As a pioneering psychologist in the merging studies of cognition and learning, Jean Piaget helped change the common assumption that as thinkers, children are merely less complex versions of adults. His twentieth century work built upon the classical roots of Socrates, and more recent work of Lev Vygotsky, Jerome Bruner, and others who believed learning to be a process facilitated, rather than caused, by teachers. At the forefront of constructivist assumptions are the notions that the most effective learning takes place when learners are active and motivated participants in the process.
While constructivism as a system has been criticized as being too subjective and difficult to manage, as with so many complex systems it has several components that stand out as applicable outside of the larger theory as a whole. The notions of assimilation and accommodation are two of my favorites. Assimilation occurs when a learner adds new information, basically layering it on top of the old. Accommodation occurs when a learner must change previously learned information before placement of new information is possible. Assimilation is like placing files in a file cabinet, while accommodation is like needing to add new folders, or rearrange existing ones. Because of this, learning is said to get more difficult as we age, with the tendency of older people to get what has been deemed, “hardening of the categories.”
Piaget and the constructivists also coined all kinds of terms, such as schema and equilibrium, not to mention those associated with the famed stages of development, such as the sensorimotor, concrete operational, and preoperational stages. Piaget’s ballyhooed notion of object permanence (the understanding that an object exists even when out of sight) has been extensively studied and debated.
As with seemingly all mind related theories, the popularity of constructivism has followed the pendulum of favorability. There are many specific aspects of constructivism, though, that should stand the test of time. Some additional good information can be found here. This, also is kind of cool.
There are many different terms and abbreviations used in discussing the topic of second language acquisition. Just some of these include second language learning, L2 acquisition, ELL (English language learners), and ESL (English as a Second Language). ESL and ELL are sometimes used interchangeably, and sometimes argued to be completely different things. ESL seems to be an older term that, depending upon the source, is either being phased out, or is continuing to be used to distinguish a specific pull-out program, as opposed to somebody in the general education environment who happens to not speak English. Some claim that ELL is more politically and technically correct, since English could be a third or fourth language. In all my years I’ve never experienced any language issues with a student learning English as a third or fourth language, but I suppose it is technically possible. Also, use of these terms seems to be different in different places. There is a good little description of ESL and ELL issues in this link.
One of the preeminent researchers in second language acquisition is Stephen Krashen. According to Krashen, learning is less important than acquisition. His theory includes five main hypotheses, which he’s labeled the Acquisition-Learning hypothesis, the Monitor hypothesis, the Natural Order hypothesis, the Input hypothesis, and the Affective Filter hypothesis. His Affective Filter hypothesis embodies one of his main views that a number of affective variables play a facilitative, but non- causal, role in second language acquisition. These variables include: motivation, self – confidence, and anxiety. You can find a lot of his stuff at his site.
Second language acquisition presents some interesting challenges for those who teach language. In school settings, speech-language pathologists are supposed to only work with students with disabilities. For students whose primary language then is something other than English, this means that a language disability should exist in that student’s first language in order to qualify for services. Theoretically and legally, the disability should have nothing to do with the fact that the student has learned another language prior to English. In the real world, it gets complicated. Some kids do all right with their first language in preschool, and then face problems as parents may attempt to use more English at home. Maybe one parent speaks more English. Aunts, uncles, grandparents, friends, etc. all bring their own language preferences and abilities to the mix. Then there are things like code-switching, the switching between languages in a conversation or with different conversation partners. Commonly, these kids also display a silent period, in which they are so focused on comprehension that they don’t speak much. Also, there can be language loss of the first language if it is not continuously reinforced. There have been controversies over the extent to which academics should be taught in one language over the other, as well as the extent to which English must be learned, and who is responsible. I think most experts agree that bilingualism is an awesome attribute. More info can be had here.
As an interesting aside, this recent study suggested that second language learners may have an advantage in learning to read compared to native language speakers. The study’s authors suggested that this may be due to an increased awareness in language overall – metalinguistic awareness.
