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Paiute Alphabet Song

Paiute Alphabet Song

Lesson Summary

  • Play a game to compare and contrast the Southern Paiute and English languages.
  • Explore beat and rhythm.
  • Sing the “ABC Song” and learn the “Paiute Alphabet Song.”

Lesson Plan and Procedure

Lesson Key Facts

  • Grade(s): 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6
  • Subject(s): English Language Arts, Music, Social Studies, Native American, Tribe Approved
  • Duration of lesson: Two sessions, 45 minutes each
  • Author(s): Dorena Martineau, Shanandoah Martineau Anderson, Emily Soderborg, and Eliza Een
Paiute Logo

The Paiute Indian Tribe of Utah’s Tribal Council selected this lesson content in answer to the question, “What would you like the students of Utah to know about you?” Dorena Martineau, the Paiute Cultural Resource Director, and Shanandoah Martineau Anderson, a member of the Shivwits band of Paiutes, represented the Paiute Indian Tribe of Utah in crafting the lesson to provide expertise, accuracy, and authenticity. The lesson was then approved by the Paiute Indian Tribe of Utah’s Tribal Council.

Before teaching this lesson, please explain to your students that there are many Indigenous tribes in the United States and that this lesson specifically focuses on the five bands of the Paiute Indian Tribe of Utah and does not represent other Native American groups. It is the hope of the Paiute Indian Tribe of Utah that other Native tribes will respect their choice to share these aspects of their history and culture.

Note: Open up the PowerPoint in the “Materials and Equipment” section below and have it ready at the start of the lesson. Also bring up both recordings of the “Paiute Alphabet Song.” The first recording, “Paiute Alphabet Song” is sung by a Southern Paiute Elder and should be used as you listen to and follow along with the beat and words of the song. The second recording, “Paiute Alphabet Song--Sing-Along” is in a higher register for students, but was not sung by a member of the Paiute Indian Tribe of Utah and should only be used to help students sing along.

Corners Game Pre-Assessment

Teacher: We are going to play a game called “Corners” that will help us learn about the English language and another language called Southern Paiute. I am going to read a statement out loud and as you hear the statement, you will decide if you think the statement is about the English language, the Southern Paiute language, or both languages. I will then count to ten and you will move quickly and quietly to a corner of the room that stands for your choice.  

As you share the options for the corners, walk to three different corners in the room while the students watch and post a large sign in each corner showing A) English, B) both languages, or C) Southern Paiute. (PowerPoint slide 2)

Teacher: Listen to this first statement. “This is the language I am speaking to you right now.” Since I am speaking English, I would move quickly and quietly to the English corner. (PowerPoint slide 3)

Clarify any questions about how to play the game.

Teacher: Now that you understand how the game works, we’re going to play the game with several more statements. Are you ready? 

Display each statement so students can read along while you read it to them. (PowerPoint slides 4-18)

Read and display the following statements (as shown in the PowerPoint):

  • This language is often taught to children using music. [both]
  • This language is only spoken (or oral). [Southern Paiute]
  • Many of the best-known books were written or translated into this language. [English]
  • This language is used to tell stories. [both]
  • This language is not a written language but can be transcribed. Transcribed means to take the sounds one hears and use letters to represent those sounds. [Southern Paiute]
  • This language is spoken by people who live in Utah. [both]
  • There are not very many people who speak this language today. [Southern Paiute]
  • This language has been spoken for thousands of years. [both]
  • You see and use this language every day. [English]
  • This language’s alphabet song is not based on letters, but instead focuses on the basic sounds that make up the language. [Southern Paiute]
  • This language is both written and spoken (oral). [English]
  • This language is used to communicate ideas. [both]
  • This language is the most spoken language in the world. [English]
  • People who speak this language use pictures to record stories instead of writing down words. [Southern Paiute]
  • This language’s alphabet song is based on written letters. [English]

Teacher: Throughout this lesson we will learn which corner each of these statements should go in and then we’ll play again at the end of the lesson.

“ABC Song”

Teacher: Do you remember I shared a couple of statements that mentioned an alphabet song? What is an alphabet song you know?

Listen to student responses.

Teacher: Since we know the “ABC Song” pretty well already, we’re going to add different things to make it more interesting. In our bodies we each have a heart that beats steadily. In music there is also an underlying pulse like a heartbeat, that stays steady throughout the song. We call that the beat of the music. Tap the beat somewhere on your body as we sing the “ABC Song” together. 

