Buttoning Down Abstracts: Button Taxonomy

Pamela Lee, Ritsumeikan University


Key Words: Vocabulary, Critical thinking
Learner English Level: Low intermediate through advanced
Learner Maturity Level: High school through adult
Preparation Time: Varies
Activity Time: Varies; usually 40-60 minutes


In the button taxonomy exercise, each group of students begins with a brimming handful of buttons, and ends up with a hierarchical classification. What I find most valuable about this activity is the access it provides to a number of abstract ideas. I learned about it while teaching an undergraduate physical anthropology lab, and it gracefully made the leap to language classes. I have used it in an integrated-skills English course as a vocabulary exercise, in a cross-cultural communication class to discuss cultural differences, and with advanced students as a critical thinking activity.


You need a variety of small objects, not necessarily buttons. The anthropologist who showed me the exercise looted his tool box for nuts and bolts and the like. I like buttons because they are common to everyone's experience. Whatever you use, it is good to give each group nearly identical sets of objects. Comparing finished classifications is part of the lesson and students are curious about the results of different groups. Some duplication within each set is useful, too, because grouping buttons that are exactly alike is an easy first step toward engaging students in the activity.

Introducing the Exercise

Mystery heightens interest, therefore I keep the introduction brief. I remind students that people like to put things into groups, so "Poodles" and "Dachshunds" are in the group called "Dogs," and "Persians" and "Siamese," in the one called "Cats." I also remind them that smaller, specific groups are part of larger, more general groups, so "Poodles" are included in "Dogs," and "Dogs" are included in "Animals." Depending on the level, I may use terms like "hierarchy," "classification," and "traits," but they are not essential. Conceptualizing "specific" and "general" categories is very important, though, so I sometimes repeat these terms in Japanese, and always draw a simple taxonomy on the board:




































blue point


seal point


I include the color categories to give students a hint for their own work. However complex the example is, it is important to stress that the top label must include all of the items the students are working with. Consistency is also important. "Dogs" is too general to be used on the same level as "Poodles," and if color names are used for "Persians" they should also be used for "Siamese." (Consistency may be easier to explain after students have written some labels.)

Next, students form groups of three or four (larger groups inhibit participation) and spread out so there is limited interaction with other groups. Each group receives an envelope with their set of items and a piece of A3 paper so they have lots of space to organize and label their classification.

Assorted Applications

Vocabulary is a good focus to use with low intermediate students, and this activity can be linked to a textbook unit on descriptions. If you're using buttons, it is helpful to go over words for colors, sizes, materials (wood, leather, plastic, metal), and possibly texture or shape (flat, curved), but I leave some room for students to use their dictionaries and to practice asking for information (What is this? It's a shank . . . What do we write above "rough" and "smooth"? How about "texture"?) Grouping words into categories is itself a mnemonic device, and leads students to more and more abstract terminology. (Students arrive at the categories "two holes" and "four holes" on their own, and some cleverly label shank buttons under "one hole.")

This exercise was also used near the beginning of a mixed-level content-based college English course in cross-cultural communication to discuss cultural differences, with the additional introductory point that different groups of people have different ideas about the same things.

Advanced university English students did this exercise as part of a unit on critical thinking. In that exercise, I commented that there are a number of ways to solve the same problem, and added staples, safety pins, various paper clips, and bits of Velcro for reasons which are described in the next section.

The best opportunities for discussion usually come when groups exhibit their finished work.

The Exhibits and Wrap-up

Students walk around the classroom and look over the classifications of other groups. After they make their own observations about unfamiliar vocabulary or clever analyses, I make a few comments about each effort. There are no "wrong" solutions, so it is easy to find strong points. "Groupers" who create simple classifications can be congratulated on their clarity and usually for quick work, too. "Splitters," having painstakingly placed each item (other than duplicates) in its own category, can be compared to museum curators or scientists. Those in between can be credited with a nice balance between clarity and detail. It is interesting to note any class trends, or point out a unique approach.

The students' own observations and exchanges allow for reflection in the vocabulary activity. In the case of the cultural differences focus, I also ask which classification is best, and develop a discussion addressing the weaknesses of ranking cultures and limiting ways of solving problems and the unimportance of some obvious cultural differences. "Do we sometimes dislike people just because they put their buttons in different places?" I ask.

With the critical thinking focus, I especially like to compare the groups' top labels, because these indicate the values at work behind the organization of materials. "Small Household Items" is a very general but accurate description of the buttons, safety pins, paper clips, staples, and so forth. "Things that Hold Things Together" or "Fasteners" indicate the group was concerned with function. Again, I ask, "Which is best?" aiming to conclude with students perceiving how intent and interest shape organization and identification.

I think this exercise has potential for more applications in language classes, and recommend it as a hands-on vehicle to the abstract world of