Explaining Language – Installment 1:1

Installment 1:1

Many of our confusions and disagreements are complex versions of this simplified example: Let’s pretend that I have a job sorting paper with colored swatches into two piles – blue and red. All papers must go into one pile or the other. This job is simple and mundane for awhile. Soon, though, I come across a color sample with a blend of red and blue, something like this:

red blue swath

Some of our most subversive problems with language occur when we are incapable of creating new piles. If I must be confined to either of only two choices, when we come across new examples of something, it will be impossible to come to a consensus. I could ask hundreds or thousands of people if this color sample would be best in the blue or the red, but I will never get 100% agreement if I must keep the options to the two original ones.

If I ask a question such as, “Is there free will?” I am doing something similar. I am ignoring the possibility of creating new ways of describing that may be more accurate than the old. You can say, “Yes there is free will,” or you can say, “No there isn’t free will,” but you are ignoring that there are other ways of describing reality. This is critically important. Language is a tool that belongs to people. There are no words or concepts that themselves exist independently of people, and a frequent failure to realize this too often becomes a pause on the potential progress of human thought. These are more than just fallacies of false choice; they are linguistic shackles on human intellect.

Pragmatic Judgment

argument talkers yell 2

The result of …inappropriate pragmatic judgment

The skill of pragmatic judgment, as it is commonly known, involves forming appropriate social language responses. In other words it’s saying the right thing at the right time. This is not always easy to measure or even verify. Pragmatic judgment also involves prior knowledge, and knowledge of a conversational partner’s prior knowledge. Sometimes social language involves initiation (e.g. “Hello), while other times the reaction is a response (e.g. “You’re Welcome). At times it is appropriate to not respond in an expected manner. This occurs when conversational maxims are deliberately flouted for reasons such as sarcasm, intentional overstatement or understatement (e.g. Grice, 1975).

Frequency and effectiveness of social response has been shown to significantly affect aspects of life as diverse as interpersonal relationship and occupation (e.g. Swann and Rentfrow, 2001). Pragmatic competency is assessed through such activities as requiring recognition of appropriate topics for conversation; selection of relevant information for directions or requests; initiation of conversation or turn-taking; adjusting communication to situational factors such as age or relationship; using language for expression of gratitude, sorrow, and other feelings; and judgment of the pragmatic appropriateness of the language behavior of others who are engaged in these activities (Carrow-Woolfolk, 1999).

Commonly used assessments with pragmatic judgment include the TOPL and the CASL tests. Informal assessment in natural settings may provide more reliable information regarding pragmatic judgment than formal assessment. Assisting teachers complete pragmatic checklists, such as that provided with the CELF-5, provides information regarding skills specific to the classroom.  Read on for a very shortened hierarchy of possible pragmatic judgment goals.

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Verb Tense

Chances are that if you have a kid with a language disorder, you have a kid with verb tense problems.  Verb tense overlaps with many language skills, such as subject-verb agreement, production of infinitive verbs, irregular past tense, question formation, and helping verbs. Research suggests that omission of tense marker (“zero marking”) is the most prevalent kind of tense error in children with SLI (Marchman, Wulfeck, Weimer, 1999). Tests that assess for verb tense include the OWLS, CASL, CELF, PLS, and SPELT tests.

Elicitation Ideas

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Language Research – Making Research Relevant

A common gripe for a long time with research of language disorders is that much of it has often been irrelevant to the actual teaching of language.  And by often, I mean nearly always.  A lot of the research seems geared toward one isolated characteristic of one subset of one small segment of people, and only to that particular population.  The similarity of the following fake titles to actual titles may help demonstrate my point…

- “Toward Understanding Morphologic Tendencies in Left Handed Nicaraguan Preschoolers.”    or

- “Past Tense Comprehension in Bilingual Adopted Children; A Conceptual Framework.”

It just has long seemed that these are the sorts of research titles that usually exist in the most commonly read sources of language research.  And that’s when these journals even decide to address language at all, which has long seemed to be much less common then research addressing say, hearing, or voice, or stuttering.  And this is too bad.  Because there are many, many language related questions out there that can be addressed scientifically that would actually be useful in teaching language.  So what might these “practical” studies look like?  Here are some ideas I’ve had.

Question:  Do twins often have one member with more language deficits than the other?

Implication:  This often seems to be the case.  Anecdotally, it seems as though one twin often speaks for the other, almost creating deficits in the less talkative twin.  If the research would support this hypothesis, then we could prepare for this with extra early intervention, and assistance for twin parents.

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Why We Learn Language

What follows is an abbreviated list of some linguistic aspects of the English language along with their functions. As with any system of symbols, such as drawing, math, and language, this list is meant to convey an interpretation of reality. Just as the Mona Lisa is not the actual woman used as the model, squiggles on a map of England are not the actual England, and buildings and roads are composed of bricks and mortar rather than the equations used to combine building materials, this list is meant merely as a representation. Significant overlap exists. And as with any symbolic representation, any part of it that does not assist may reasonably be ignored. Keep in mind that the functions answer the question of why we learn the units. For example: Why do we learn idioms? To provide flexibility, creativity, and social status to our language.