Sing the “ABC Song” while tapping the beat.  

Teacher: Find somewhere different on your body to tap the beat this time. Will you tap your knees, your head, your ears, or somewhere else? Show me your decision.

Sing the “ABC Song” again while tapping a new place on the body.

tracking_song_dotsTeacher: This time we’re going to tap a heartbeat mat all together as we sing. (PowerPoint slide 19)

Sing the “ABC Song” a third time, following along with the beat mat while tapping the air.

Teacher: Did you notice that as we tap the beat, the words we sing don’t always match up exactly with the beat? Sometimes they go faster and sometimes they go slower. As we sing the words, we are creating a rhythm, or a pattern of short and long sounds for the song. Let’s sing the “ABC Song” again, but this time, tap the rhythm of the song with two fingers on the palm of your other hand.

Sing and tap the rhythm for the “ABC Song.”

Teacher: What did you notice? 

Listen to student responses.

Teacher: I noticed that the rhythm is the way the words go, but the beat is always steady. Now, pay attention to the heartbeat mat as we sing. See if you can figure out how the rhythm of the song fits over each steady heartbeat. I’ll help you get started. When we sing “A, B” those two sounds are faster than one beat. I’m going to put two dots inside this first heart to show that two sounds happened during that first beat. How many dots should I put in the second heartbeat? (PowerPoint Slide 20)

Sing the first four letters in the song while tapping rhythm on the heartbeat mat. 

Students will help you decide that you need two dots in the second heart for “C, D.” (click slide 20 for animation)

Teacher: We’re going to sing the whole song again, but this time tap the rhythm in the air while looking at the beat mat and see if you can figure out how to create song dots for the entire song.

As students sing the song, tap the rhythm on the heartbeat mat that only has dots in the first two hearts. After singing, show the students the beat mat with the song dots written out. (PowerPoint slide 21)

Teacher: Here is the rhythm shown through song dots. Does it look the same as how you just tapped it? Were there any spots in the song that were a little tricky? As we sing this time, see if you can follow the rhythm by tapping each of the song dots. 

English Language

Teacher: Think about why we sing this song. How does knowing this song help us? 

Listen to student responses.

Teacher: The “ABC Song” in English lists the letters that we use to write words and sentences. How many letters are in our alphabet song? (26, sing the alphabet song to count the letters if needed.) Where do you think all these letters and the words made from these letters came from? 

Pass out maps of the world for students to follow along and connect all of the places that have been involved in developing the English language. (PowerPoint Slide 22)

Teacher: English has been spoken for thousands of years, and has changed a lot to sound like the English we use now. The English language began in a place called the British Isles, which we know as the United Kingdom today, in a country called England. 

Show the British Isles on the map and have students circle it. (PowerPoint Slide 22, animation 1)

Teacher: England had been part of the Roman kingdom for hundreds of years, so some of the people there spoke Latin. One word we know that has Latin roots is the prefix non, like in non-fiction. 

Identify Rome (Italy) on the map and draw an arrow to the UK. (PowerPoint Slide 22, animation 2)

Teacher: Around 400 AD, more people started coming from a place we now call Germany. One word we know that came from the German language is “kindergarten.”

Identify Germany and draw an arrow to the UK. (PowerPoint Slide 22, animation 3)


Teacher: These people, known as the Anglo-Saxons, mixed their language with Latin, spoken by Romans, and it developed into what we know now as Old English. Many years passed and the Vikings tried to move into England and conquer the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. The Vikings came from Norway and Scandinavia. One word we know that came from the Vikings is “egg.” 

Identify these two countries on the map and draw an arrow to the UK. (PowerPoint Slide 22, animation 4)

Teacher: In the 800s one king, King Alfred, defeated the Vikings and decided to start teaching his people how to read and write in English as well as Latin. Hundreds of years passed, and this time England was invaded by the Normans from France, and people started adding French words to the English language. One word we know that came from French is “beauty.” 

Find France on the map and draw an arrow to the UK. (PowerPoint Slide 22, animation 5)

Teacher: During this whole time, people had been writing everything by hand, but when the printing press was invented it became possible for someone to arrange all the letters to write out an entire page and then print lots of copies. Around the time of the printing press, some people immigrated from England to the North American continent. 

