How to Write a Newfangled Tongue Twister

by Bruce Lansky

Some of the most popular tongue twisters of all time tell a story using hard-to-say sounds and catchy rhythm, but they don't rhyme. Take the first stanza of "Betty Botter" as an example:

Betty Botter bought some butter.
But, she said, "This butter's bitter.
If I bought some better batter,
It would make my butter better.

Assuming, for a moment, that you make butter with batter, the storyline is amusing. And the rhythm is charming (and the same in every line).

DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM da
DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM da

We could fix that:

Betty Botter bought a bucket.
But she said, "This bucket's broken."
If I use it as a bailer,
I would be a rotten sailor.

Now, we've got the beginning of a nice little rhyming poem, but the last two lines don't twist the tongue.

How to solve this problem? Start with traditional tongue-twisters and have your students play with them in the same way I played with "Betty Botter." Let's try "Peter Piper."

Peter Piper picked some peppers
Put them in a pewter pot.
Added pickle potion to it.
Pickled peppers never rot.

That works. Now here's a rhyming version of "She Sells Sea Shells."

She sells sea shells by the sea shore.
She'd sell more shells in a shell store.

How did I do it? Here are the steps.

1. Have your students make four lists: nouns, proper nouns, verbs, and descriptive words (adjectives and adverbs) that begin with a particular letter (e.g., "B"). For example:

  Nouns Names Verbs Describers
  bubbles Bobby burst broken
  brother Baxter ball  
    Boris boo hoo  

2. Have them write down the first line of a story that makes sense. For example:

Bobby Baxter burst a bubble.

3. Then have them add a second line, using words from your list, that advances the story, for example:

Bobby Baxter burst a bubble (A)
Bobby's brother Boris blew. (B)

4. Now they can figure out the rhythm and rhyme pattern of the poem they've started and continue it in the next two lines. The rhyme pattern is going to be ABAB.

5. The rhythm pattern is going to be:

DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM da (A)
DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM (B)
DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM da (A)
DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM (B)

6. Now they can complete the poem:

Bobby Baxter burst a bubble
Bobby's brother Boris blew.
Bobby's brother started balling
Boris cried, boo hoo, boo hoo.

So, in summation, there are a couple of ways to go:

A) You can start with a favorite tongue twister ("Betty Botter" or "Peter Piper") and suggest that your students revise it.

B) You can ask your students to make lists of words starting with the same letter or sound they can use in a poem, then suggest that they write their own tongue twisters.

But no matter how you start, the above method helps your students tell a story that makes sense, uses lots of tongue-twisting consonants, and has a pleasing rhythm and rhyme pattern.

Here's a new version of "Betty Botter" I wrote using this method:

Betty Botter's Biting Beaver
Betty Botter bought a beaver.
But the beastly beaver bit her.
So she bought a biting badger.
And the badger bit the beaver.
Since the badger bit the beaver,
now the beaver will not bite her.
So 'twas better Betty Botter
bought a beaver-biting badger.

© 2002 by Bruce Lansky, reprinted from Funny Little Poems for Funny Little People, published by Meadowbrook Press.

Hope your students have fun writing your newfangled tongue twisters!

--Bruce Lansky

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