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Presuppositions refer to the assumptions in a message that the listener accepts as true in order to make sense of the whole message. For instance, in the statement, “The cow moos at the moon,” the following presuppositions are present:
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A. The existence of an object known as cow
B. An attribute of the object cow- moos
C. The existence of an object known as moon
D. The object cow can moo at the object moon
E. The object cow is mooing at the object moon
Listeners do not engage in this kind of linguistic analysis, and chances are that, when they hear the statement, “The cow moos at the moon,” the recipient of the message will easily accept all of the presuppositions listed above. In other words, the recipient of the message is predisposed to accept the message as valid and truthful. More examples (Only the most relevant presuppositions are included):
1. You are not going to tell me another lie! (Presuppositions: You lie and you told me a lie before.)
2. Why don’t you smile more? (Presuppositions: You can smile and you do not smile enough.)
3. You are as stubborn as a cat. (Presuppositions: You are stubborn and cats are stubborn.)
4. My parrot is bilingual; she can curse in both English and Spanish. (Presuppositions: I have a parrot, my parrot can talk, my parrot can curse, my parrot curses, my parrot curses in English, and my parrot curses in Spanish.)
5. The youngest of my sisters, Aileen, regrets leaving Columbia University before she finished her degree in chemistry. (Presuppositions: I have at least two sisters, one of my sister’s name is Aileen, Aileen was studying at Columbia University, Aileen was studying chemistry, Aileen did not finish her degree in chemistry, Aileen left Columbia University before completing her studies, and Aileen regrets that she did not finish her degree in chemistry.)
6. My toddler no longer has temper tantrums. (Presuppositions: I have a toddler, my toddler once had temper tantrums, and my toddler is no longer having temper tantrums.)
7. When did you stop chewing gum? (Presuppositions: You once chewed gum and currently, you do not chew gum.)
8. Celeste is a better student than Barbara. (Presuppositions: Celeste is a student, Barbara is a student, Celeste is at least a good student, Barbara is at least a good student, there is a hierarchy of students that goes from good to best and in that hierarchy, Celeste ranks higher than Barbara.)
9. Why did you steal Jeremy’s cap? (Presuppositions: There is a cap, the cap belongs to Jeremy, the cap was stolen, you stole the cap, and you have a reason for stealing the cap.)
10. How fast can you recite the timetables? (Presuppositions: You know the timetables, you can recite the timetables, and you can recite the timetables fast.)
As you can see, presuppositions are everywhere in our day-to-day communication; we could not talk without using presuppositions. If you need more evidence, just go back to the last statement, “Celeste is a better student than Barbara.” There are almost as many presuppositions (6) as there are words in the statement (7).
In conclusion, because listeners are already predisposed to accept presuppositions as true, they are also predisposed to act or behave according to this perception of truth. This basic interpersonal communication principle is what makes presuppositions such a powerful linguistic tool in influencing children’s behaviors.
How are Presuppositions Relevant to Teachers and Students?
Like any other speaker, teachers use presuppositions too, is just that we are not aware that we are using them. And like any adult working with children in a helping capacity, is important that teachers understand that the messages we send to children are not in the words we say but in the presuppositions we make. Simply put, well-crafted presuppositions influence positive and optimistic feelings and behaviors in our students, but careless ones can trigger more negative and pessimistic feelings and attitudes. Some examples of presuppositions common to our classroom experience follow (Only the most relevant presuppositions are included).
1. If you stop talking and start listening, you will understand this! (Presuppositions: You are talking, you can stop talking, you are not listening, you can start listening, and you can understand this.)
2. When you stop talking and start listening, you will understand this! (Presuppositions: You are talking, you can stop talking, you will stop talking you are not listening, you can start listening, you will start listening, and you can understand this.)
3. When you study fractions the right way, you will make sense of them. (Presuppositions: You study fractions, there is a right way and a wrong way of studying fractions, you are studying fractions the wrong way, you can stop studying fractions the wrong way, you can study fractions the right way, you will study fractions the right way, and you can make sense of fractions.)
4. Why do you always curse? (Presuppositions: You curse, you invariably curse, and you have a reason for cursing.)
5. Every time that you curse, I feel annoyed. (Presuppositions: You curse, you are cursing repeatedly, cursing annoys me, I have felt annoyed by cursing before, hearing you curse annoys me, and hearing you curse repeatedly annoys me each time.)
6. Alicia has lost her motivation. (Presuppositions: Alicia was once motivated and Alicia is no longer motivated.)
7. I will give you the steps, and then you finish the division problems by yourself. (Presuppositions: There are steps in division, you do not know the steps, I can give you the steps, you can learn the steps, after you get the steps, you will be able to do the division problems, after you get the steps, you will finish the division problems, somebody has helped you do division, you can do division by yourself, and you will do division by yourself.)
8. If you cared for your grades, you will study hard. (Presuppositions: You do not care for your grades, you can study hard, and you do not study hard.)
9. If you cared more for your grades, you will study harder. (Presuppositions: You care for your grades, you do not care enough for your grades, you can study hard, you already study hard, you do not study hard enough, and you can study harder.)
10. If you were nicer to Jeremy, he will be nice to you in return. (Presuppositions: You are already nice to Jeremy, you are not nice enough to Jeremy, Jeremy is not nice with you, to be nice with you, Jeremy needs to -fairly and/or consistently- feel treated nicely by you.)
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