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Lesson Plan and Internet Resource Guide for Film Nell

"Tee - in - a - win"

   By Judy A. Teaford

Mountain State University

Beckley, WV

Introduction: Students in Appalachia are often embarrassed about their regional dialect, especially when they travel outside of the region. Unfortunately, outsiders often poke fun of their dialect. Their self-esteem is lowered; and when they leave the region, as many must to find gainful employment, they throw off all remnants of regional dialect. Often, it is only years later that they realize they had and have nothing to be ashamed of. A good deal of this general confusion and loss of self-esteem might be avoided if our young people were provided with positive reinforcement regarding dialect, not just their own, but others as well. The film Nell provides ample learning opportunities for students in this particular situation. (This film is not about dialect per se. The biggest issue that concerns dialect in this film is that Nell's caretaker is paralyzed. In linguistic terms, this is a "pathology." Pathologies are very different from dialect. Students who are dealing with dialect for the first time need to be able to separate the two. There are plenty of dialect features in the film, but students shouldn't confuse this with a pathology. Everyone speaks in a dialect of some sort--Nell is of particular interest because she learns the local dialect from a caretaker who has a pathology.) Learning about dialect provides students an opportunity to learn about their history, their culture, and their place in the world at large. And what better way to aid this learning process than listening to dialect? As part of their studies, students can discuss their own ideas of dialect and their observations of speech in their community. They can also conduct more extensive research concerning dialects in general and Appalachian dialects in particular. Because of the importance placed on language in the film Nell, teachers can use it to provide an interesting, yet possibly controversial, supplement to their students’ learning experience. Viewing the film and listening to and discussing the various dialects will help students understand the value and importance of difference.

Grade Levels:  10-College

Subjects: Linguistics, Film, Literature, Geography

Time Frame: Public School: Seven class periods (45 minutes each) or Three to Four block classes (1 hour and 30 minutes each). College: Three to Four classes (1 hour and 15 minutes each)

Learner Outcomes: 


Teacher’s Notes:

It may well be necessary, after viewing the film, to address students’ (or your own) concerns about the film Nell as a thinly veiled stereotypical account of Appalachia and Appalachians–squalor (Nell’s home), ignorance (Nell’s inability to speak and be understood), isolation (Nell never having met another person until the doctor finds her, living alone and completely isolated from the world), etc.

Students are familiar with basic film terms and are able to use appropriate terminology to express their thoughts and ideas in both oral and written forms.

Students have studied Appalachian literature and are familiar with the concept of Appalachian values as identified by Loyal Jones–Religion; Individualism, Self-Reliance, Pride; Neighborliness and Hospitality; Familism; Personalism; Love of Place; Modesty; Sense of Beauty; Sense of Humor; Patriotism–having applied same to select pieces of Appalachian literature. During this period of study, students may have decided that some of the values identified by Jones no longer exist or need re-described. They will carry these new ideas into this lesson. (Jones, Loyal. "Appalachian Values." Voices From the Hills. Eds. Robert J. Higgs and Ambrose Manning. New York: Ungar, 1975. 507-517. Jones’ article is a response to a comparative summary of middle class American and Southern Appalachians in the Appendix to Jack Weller’s Yesterday’s People. KY: Kentucky UP, 1965.)

Films typically cater to, rather than challenge, stereotypes about dialects. They seldom go for complete accuracy. However, by using films from their regions (such as Nell, Appalachian), students can realize this more readily than if, for example, they were watching Fargo. (As far as southerners know, people do talk like that in Fargo.) Additionally, not everyone agrees on what Appalachian speech is. There is lots of variation in the Appalachian region. This need not upset students, but encourage them to discover these differences. When students are given assignments that ask them to observe and record differences in speech in their own community, teachers need to help them understand that as different listeners, they will hear/have different pronunciations, etc. This is not a problem. Students will soon discover a lot of variety. This is the most important realization for students to make when thinking about language. We are all guilty of being prescriptive and thinking that there are "right" rules/pronunciations, etc. when it comes to language.

Plot Summary for movie Nell (1994):

"Nell is a girl who's been brought up in an isolated world. The only person she knows is her mother. They live together in a cottage in the forest. Nobody has ever met Nell. When her mother dies, she's discovered by the local doctor Jerome. He's fascinated by her, since she speaks an incomprehensible language, developed 'cause her mother spoke like that (because of a paralysis). But Paula, student psychology, wants her being observed in a laboratory. The judge decides they get three months to observe her in the forest, after which he'll decide about Nell’s future." (The Internet Movie Database, pg 11 - - Summary written by Tony Kessen located at

Background Information for movie Nell:

Nell is based on Mark Handley’s play Idioglossia.