Cognitive referencing is the practice of using IQ scores to establish eligibility for special education services, specifically in areas of language and learning disabilities. It’s often called by it’s gentler label, the “discrepancy model.” Many others disapprovingly call it the “wait to fail” model. Cognitive referencing has been denounced by groups such as the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (link), the President’s Commission on Excellence in Special Education, 2002, and very explicitly, by the U.S. Department of Education (link, pg. 31). It has been eliminated in many states, but persists in many others. Even those who don’t come right out and denounce this practice (as they should), state that it should be only one component of a larger process used to determine eligibility (e.g. this CEC link). The problem is that wherever it is used, the IQ-Academic discrepancy becomes the sole method of determining eligibility in nearly all cases. In my state of Missouri, our state law very specifically mandates this discrepancy, unless a school district is willing to go through much expense and work to use other methods, such as RTI. My guess is that 99% of kids tested for LD and Language Impairment in our state use only IQ comparison to determine eligibility.
Despite its prevalence, cognitive referencing is wrong on many levels.
- It uses a single IQ score, ignoring standard deviation. A kid that scores 80, may actually have a “true” IQ of something like 85 or 90, but could have performed poorly on that one day, for various reasons. Tough luck for that kid. An IQ score of 80 usually means that your academic or language scores have to be 58 or lower, an extremely difficult thing to do.
- By even using IQ at all, the assumption is that this is as good as a kid can get. That was the initial rational for the discrepancy model way back before we knew better. Now we know that IQ can go up (or down) in relationship to environmental factors. (When IQ scores of large groups of children are studied, IQ scores do tend to remain stable, especially in older children. However, this skews the fact that a smaller percentage of children do show substantial IQ fluctuations over time. For more on this interesting topic, see Sigelman and Rider, 2008.)
- IQ and language are correlated. Vocabulary and IQ especially correlate well. This means that children with low language scores tend to have comparably low IQ scores. It is virtually impossible to obtain a low IQ score and say that language difficulties didn’t have something to do with that score.
- Kids with certain scores are especially difficult to qualify for special education under this model. Whenever a child scores in the 70s you can just about rest assured that the kid will not qualify, and you will be testing that kid again, perversely hoping that the academic and/or language scores have fallen enough to qualify the next time. In effect a child is punished for having an IQ score that just happens to be in that one certain range.
- IQ scores can set artificially low levels of expectation for kids, teachers, and parents. IQs describe obstacles, not limits. It may be harder for someone with a lower IQ to learn, but it is never impossible. Only comatose or dead people can’t learn, and IQ scores too often allow somebody to say, “Well he’s achieving close to his level.” IQs can provide a stimulus to somebody with a high IQ who is not motivated to learn, and can provide a bit of insight into why a particular student may be having trouble learning, but to withhold helping a child because of a lower then average IQ is at the least dishonest, and borders on unethical.
So how can this horrible practice persist? For starters, no states have been forced to abandon cognitive referencing. It is almost amazing that so many have, considering the financial implications of having to provide more help to kids. That nobody has come up with anything better seems to be the main excuse given for continuing the discrepancy model. I don’t really understand why this practice hasn’t been challenged in court. Perhaps someday, somebody such as these special ed lawyers with a great web site, will.
That cognitive referencing can continue to exist is a symptom of a larger problem in our society. We attempt to find labels and categories to justify providing (a good thing) or withholding (not so good) help to kids that could really benefit from extra help. In my opinion the most ethical method of providing special education services would be to establish a bare minimum of expected competence in various areas, and at least offer to help any child achieve the next step toward reaching that bare minimum. If this were to happen those of us in special education might then be able to spend more effort looking for ways to help, and less time looking for excuses not to.
Conjunctions are an important method of extending sentence length and complexity, because they are a common method of joining words or parts of sentences together. Coordinating conjunctions join independent clauses (as well as words and phrases), while subordinating conjunctions can join both dependent and independent clauses (as well as words and phrases).
The acquisition and frequency of conjunctions have both been studied extensively. Among the findings are that the word and often initially takes the role of other conjunctions (Bloom et al., 1980; Scott, 1988; cited by Owens, 1996). The conjunctions but, so, or, and if soon are acquired in typically developing children to serve functions that and isn’t as easily able to achieve. Conjunctions like because then develop to express not only a relationship between sentence elements, but additionally a temporal sequence. According to one estimate, by the time a normal child’s mean length of utterances reach 5.0 (at an average age of 4 to 5 years), 20% of the sentences they use in spontaneous speech contain embedded or conjoined clauses (Paul, 1981).
