Classroom Activities: Kinetic Typography of Stephen Fry’s Language

Image of Stephen Fry

Image via Wikipedia

Stephen Fry (as featured in the previous post with House‘s Hugh Laurie) has eloquently written on the subject of language, and Matt Rogers has set Fry’s voice in motion through a process called Kinetic Typography. The mesmerizing combination of Fry’s words and the typographical animation is worth watching even if you have no intention of using it in a classroom activity:

YouTube – Stephen Fry Kinetic Typography – Language.

After you have shown this in class, have your students produce a piece like it.  Start with a discussion of who regulates language.  Ask your students to talk about their own language pet peeves.  Do their annoyances coincide with the ones that Fry discusses, or (more likely) are they annoyed by the kind of language that Fry’s pedants are pushing? When do your students feel like they’re being pushed around by pendants?  What is so hard about remembering this list of rules when they’re writing?  Generate a list of who has asked them to change their language and how they’ve been asked to change.

Let your students air their concerns about being judged, but make sure that you turn the tables part way through this exercise. When do your students judge others?  When do they want to tell somebody to talk or write in a different manner? Ask your students to define the difference between a “sloppy error” and a pattern of use that differs from one group to another.

 Stephen Fry’s British English provides an opportunity to discuss what these traditional language rules really are and when we tolerate differences.  Do your students know, for example, that collective nouns like “committee,” “team,” and “glaring” are treated as plurals in British English?  For example, British speakers would say “The committee are meeting,” where as most Americans say “The committee is meeting.” You can also point out Fry’s use of “smart” (specifically “smarten-up”), which is used more broadly in British English than in American English, a difference that Fry exploits in this piece.  Why are these differences okay?  What makes others more problematic?

After this discussion, have your students refine their thoughts into a written project.  Ask them to write in the same style as Fry, and help them to put together their own Kinetic Typography animation as a class project.  There’s a tutorial creating a Kinetic Typography animation here, but, if your students are anything like mine, they will be able to figure out this process without you.  Have your students post their projects on youtube, and we’ll promote their endeavors on this site!

As you can probably tell, this project accomplishes a number of objectives.  Fry’s prose poetry is enriching, and it might just encourage your students to seek out similar literary works.  Fry exposes your students to language differences that will make their understanding of the English language stronger. In addition to the grammatical rules that Fry addresses, Fry’s own voice allows them to hear an accent that is likely very different from their own.  This is critical for students who are being prepared for a global marketplace and need to be prepared for interaction with people form a variety of linguistic backgrounds. Finally, by having your students publish their work on the web, you are not only inspiring them to perform for a wider audience (something that is likely to motivate them to take the project more seriously than the might otherwise), you are also teaching them to teach others about being humane linguistic citizens.  And, teaching our students to give back to the community is something we should all strive for.

A word of warning:  Fry compares the enjoyment of words to sexual pleasure about halfway through this video.  It’s a fairly benign reference (certainly, nothing stronger than you would see in your average Shakespeare play), but you’ll want to make sure that your students are mature enough to handle such content before using this in class.  If you decide that they aren’t, there are lots of other Kinetic Typography pieces available on YouTube; you can find a suitable substitution.  (Let us know what you pick!)


About LingEducator

Dr. Jaclyn Ocumpaugh received a PhD for her dissertation on regional variation in the acoustics of Mexican American English (Michigan State University, East Lansing). Before that, she received an MA in English/Linguistics from North Carolina State University for her work on the acoustics of /r/--a sound which is highly variable in the English language. Her passion, however, has always been to understand the social implications of language variation. In addition to her work in acoustic sociophonetics, she has worked with rape trial analysis, developed cognitive methods for understanding discourse level variation between men and women, and created sophisticated tools for teaching future educators about the kinds of dialect variation they will find in the classroom. She has taught classes in English, Linguistics, and Education at Old Dominion University, William & Mary, the University of Mary Washington, and Virginia Wesleyan College. She is currently a Post Doctoral Fellow of Learning Sciences and Technologies at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, where she is helping to develop models of student engagement in the classroom. She also consults in the private sector.
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