Awards for Nell

1995 Academy Awards, USA - Nominated Best Actress, Jodie Foster

1995 Golden Globes, USA - Nominated Best Motion Picture, Drama; Nominated Best Original Score, Motion Picture (Mark Isham); Nominated Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture, Drama (Jodie Foster)

1995 MTV Movie Awards - Nominated Best Female Performance (Jodie Foster)

1995 Screen Actors Guild Awards - Won Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Leading Role (Jodie Foster)

Newspaper Article:

Knoxville News-Sentinel

"‘Hillbilly’ not term of derision for proud Appalachians." September 22, 1998. By David Hunter News-Sentinel columnist – Interesting article by native Appalachian, David Hunter, reveals his pride in his rural East Tennessean heritage, including dialect. "The arrogance and ignorance of youth [speaking of himself]! Today I take great pride in my heritage. I don't mind being called a hillbilly at all, even though I've never lived in the hills."

Internet Resources:

The Internet Movie Database

Excellent source information for movie Nell

Appalachian Focus "Mountainspeak" (Link Broken)

Bluefield Daily Telegraph 12-13-99

Mountainspeak: WVU linguist fights stigma of Appalachian speech oddities – MORGANTOWN (AP) -- Dialects are like brains:  Everybody's got one.  "Contrary to what K-12 teachers across America might say, linguists believe there is no standard for spoken English. And the speech patterns that characterize any given part of the country are, like that hard wiring inside the skull, unique."

Interpretation of Phrase "Tee - in - a - win":

"Tee - in - a - win." Translation: Tree in the wind. It is what Nell says when she sways her arms to illustrate how the wind moves the trees. Maybe this is not a bad metaphor for the way Nell has picked up her mother’s language characteristics. And maybe it is also not a bad metaphor for the special language Nell and her twin, May, invented as they played together in the vast beauty of the Smoky Mountains.

Extending this metaphor seems natural. For example, trees and wind easily lead to associations with nature, which leads to association with mankind and interference (both good and bad, necessary and unnecessary). Feelings/emotions and how all of these things intersect are additional extensions of the the metaphor. Moving. This one word says a great deal: moving to and with, away from, toward, etc. Arms outstretched. I would offer that the swaying of the arms is symbolic of freedom. The tree in the wind, the one that bends but doesn't break–Nell? There are a great many ways to pull in "picked up her mother's language characteristics": in nature we pick up a great many things, some good, some bad, and some indifferent. The same idea might be applied to Nell and May’s special language. The two, the language characteristics Nell learns from her stroke- impaired mother and the special language she and her twin have invented, create a sort of fractured form of English, one where the last consonants are usually dropped. (Nell: "Ma says if trouble ever come, Nell and May are like trees in the wind!" Does this statement completely void the above interpretation?)


1. Begin class by asking students if they have ever traveled outside of the area, if their parents are from the area, or if they have had friends or relatives from far away visit. Ask them, individually, to remember any differences in pronunciation, words, or grammar that came up. Have them share these with the class.

2. Introducing the term dialect (patterns in pronunciation such as dog vs. dawg, words such as pop vs. soda, and grammar such as I done did it).

3. Providing students with maps of the U.S. Ask them to draw dialect boundaries and label each dialect area. Don’t give them too many instructions. When they are completed, ask students to rank the dialects from "most desirable" to "least desirable."

4. Have students compare their maps with classmates’ (in groups of four), later sharing with their classmates how they ranked different dialects, especially their own.

5. From The Telsure Project at the Linguistics Laboratory, University of Pennsylvania, go to "A National Map of the Regional Dialects of American English," where students can compare their maps to William Labov’s Phonological Atlas of the United States.

6. Class Discussion

    A. Ask students to try and figure out how they acquired their preferences and ideas of which way of talking is preferred.

    B. Ask students if they have been laughed at or corrected in their speech and how it made them feel.

    C. Introduce the term linguistics (the study of speech sounds, language structure, and the history and historical relationship or languages and linguistic forms) and explain that just as botanists don’t say one type of flower is "better" than the other, linguists don’t say one dialect is "better" than the other. Explain to students that there are many ways to view, approach, and study language (artistically and creatively, scientifically, in order to persuade as an attorney or inform as a journalist, etc.)

    D. Ask students if/when they have not felt comfortable using their own dialects and why.

    E. Ask students if we should expect people to talk the same or if different dialects are worth saving just like different plants or animal are worth saving.

    F. Ask students when using their native dialect has its advantages.

7. Introduce students to the Pronunciation Key found in most dictionaries. Ask students to spell their own name using the letters and signs provided. It is not necessarily important that students learn the phonetic alphabet perfectly, but they should learn to listen objectively and carefully. Note to Teacher: These days, most linguistic analysis is quite complicated and done by machines rather than by people using the phonetic alphabet. However, this activity will allow students the opportunity to see that there are many different ways to record pronunciation. When making Research Assignments, you may choose to ask students to use a phonetic guide to help them spell the words they discover. Conversely, you may allow students to write the pronunciations however they want to in order to remember them. The grade level and ability of your students will probably dictate your decision. For example, college students should be able to combine research and observations. This will help them be more accurate, resulting in less stereotypical or unproven claims. Instead of "southerners always say this sound this way," they should know through their research to qualify it with "southerners in a, b, c, say this sound this way when it comes after x and before y."

