what they are learning in English – that distinct verbs are modifications of one another, when they simply aren’t (most of the time). That said, if teachers are still using terms like ‘weak’ and ‘strong’ verbs in ways which don’t reflect their technical meaning, then it won’t make much difference.

Another downside is that to add modifiers in Auslan, children need to be able to articulate what they are trying to express. This relies on extensive L1 vocab. I primarily focus on Level 3 and Level 4 within the Victorian Curriculum. At my school, as part of their vocab study, children who still write ‘goed’ rather than ‘went’ are learning words like truculent as new vocab. Complex, uncommon words lead to showing off at the dinner table, not the development of reading and writing skills.

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