Language itself doesn’t require conjunctions, but effectively communicating advanced ideas usually does. As with other language modalities, conjunctions exist because they assist. We use them to achieve a goal. Just try giving a reason for something without using the word because, or try describing the time relationship between two completed events without using conjunctions such as before, after, or then. It can be done, but much less effectively.
Generally, developmental order of conjunctions is determined by the complexity of the relationship the conjunction serves. Conjunctions appear frequently in assessments such as the CELF, CASL, OWLS, and SPELT. Also, Conjunction Junction is a timeless piece of art.
Incidental teaching involves manipulating a student’s environment to promote the natural use of educational objectives. While it can be used for a variety of language goals, incidental teaching is particularly effective in promoting initiation. Incidental teaching can be looked at as having four main features:
- The environment is arranged to set occasion for student response
- Teacher waits
- If necessary, student is prompted
- Student response
The reinforcer is whatever the child needs or wants, such as crayons, juice, or a toy. Incidental teaching contrasts with discrete trial teaching, in that while the one encourages responses, the other expects it. Each has its place, and each is better at teaching different skills.
Planning, prompting, and waiting are three critical aspects of incidental teaching. Planning may start with an observation of a child’s current initiation level, as well as determining child’s unique interests. Ways that low functioning children initiate include looking at desired objects, moving toward them, pointing, grabbing, or taking care-giver’s hand. When prompting, the child should be encouraged to produce a slightly more complex language skill than the current ability, using a developmental hierarchy. When waiting, 3-5 seconds between the event and response is often the most effective interval between prompts.
Incidental teaching is often thought of as “sabotaging the environment.” Some specific examples of how to do this include…
- controlling access to materials
- using items of special interest
- setting up repetitive routines
- starting a favorite activity, and then stopping
- looking at materials, then student, then pausing
Much of my information comes from a seminar presented at the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association 2008 convention by the New England Center for Children. Their website is here. Additional information can be found at the Interactive Collaborative Autism Network.
One of the most common complaints of teachers and parents involves difficulty with following directions. So, how do we help these kids? Despite its prevalence, there often is a lack of a coherent strategy of dealing with direction following, and its close cousin, language processing. Many things are needed to follow directions – thus, addressing these difficulties should often start with first finding manageable components, before then combining these components in ways that look like the directions themselves.
Following directions involves using short term memory to hold known information while manipulating this information using language. Some types of words appear more frequently in directions than others – conjunctions, negatives, adjectives, and prepositions, for example, are often used in directions. Nearly every test item on one of the most commonly used assessments of following directions, the CELF-4′s Concepts and Following Directions subtest, uses some combination of conjunctions, negatives, and prepositions. These concepts are particularly critical in academic directions. The ability to follow any specific direction depends upon the ability to comprehend the specific words within the direction. Not all one step directions are created equal. For example, a one step direction containing a negative is often more difficult than one with a similarly placed adjective.
Here is an example of how a developmental hierarchy might look for direction following:
Obviously, following directions also requires aspects outside the domain of language, such as motivation, interest, and attention. Increasing proficiency in language should provide a natural boost to these overlapping aspects. For some specific activity ideas, please take a look at this link from my other web site, Freelanguagestuff.com.
The very existence of selective mutism demonstrates the significance of expectation in the communication process. Selective mutism occurs when the communication expectations of a situation overwhelm a child’s perceived capabilities. The resulting anxiety results in selective mustism - an inability to talk in one setting with an ability to talk in others. An often preferred method of treatment is for a team consisting of a psychotherapist, speech-language pathologist, parent, and teacher to gradually overcome situational anxiety with therapuetic means. Some selective mutism facts include…
- While estimates of a decade ago and earlier pegged selective mutism as relatively rare, recent studies have suggested that the true prevalence has been underestimated. Some of these studies have suggested that selective mutism may be as common as other widely known childhood disorders, such as autism and tourette’s disorder. This link at selectivemutism.org has some great additional info.
- While childhood trauma has long been blamed, researchers have identified a wide variety of possible etiologies, including depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and social phobia. It is widely believed that many children with selective mutism have concomitant language disorders, although the mutism makes these disorders extremely difficult to diagnose.