Draw an arrow from the UK to North America. (PowerPoint Slide 22, animation 6)

Teacher: In 1755 the first “Dictionary of the English Language” was made by Samuel Johnson in England. What is a dictionary? Wait for a student’s response.

Teacher: This first dictionary was invented so that everyone who spoke English could use the same words and spelling. England was now a powerful kingdom, and they traded with countries all over the world. Many people moved from England to other countries that became part of the British Empire. An Empire is a group of countries that have similar rules and are run by the same authority, like a king or queen. The Kings and Queens of England made rules so that the people in their empire would learn how to speak English.

Draw arrows from the UK to some of the countries in the British Empire: Australia and New Zealand, Canada, islands in the Caribbean (Jamaica, Bahamas), India, African Countries (South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya, Egypt). (PowerPoint Slide 22, animation 7-10)

Teacher: Now, English is the most commonly spoken and written language in the world. 

Have students turn their maps over. Quietly, on the back they will draw pictures or write short phrases to answer the 5W questions (who, what, where, when, and how) to demonstrate understanding of key details about the English Language. (PowerPoint Slide 23)

Teacher: Now that you have had a chance to think through on your own what we just talked about, let’s share a few answers for our 5W questions.

Have a few students briefly answer.

“Paiute Alphabet Song”

Teacher: We have been talking a lot about English, but there are many other languages spoken in the world today. Are there any other languages people in our class speak?

Have class members respond.

Teacher: We are going to listen to a different alphabet song today sung in Southern Paiute. Where do you think the Southern Paiute people live? 

Have class members respond.

Teacher: There are five bands of Southern Paiute people that together create the Paiute Indian Tribe of Utah which is one of the federally recognized Native American tribes here in Utah. To be a federally recognized tribe means to have a government-to-government relationship with the United States. The tribe has certain rights to self-government within tribal lands set aside for them through treaties or other means. In addition to the Paiute Indian Tribe of Utah, there are other Southern Paiute bands in Nevada, Arizona, and California. There are also Northern Paiute tribes in California, Nevada, and Oregon. Although the Northern and Southern tribes share the same historical Paiute name and are from the same Numic speaking group, it is hard for the Northern and Southern tribes to understand the other’s language even though some words are similar. It is important to recognize they are not the same group of people. We will only be discussing Southern Paiute today. 

Show a map of Historical Paiute Territories and draw attention to the region in Utah and a map of the Paiute Indian Tribe of Utah reservation lands today. (PowerPoint Slide 24)

Teacher: Let’s listen to a Paiute elder, Vala Parashonts, sing the “Paiute Alphabet Song.” As we listen, keep the beat somewhere on your body, and listen to see if there is anything about this song that you recognize. 

Listen to the attached file, “Paiute Alphabet Song,” while tapping the beat. 

Teacher: What did you notice?

Call on two or three students to share what they noticed.

Teacher: Yes, this song is sung to the same melody as the “ABC Song.” This song was created by a linguist, Dr. David Shaul. He worked with Southern Paiute elders to get the sounds that are used in their language and transcribed them using only letters from the English alphabet. Transcribed means to take something you hear and put it into written form. He did this because their language is not written down with words, only spoken. He put the Southern Paiute sounds to a melody that was familiar (The “ABC Song”/ “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.”) Many Paiute children today do not know the Southern Paiute language because they have only been taught to speak English. So, using this familiar melody helps them learn the Paiute language and helps preserve their ancestral language that is being lost. 

Teacher: Let’s listen again and keep the beat by tapping in the air the hearts on the beat mat. (PowerPoint Slide 25)

Teacher: This third time, as we listen, tap the rhythm in the air by following along with the song dots inside the hearts. (PowerPoint Slide 26)

Teacher: As we listen again I am going to show you the words written out how Dr. David Shaul transcribed what he heard.

Show the Southern Paiute words while students listen. (PowerPoint Slide 27)

Teacher: What do you think about reading those words? I think it’s kind of tricky to read because this language isn’t a written language. Also, besides being transcribed by people listening to the sounds, there isn’t a dictionary that helps make the words and spelling of words the same for everyone who speaks it. In addition to Dr. Shaul, there are a few other people who have transcribed Southern Paiute, and they wrote down words in different ways than what I am showing you here, depending on how they heard the sounds being spoken. (PowerPoint Slide 28)

songdotsTeacher: To help us as we learn to sing the song, I’m going to show the sounds phonetically in addition to the transcription. They will be underneath the rhythm song dots, so we can see how the Paiute sounds fit within the beats of the song. Follow along with your finger as we listen. (PowerPoint Slide 29)

Direct students’ attention to the song dots to help students connect the words to where they are in the song as they listen again.

