Have you ever played word association with your child? Most kids will eagerly participate because it’s new and interesting and they receive lots of attention during play. Parents like the activity because it’s stress free and it offers a unique viewpoint that cannot be obtained in any other way. While nearly everyone is familiar with how to play word association, there’s a method for interpreting the results that may be unfamiliar to you.
Don’t worry, the method is just a fun way of looking at the answers. It’s not going to tell you anything earth shattering about your child or anyone else who plays. First: the basics of playing word association with kids.
On a sheet of paper, make a list of 25 nouns. Keep the items within your child’s vocabulary. It doesn’t do any good to use a word like ‘protoplasm’ if your child has no idea what that is. Have the list ready before you play the game.
Now ask your child if she wants to play a word game. Make sure the TV and radio are off, as well as any other distractions. Explain the rules: you say a word and your child says the first word that comes into her head.
Start with item one, and continue down the list at a steady pace. Write your child’s answer next to the corresponding item on the list. That’s really all there is to the game itself. Since the activity doesn’t take very long, you might look for ways to expand the activity while you still have the luxury of your child’s full attention. You can interpret the results later.
Here’s one way to extend the activity: on a separate sheet of scratch paper write down rhymes for each pair of words. Just put the pair next to each other at the top of the page (like players in a card came). Draw a line under each word. Make a list of rhymes beneath the word. Add up how many items are in each list. Write the total under the list. Add the two totals for a grand total.
Now say something like, ‘Dog and bone will now challenge house and chimney.’ Keep track of how many rhymes each pair of words generates and compare the results. This will definitely extend the length of the game. Keep in mind you can always play half now and half later.
An advanced variation is to see how many new words you can make using the letters from each word. (For instance, chair makes hi, car, hair, char, etc.) Again, put each pair of words at the top of a separate sheet of scratch paper and list the results underneath.
Interpreting your word association answers:
If you want to apply the following method of interpretation to your own word choice answers, then you should stop reading, not this very second but before you get to the method. (I’ll tell you when.) Otherwise your answers will not be natural. . .no matter how good your intentions are. So, first you need to play word association with a friend or spouse. Have the person write down 25 nouns. You know the rest. Just be sure the answers are written down. Switch roles if you want, so you can compare results. Stop reading here if you want to interpret your own answers.
One method to interpret word association answers is to distinguish between metaphoric and contiguous use of language, as described by Roman Jakobson in the essay, Two Aspects of Language: Metaphor and Metonymy. The method simply provides a unique way of looking at word choice. Basically, a metaphoric choice replaces the word with something similar (or opposite). The answer to football is baseball, for instance. Baseball replaces football. It’s similar to it, but it is something new. A contiguous answer combines the item with one of its elements. The answer to football is helmet, for instance. Helmet is an item within the set of things that goes with the game of football.
In terms of literary schools, Roman Jakobson likens the two types of language use to romantic and symbolic trends on the one hand (in the case of metaphoric predominance), and realistic trends on the other (in the case of contiguous predominance). In my experience, most people provide a predominance of contiguous answers. I suspect the more comfortable a person is with the noun, the more instant is the response to how it works. For example, door invites knob, lamp invites shade, plant invites water. Furthermore, if the person gives an opinionated answer like fun or gross, the answer is also contiguous. So it seems to me the odds are in favor of contiguous answers.
You may be tempted to assign procedural, inside the box vs. non-procedural outside the box thinking to the two types of word choices. There are too many variables to form that conclusion. For instance, someone who is really good at something–playing the piano, for example–is likely to compliment the word piano with one of its prominent features. That would be a contiguous answer. Overall, in terms of general language usage, Jakobson says, “In manipulating the two kinds of connection (similarity and contiguity). . .an individual exhibits his personal style, his verbal predilections and preferences.” 1
The important thing is just to have fun with this activity. Kids are generally tickled by the idea. It gives them an opportunity to play with words, so to speak. Furthermore, using the answers to play rhyming games is a wonderful way to increase familiarity with words and the sounds they make. If you keep score, the activity also provides exposure to simple addition, as well as exposure to the concept of less than, greater than (when comparing totals).
Best of Luck – have fun!
1. Jakobson, Roman. “Two Aspects of Language: Metaphor and Metonymy.” European Literary Theory and Practice- From Existential Phenomenology to Structuralism. 1st ed. New York, New York: Dell Publishing Co., Inc., 1973. Print.