Labeling tasks can be thought of as more equal combinations of receptive and expressive language than either identification or use. Typically involving one word or phrase, labeling a discrete language skill is both easier than using it, and more difficult than identifying its correct or incorrect use.
Earlier, when I wrote about trying to make language therapy more objective language therapy, I discussed the need to differentiate task types, at least in order to effectively measure progress. When doing so, a language teacher must determine what type of task the learner is engaged in, or else you’re simply going to be too often comparing skills which are not actually comparable. Using task types can also result in us better knowing what’s next for students who are achieving objectives, or what to fall back on when they’re not. The easiest, or most basic, task type is Identification.
Identification tasks often involve pictures or objects and/or choices with foils. Simply put, the learner has to identify the target skill. Easier tasks have fewer foils generally, with more foils making it harder, with ID of objects in the environment or in scenes being the most difficult, as they have tons of possible incorrect answers. Some more examples:
So in this example, if the goal is age appropriate use of adjectives, and the student is identifying age appropriate adjectives in his or her environment, without cues, then the teacher can make the task type more challenging by moving on to labeling – which I’ll give some examples of in a post coming very soon.
It’s back to school time, and that means it’s time for Americans to renew their annual rite of blame shifting attempts of why their view of what is really wrong with American education is the correct one. This blame shifts from parents to teachers to administrators to politicians and back to parents again, always to one specific group after another rather than to anything more wide spread.
While we’re spinning our wheels in this blame game, nobody bats an eye at comments such as these: “You’re just trying to be smart.” or “You think you’re better than everyone else because you’re smart.” And then there are the blank stares of disapproval when you tell somebody in America that you’re interested in art, philosophy, or history. These are just more things considered attempts to get up on some high horse just so I can look down on everyone else – something Americans have no problem with when athletes or entrepreneurs try to better themselves.
But actually, no, I’m not trying to be better than everybody else. I just happen to think intelligence is a valuable thing. My desire to be smart has nothing to do you or with anybody besides me. It’s about living the best, most fulfilling life I can, something which learning helps. A lot. It never ceases to amaze me the disconnect between how consistently our culture devalues intelligence through the comments and blank stares and everything else, and how consistently ignored is this stigmatization when Americans try to fix our educational system.
One of the reasons for the stigmatization for intelligence is no doubt political. In a country where groups are frequently sought out for demonization for political purposes, yes, some have consistently sought to add to the list of communists, foreigners, atheists, etc. the group of intellectuals. For some, it’s better to have a “them,” any “them,” something to which the Ivory Tower syndrome of aloof elites has unfortunately contributed.
Additionally we have this hide your head in the sand mentality. We tend to esteem the outward appearance of not making mistakes over the process of learning from our mistakes, and we tend to ignore the success stories of others simply because they are the success stories of others and not ourselves. We don’t learn from other countries, such as in the areas of health care, education, and other things that they do that contribute to greater overall well-being, because well, what they’re doing is not what we’re already doing. Sure there are historical reasons too for our nation’s academic antipathy. That our forefathers coveted physical labor over intellectual, and that they also often appeared to our shores driven from conflicts caused by other country’s elite, who were incidentally educated, has certainly contributed to all of this.
So what can be done to improve? For one, we can recognize and value the hard work involved in mental labor. Yes, learning, whether it be facts or skills, takes lots and lots of work, the product of which should instill pride. Not arrogance, but pride. When others are trying to learn a skill, whether it be auto mechanics or art history, we should be supportive and complimentary, not resentful and envious. At least as often as kids are complimented for athletic accomplishments, they should be praised for academics.
We also need to be open to the fact that intelligence is not just a trait that we inherit, but a skill that must be developed. And like anything, to get smart, you have to not only go through the stage of being ignorant, you must acknowledge your areas of ignorance and seek to improve them, something which Americans are notoriously lousy at. Usually you can’t improve unless you make an honest critical examination of yourself.