Teacher: Let’s try to sing the words this time. It might be a little bit tricky but do your best. 

Note: Vala Parashonts, the Paiute elder who recorded the song, sings much lower and faster than elementary students can comfortably sing. There is an additional recording provided in an easier key for younger voices. However, the higher recording is not sung by a member of the Paiute Indian Tribe of Utah and should only be used to help students sing in the higher register. Listen to the attached file, “Paiute Alphabet Song--Sing-Along.”

Teacher: How well were you able to sing along? Let’s try it again and see how we do singing it this second time.

Teacher: What spots were tricky? Take ten seconds and practice any parts you need to. This time you will need to do two things at once, so pay close attention. You’ll be singing in Southern Paiute while tapping the rhythm with two fingers on the palm of your other hand.

Teacher: Let’s review what each of the words at the end of the song means. (PowerPoint Slide 30)


ne po onemp=my writing (my letters)

pachuchuxwaiy=I know


po’or=writing (letters)

ne tevitsi=I am

suwaiy=praise yourself (pat on the back)/very happy

Southern Paiute Language

Teacher: We’re going to listen to a traditional Paiute song now. Most traditional music is sacred to the Paiute people and should not be sung by anyone outside the tribe, but we have been given permission to listen to, honor, and appreciate this song. It is sung by Clarence John, an elder in both the Shivwits and Kaibab bands of Paiutes. The recording was made by Sylvie Jacquemin, a cinematographer from France, who has shared her footage with us. As you listen, see if you can hear some of the Paiute sounds that we have been singing in the Paiute Alphabet Song.

Play video of Clarence John singing. (PowerPoint Slide 31) After watching the video, show the written Paiute sounds again. (PowerPoint Slide 32)

Teacher: What sounds did you hear? 

Listen to a few student responses. 

Teacher: This Paiute elder, Clarence John, explained that the “hey a hey” sections were just the beginning of the song, otherwise known as vocables, so we aren’t going to worry about those sounds. The first word he sang was “peow” and after singing the whole song, he explained that peow meant big. This word uses the sounds “p” (Don’t say the letter “P” but make the sound a “p” makes), “ee,” and “ah.” Can you find those sounds in the “Paiute Alphabet Song?” 

Point to “pa,” “ɪ,” and “a” on the screen.

Teacher: The second word was “kwununts” or golden eagle. It uses the sounds “kwa,” “n,” “a,” “n,” and “ts.” 

Point to “kwa,” “na,” “A,” “na,” and “tsaw-tsaw” on the screen.

Note: Peow (Big) Kwununts (eagle) Toowuts (son), een (little) Yahuk (crying) oovai (over there), oo'vutch coo oo'vai (over the edge, cliff)

Teacher: Even though we have been looking at written sounds for these songs, it is important to remember that Southern Paiute language is not actually a written language. Some of the things the Paiutes communicate through speaking are legends, stories, and historical events. They didn’t read these stories to their children, like you have stories read to you. Instead, the elders in the tribe had the stories memorized and were wonderful storytellers. We can read books any time, right? In contrast, the Southern Paiutes feel there are specific times of the year certain stories can be told. Legends are stories told only in winter months. These stories are a way people shared important information with one another. However, unlike legends, historical events could be told at any time of year. 

Teacher: Sadly, there are not very many people who speak Southern Paiute today. People are working to help others learn the language, which is one of the reasons why the “Paiute Alphabet Song” was composed. 

Teacher: Even though the Paiutes did not write down the actual words they spoke, they still did have a form of written communication. This was through rock writing. The people documented their stories, history, and all events they felt worthy of mentioning in symbols on rocks. (PowerPoint Slide 33)

Sign language was also another form of communication and was taught to individuals of all ages. Southern Paiutes would use sign language when they spoke with other tribes. Unfortunately, today, the ability to communicate using rock writing and Native American universal sign language is even less common than speaking in Southern Paiute. (PowerPoint Slide 34)

Teacher: Let’s go back to the Paiute maps. (PowerPoint Slide 35) The Southern Paiutes consist of several bands, kind of like how the United States is made up of lots of states. Have any of you heard how some people in the United States say things in different accents? This is called a dialect. The Southern Paiute language also has dialects or accents in the different bands, but these have blended together or changed somewhat due to intermarriage between bands and over time. 