Idiom of the Month

What idiom is this not?

beating around bush 1

Targeting Specific Structures in Reading

Earlier, I was tutoring some speech kids working on reading. I just happened to have some comprehension flash cards targeting comprehension – oral or reading – of specific targets. These kids needed help with reading more than oral language, and so because I don’t have a lot of materials targeting reading, I decided to use the cards. One deck had about 12 cards with negative contractions (can’t, aren’t, isn’t, etc.), and the other deck had regular plurals.
Bottom line – this activity rocked. The kids missed the first couple. I told them to focus on “those tricky word endings,” (you know the kind that so many speech and language kids miss in oral language), and after struggling with the next few cards, by the end, they were getting it with no problems. They’d improved right then and there.
That got me thinking. These kids didn’t have deficits with plurals and contractions in oral language. But they did in reading. And I bet they did in writing too. They used to have these kind of errors in oral language, and we know from the research that young kids with speech and language deficits often turn into kids with reading deficits. I’ve never seen anybody targeting specific language structures like these in reading, but I’m pretty sure it would be a good idea.

Teaching Functions

functions pic for blog

Here’s one way to practice identifying functions.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone specifically teach functions.  Well, maybe, but definitely it seems rare.  Which is a shame, because functions are huge in expressive language and semantics specifically.  If you want someone to be better at describing, one of the best things you can do is teach functions.  And if you want somebody to be better at expressive language, one of the best things you can do is to work on improving describing.  Just a little contemplation can reveal just how common functions are in describing.  Filling in the blank in “What’s a _______?” for so many things requires a function for the answer.

What’s a refrigerator?  It’s an appliance (category) that keeps food cold (function).

What’s a ruler?  It’s something that measures length (function).

What are quotation marks?  They’re a type of punctuation (category) that shows that somebody is saying something (function).

Come to think of it, maybe I need to do a blog post about how we should teach categories more too.  Anyway, assessing for deficits in using functions are common in tests and screens such as the DIAL, the CELF, and the PLS tests, so it’s easy to figure out if a kid has difficulties in this area.  Someday good language therapy will include teaching functions to kids we’ve identified as having function using deficits.  Hopefully that day won’t be too far away.

Why Are There So Few Male SLPs?

This question seems to perplex many, and the numbers do seem pretty staggering.  Recent figures are something like 96% of SLPs being women in the U.S., with similar numbers abroad.  As a male speech-language pathologist I thought I would chip in a few reasons why I believe these numbers are the way they are.

Some of these reasons have been offered before.  They include

  • There’s a perception of low opportunity and pay, especially considering the cost of the at least six years of college education required to become an SLP.  This has been extensively discussed, such as here and here.  Generally, there seems to be some justification for the perception, though it’s probably true that opportunity and pay is decreasing in many professions as the middle class continues its long decline.
  • Gender roles and expectations definitely play a part.  Fortunately, I had someone who knew about the field that suggested speech and language pathology as a possibility for me – a college professor trying to finally give me some direction as I was just about to graduate with a degree in communication.  I had never even considered this profession, nor did I even know about it, before I was 22 years old.  I’m guessing that more women than men have speech pathology suggested to them by others thanks at least in some part to gender expectations.
  • Speech pathology is a helping, nurturing profession, which tends to attract women.  Many men just tend to think that they can’t derive as much satisfaction from helping others.  I obviously disagree, but I do understand how it took me so long of my own life to realize this.

I have a few additional reasons contributing to the huge disparity which I haven’t seen before.

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What’s Wrong With Our Goals for Following Directions? (.)

Goals for following directions are commonly seen in Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) of language disordered kids.  Anecdotally speaking, they’re probably the most common language goal.   Most of them tend to have some serious problems though, which perhaps we can illuminate from a quick analysis of one or two examples.  And there’s one thing that’s really conspicuous by its absence.  We’ll see if we can use these examples to figure it out.

Example 1:  “Paul will follow two step directions in the classroom for three consecutive days.”   What’s wrong with this?  Plenty, actually, but one thing especially.  Let’s say that for three straight days Paul is handed some trash, and after receiving the directions, “Paul, take this to the trash can and throw it away,” he does it.  Goal achieved, right?  There’s two steps and three days in the classroom, after all.

Symbol of my example, or of these goals?

Symbolic picture

But what if Paul is twelve years old?  What if Paul has been throwing away trash like this for years?  Maybe he has done it so often, he knows what to do merely by giving him trash.  He may not have even been listening to the directions.  In this case, Paul has not been taught, nor has he accomplished anything that he wasn’t already able to do, despite having “achieved his goal.”   The goal did not include something measurable that he wasn’t already able to do.  And there still is that one thing that’s seriously missing.

Example 2:  Mary will follow multi-step directions in the classroom or wherever at some percentage.  Okay, this admittedly is a softball example, but it’s one I’ve seen plenty.  What’s wrong?  It’s not specific enough.  I’m assuming it means more than two, but it doesn’t really say.  Again too we run across the difficulty of the fact that no two directions tend to be equal in difficulty.  “Get the ball and give it to me!” and “Please walk to the board and write the answer below the date,” are both notably two step directions.  But they’re vastly different in difficulty.  Which leads us to the one biggie that’s missing in these goals, and almost all following directions goals that I’ve ever seen.  It’s the language itself.

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Salut/Hallo/Hola! After enjoying teaching MFL and leading my department, I've started an exciting new venture this year, as Couse Tutor for the PGCE MFL at Leeds Trinity University. I'm interested in developments in Language teaching and sharing ideas.

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