Clay Modeling - Serrano-Lopez, 2003

Updated: Nov 17, 2020

If you have children in kindergarten or first grade, you might have already seen this technique used. Instead of reading words or saying letters, the children are asked to MODEL the letters with play dough.

The idea is that modeling the letter - which is really a symbol and has no meaning by itself - helps to "encode" the symbol together with its meaning in our mind. This is called "dual-coding" - coding the new information by saying it AND seeing it, touching it, experiencing it. It's a powerful tool for memorization of new concepts.

Dr. Serrano-Lopez, in her thesis entitled "Three-dimensional clay modeling instruction: A pathway to spatial concept formation in second language learners," taps into research done by Davis Symbol Mastery. Davis Symbol Mastery is a program designed to help dyslexics visualize and conceptualize abstract words.

As it turns out, this program is also useful in helping ELLs to create a visual/spatial understanding of new words and concepts. As Serrano-Lopez says, "The process will give you a deeper, more accurate, more usable, and more permanent understanding of the words than you could get simply by memorizing their definitions."

Prepositions are some of the most difficult to conceive because spatial perceptions of these types of words differ between cultures. You can't just substitute the word "on" for "en" in Spanish in every situation. Take a look at this mapping of English prepositions onto Spanish prepositions:

It takes four Spanish prepositions to cover all the meanings of IN and ON - and twenty English prepositions to cover all the meanings of the four Spanish prepositions! Yikes!

I like the way Serrano-Lopez puts it: "Traditional language instruction is almost completely verbal...[but] not all words can be easily defined...try describing the difference between "above" and "over"...and even when you can hear and learn a definition, it's quite difficult to think through the defining phrase(s) every time you want to use a word. When you learned English, no one told you the definition of "the" or "in," or even "run" or "sing." You learned by example. You saw how the word was supposed to be used - and for many words, you learned visually/spatially, while interacting with your environment. In class, we can't recreate the years of experience it takes to learn a language naturally. But we can, to some extent, recreate the process of learning by example rather than by definition."

Here is her basic lesson plan for learning with clay (Serrano-Lopez, 2003, Appendix I)

1. Understand the word

Read the definition; discuss the word with classmates; make up example sentences using the word. Be careful! Some words have many definitions, and you need to learn only one at a time.

2. Create your example

Build a clay model that shows the meaning of the word

3. Build the word

Make the word out of clay

4. Learn the word

Say to the model "You are ____, meaning ____________." Say to the word, "You say _____." You might also say this in your native language.

5. Lock it in

Make a mental picture of the model and word you've created, and say the word and definition to yourself. This is called "Inner Speech." Make sure you can remember the model (and definition) well enough to "look" at your memory and know how the word is used.

Helpful Hints:

  • Make sure that the model is related to the word, and shows what it means and how it's used. If the word is "cat," and you come up with a sentence like "The cat is up a tree," don't just make a model of the tree!

  • Notice the wording in step 4. This is important. The model is the word/concept you're trying to learn. The letters are simply a set of symbols that say the word. Why go through all these steps? When you learn a word naturally, you have many chances to hear it, and you can gradually create your own definition. In class, you feed yourself all the pieces at once.

  • If you have trouble thinking of a picture, make up more example sentences and look for the common theme. Is the word expressing action? Relative location? Description?

  • Remember to stick to one definition at a time. If the word is "throw" and the definition is "propel through the air," "Throw out the trash" is not a good sentence.

  • It works best if you think up your own picture, rather than using someone else's.

My daughter helped me make these videos of exploring OUT with clay:

You can find more resources in Serrano-Lopez's thesis here:

She has a great model test for prepositions "In" and "On" in both Spanish and English, as well as some handouts that I will adapt for a lesson on "Out" in a future post.

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