Teacher: The Southern Paiute traditionally call themselves “Nungwu,” meaning “the people.” They have been in Southern Utah for thousands of years. Some scientists suggest that the Southern Paiutes migrated into the area around 1150 AD from southern California and Nevada, while other archeologists believe the Southern Paiute may be descended from the Ancestral Puebloan peoples which date back to 600 BC. That’s a long time!

Have students pull their maps out again and draw a line across the page underneath their answers about the English language. Have them draw pictures or write short phrases to answer questions such as who, what, where, when, why, and how to demonstrate understanding of key details about the Southern Paiute language. (PowerPoint Slide 36)

Teacher: Now that you have had a chance on your own to think through what we just talked about, let’s share a few answers for our 5W questions.

Have a few students briefly answer.

Corners Game Post-Assessment

Teacher: We will finish today by playing the “Corners” game again. We will use the same corners to represent A) English, B) both languages, and C) Southern Paiute. This time, once you get to your corner you will have fifteen seconds to discuss in pairs or trios why you have chosen this answer. I will then have one or two groups from each corner share their reasoning. You will be given five seconds to silently change your corner if you changed your mind based on the reasons you heard from others. 

While giving instructions, walk to each corner and hang up a large piece of chart paper. 

Teacher: After your short discussion, I will tell you the correct answer. I will give one student a printout of the statement to attach on the chart paper in each corner. At the end of the game, each corner will have at least one statement connected with that answer.

Share the same statements from the beginning of the lesson, but in a different order again. Display each statement so students can read the statement while you read it to them. (PowerPoint Slides 37-51)

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Learning Objectives

  • Use a map to link the English Language to its place of origin and the community we live in.
  • Compare and contrast two cultures' languages. 
  • Sing simple songs in tune.
  • Perform and identify beat and rhythm.
  • Sing a song in the Southern Paiute language.
  • Share key details through answering who, what, where, when, why, and how questions.

Utah State Board of Education Standards

This lesson can be used to meet standards in many grades and subject areas. We will highlight one grade’s standards to give an example of application.

Grade 2 Social Studies

  • Standard 1

    (Culture): Students will recognize and describe how people within their community, state, and nation are both similar and different.

    • Objective 1 
      1. Give examples of how families in the community borrow customs or traditions from other cultures.
    • Objective 2 
      1. Identify various cultural groups within the state and the nation. 
      2. Compare and contrast elements of two or more cultures within the state and nation (e.g., language, food, clothing, shelter, traditions, and celebrations).
  • Standard 3 

    (Geography): Students will use geographic tools and skills to locate and describe places on earth.

    • Objective 2 
      1. Using a map or a globe, link cultures/nationalities within your community to their place of origin.

Grade 2 Music

  • Standard 2.M.P.4: Sing folk, traditional, and call-and-response songs in tune, using a natural, unstrained voice.
  • Standard 2.M.P.7: Perform and identify beat versus rhythm, patterns of strong and weak beats, and short, simple rhythm patterns.
  • Standard 2.M.P.8: Respond with body percussion, voice or simple instruments to visual representations of rhythm patterns.
  • Standard 2.M.R.1: Listen to and interact with a variety of contrasting music while recognizing form, meter, beat versus rhythm, timbre, mood, dynamics, tempo, and melody.
  • Standard 2.M.CO.1: Describe how music relates to personal, social, emotional, and intellectual development, use life experience and additional content knowledge to inspire and respond to music, and deepen understanding of another content area through music.
  • Standard 2.M.CO.2: Explore common genres across cultures, and share a favorite song learned at home or describe a musical family tradition.

Grade 2 English Language Arts

  • Reading, Informational Text Standard 1: Ask and answer such questions as who, what, where, when, why, and how to demonstrate understanding of key details in a text.
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Equipment and Materials Needed

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Additional Resources

This lesson was created thanks to a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Utah Division of Arts & Museums.

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Image References

Image 1: James Huston.

Image 2: The Paiute Indian Tribe of Utah.

Images 3-4: James Huston.

Image 5: Emily Soderborg.

© Brigham Young University and Paiute Indian Tribe of Utah