Research Assignments:

1. Have students conduct Internet research on Appalachian dialect. Allow students to present findings in class. You may want to provide the dialect information (provided by Stephanie Humphries) at the end of this page in the form of a handout to get students started.

As a follow-up exercise, ask students to

    A. Collect examples of speech in their community. Have students place their findings in a Dialect Record. Ask students to provide phonetic spellings and definitions. Visuals can be added and presented to members of class.


    B. Observe and tape record examples of speech in their community. Students can then play their recordings for the class, offering their own observations about the examples they have recorded.


    Have students research different Regional Dialects and collect and prepare a Dialect Record for the specific Region.

2. The movie is filmed in Fontana Lake, North Carolina (cabin, surrounding woods and adjacent lake) and Charlotte, North Carolina. Have students research these two locations and present their finding in class. ("Filming Locations data for Nell" from The Internet Movie Database at However, this URL will not take you to the actual locations of filming.) After viewing film ask students if the film accurately represented the areas– geographically, culturally, etc.

3. The movie indicates that the setting is the deep backwoods of the Smokey Mountains in a place called Robinsville. Have students conduct research to discover if there is a real place called Robinsville. (Provide URL) After viewing film ask students if there is a Robinsville and if so if it is adequately represented with the filming locations. Does it appear to stereotype the region in any way?

Screening Film:

1. Introduce movie Nell by providing credits. Distribute handout "Credits for Nell (1994)" or direct students to The Internet Movie Database at

2. Screen film Nell for class.

3. While viewing ask students to record dialect features that stand out, both Appalachian and other dialects.

4. After viewing ask students to discuss the following questions.

    A. How would you describe the dialect of Doctor Jerome "Jerry" Lovell? (Irish)

    B. What about the dialect of Doctor Paula Olsen? (Georgian?)

    C. Do the dialects of minor characters like Todd Peterson (Nick Searcy) and Mary Peterson (Robin Mullins) reflect Appalachian dialects you are familiar with? (Within the region of Appalachia dialects vary.)

    D. Is there an overlap and why are there differences? (Answers will vary.)

    E. Do the actors sound like they are using the dialects naturally? Did they overemphasize or use stereotypes? If so, for what effect? (Answers will vary.)

    F. Does the use of dialect reflect positively or negatively on people of the region? Did smart/dumb, nice/mean people use more features of Appalachian dialects? (Answers will vary.)

    D. Do you think the film is undermined by the subplot involving a group of country hooligans who try to terrorize Nell? Does this subplot reflect Appalachians as a whole or just some Appalachians? Does the dialect used by the hooligans sound familiar to you? (Answers will vary.)


Have students write an essay discussing some aspect of their findings while viewing and studying the film Nell. Students should be prepared to present a summary of their paper in class. Public school three-to-five-page essay/college seven-to-ten-page essay. MLA format, typed or word-processed–Note to Teacher: You may wish to provide in-class time for peer revising and editing.


Additional AppLit Resources:

Send it to the Crick: A Student's Reflection on Dialect Differences by Matt Hilliard, Mountain State University

Index by Genre: Film

Some Appalachian English (AE) Dialect Features

For additional Applit Resources on Dialect see 
Appalachian Dialects 

Lexical and Syntactic Features


Frequent in Appalachian English, though it may be restricted to rural southern varieties of Appalachian speech or those that are close to the actual mountain range.

Example: He came a-runnin’ and told those fellas……..

Conjunctive which

Simply, which used as a conjunction

He stopped comin’ in here, which I don’t see why

Use of the completive or non-participial use of done

She done went and…….

Use of ain’t

They ain’t going today.

I ain’t gonna do it.

Personal dative

I’m going to go get me some new shoes.


Some of these are being replaced by words used in retail stores and advertising. Other times, they exist but take on a slightly different meaning. For example, spigot may mean an outdoor tap while faucet means an indoor one.

Skillet (rather than frying pan)

Spigot (rather than faucet)

Supper (rather than dinner)

Lightning bugs (rather than fireflies)

Phonemic and Phonetic Features


Intrusive /r/

Wash or Washington pronounced as warsh or Warshington

Usually before "sh"  
But, only when /r/ is in the middle of the word (not at the end, usually)


Monophthongization of /ai/

The vowel in tide and tight usually has two parts ("a" then "ee"). For some speakers, the vowel only has one part, especially before sounds like /d/, /b/, /g/, /v/, /m/, /n/, /l/ and /r/. Southerners may have this vowel with only one part before every sound.

Lack of contrast before /r/

In words such as tire, tar, tower

 Pen = pin

For some speakers, the vowels in these two words are different, but they are usually the same vowel for speakers of AE, especially before /n/ and /m/ (hem – him).

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