- According to Dr. Elisa Shipon-Blum, the executive director of selectivemutism.org, “the majority of SM children do not overcome SM.” In an interview here at shykids.com, many of these kids grow into adolescents and adults with extreme social anxiety problems. In this interview Shipon-Blum elaborates on the problems too often caused by taking a wait and see approach.
- There are some good blogs by individuals affected by selective mutism, sharing their memories of SM in their lives. Check out Selective Mutism – My Memories for a really good, frequently updated blog by a man that has had selective mutism. For a blog done by parents, see The blog on Selective Mutism.
One of the most common causes of difficulties in comprehension and following directions is specific difficulty with understanding varied syntactic negative forms. Anything that can be said can, if necessary, be negated. When this occurs, it adds a layer of complexity and difficulty. Some facts:
- There are basic negatives (e.g. no, not, never), negatives that affect varied tense (e.g. do not, did not, didn’t, don’t, won’t, etc.), and negatives in questions (e.g. “Won’t you..” “Can’t you..”, “Wouldn’t you…”).
- Advanced negation requires increasing demands upon working memory, both with comprehension and production. Negative prefixes, such as un-, dis-, and non- may be difficult for advanced language learners.
- The specific negative word a child uses may reflect the specific manner in which a parent uses negation to control behavior. Some parents use no frequently, while others employ don’t (Owens, 1996). Parenting advice often encourages use of positive discipline (e.g., “Walk”, instead of “Don’t run.”) which may affect children’s comprehension of negation. Children who hear both positive and negative versions of the same request may be predisposed to earlier learning of the concepts of negation and opposition.
- Children often simplify sentences with negation by eliminating subjects, and putting the simple negative form prior to the verb (L. Bloom, 1970). Thus, an intended sentence such as “Mommy no go bye-bye.” may initially be produced as “No go bye-bye.”
Tense allows us to more effectively communicate information related to when something occurs, occurred, or will occur, as well as more effectively understand if the occurrence has been completed, is in progress, or will occur continuously. Some key points include:
- 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).
- Different languages use various techniques to express differences in tense. Latinate languages, in particular, use a variety of morphological endings to express when something happens (David Crystal, 1995).
- English only uses three morphological endings: -s, -ed, and -ing. Other tenses are communicated through irregular forms, auxiliary verbs, and adverbs.
Ellipsis occurs when a nonessential word is omitted from speech or writing. This happens more frequently than most people realize, and it is the source of much confusion when learning oral language or written language (i.e. reading). An example: “I knew (that) I needed to speak up.”
- Ellipsis is common in clauses with relative pronouns, as in the above example or in this example: “There’s the place (where) I went to school.”
- Ellipsis is also common with prepositions, e.g. “Give (to) me a kiss.” or “Call (for) him a cab.”
- The inclusion of these prepositional phrases or relative clauses may be considered technically correct, but redundant nearly to the point of being superfluous.
- The existence of ellipsis is evidence for the notion that language is more convention based than rule based. We do what works best, even when it seems to defy grammatical rules. As with every other structure in language, ellipsis exists because it assists.
- (An ellipsis is a punctuation symbol (…) used to indicate omission.)
The spacing effect is a well supported finding in learning research that exposure to a material over time supports memorization. Some facts…
- The best time to reinforce previous learning is at a point just before forgetting takes place. This point varies from person to person. It also varies depending upon what is being learned.
- The time interval that a fact is remembered increases with repeated exposure.
The spacing effect has been known for more than a century.
It has been documented in other species.
SLI, the common abbreviation of Specific Language Impairment, is usually defined as a language impairment of unknown etiology in the presence of normal cognition. In layman’s terms, these are kids with a language problem and no one knows why. Some (IMO) interesting tidbits are:
- SLI occurs in about 7% of the general population (Tomblin et al, 1997)
- It is more prevalent in males than in females (Flax et al, 2003)
- It is widely acknowledged that individuals with SLI commonly experience learning difficulties of a comparable magnitude across all domains, including mathematics (Arvedson, 2002; Donlan and Gourlay, 1999; Fazio, 1996)
- “ “… and literacy (Bishop and Adams, 1990; Catts, Fey, Tomblin, and Zhang; Flax et al 2003)
SLI seems to be a term more prevalant in the speech pathology community than elsewhere. Because I like to interject my opinion occasionally, I’ll do that here, at the end of this post. There are many possible causes of SLI, including environmental, motivational, and perhaps, genetic.