Americans have a reputation for respecting emotions over intellect, and faith over reason. We reject evolution in numbers that make others around the world scratch their heads, and we accept a spirit of “coolness” in which museums and books are boring, and explosions, hot rods, and special effects are awesome. America is falling behind because other countries are realizing all of this long before us. Any ultimately successful effort to fix what’s wrong with American education must start at the ground level with fixing what’s wrong with Americans ourselves.
I’ll wrap this post up with, yes, a nerdy quote from the existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre: “Everything we do affects not only ourselves, but by our choices and actions we set examples for the rest of mankind.” Ultimately, that’s how many of our problems get fixed. It starts with a few good examples.
There seems to be a growing movement oversimplifying how learning actually occurs. The basic gist is that we learn best by doing things instead of watching. And we learn best by doing things ourselves. It seems that not only do we not need others to help us, others actually do more to get in the way.
Some epitomizing examples of this that I’ve come across lately include this blog post by the economist Robin Hanson, about how learning best occurs by doing – not observing. I’ve also recently heard a TED talk from Sugata Mitra who seems to be gaining some attention to his theory that kids best learn from omitting all teachers. After merely sticking a computer in front of some impoverished Indian children, Mitra returned to discover that these children were able to teach themselves English, computer programming, and molecular biology. My natural skepticism can’t help but to cause me to feel there’s at least some exaggeration occurring here, but the point is there’s a definite movement afloat to pigeonhole all learning into one type – that which can best be learned through trial and error. And yes, “doing” something is often a wonderful way to learn.
But no, it’s not the only way. If you’re lost in a strange city, you’re much better off observing the directions on a map, or asking for them, then you are just trying to find your way on your own. People don’t learn to tie shoes by trial and error. Nor do we know not to run out into a busy highway by actually doing it. For some trial and error events, one error is all you get in order for there to be no more trial possibilities. When some people focus only on one type of learning, and give only one type of example to support their assertion that this type of learning is always the best, they are simply ignoring the complexity of the matter. And as any teacher can attest, often the best way to learn something is by guided practice. And guided practice needs guides.
We learn all sorts of things, with some things relying more on procedural knowledge, some relying more on declarative, some more on observational, and many things being the result of a complicated mish-mash of modes. I tried to succinctly describe a few of these modes, such as procedural and declarative learning, as I concluded an earlier post in which I wrote about Bloom’s Taxonomy. It went as follows:
“Other useful classifications which often accompanying the taxonomy include procedural and declarative knowledge, and meta-cognitive knowledge. Procedural knowledge can be thought of as “know how” knowledge. An example would be knowing how to tie shoes. This kind of knowledge, which is greatly helped by actually doing the task, is often seen as the most difficult to teach. Declarative, or conceptual knowledge, is the “know what” type of knowledge. This usually involves facts and/or linguistic representations. This would involve, for example, the verbal instructions of what you do when you tie shoes (First you grab one lace in each hand, then…). Meta-cognitive knowledge is the “know why,” of knowledge. Why do we need to learn to tie shoes? “Meta” knowledge can also be very difficult to teach and to learn.”
Response to Intervention (RTI) is a U.S. based reform effort designed to systematically add more regular education intervention to struggling kids prior to the use of special education. From what I understand, it actually is possible to effectively use RTI to shore up the cracks of language delay that are frequently so hard for professionals to fill. I am skeptical, however. I’ve heard and read many glowing recommendations of the theoretical underpinnings of RTI, usually along these lines:
All kids start at level one – basically a regular education classroom, where general education teachers provide differentiated instruction. Progress is frequently monitored with kids deemed not making enough of it then being moved to level two. Level two students receive supplemental instruction with lower student-teacher ratios and more progress monitoring. Kids not making enough progress at level two then are considered for level three, which is special education. A pyramid figure generally symbolizes the number of kids that are supposed to be at each level, with the most at level one, proceeding geometrically to level two, and ending up at the smallest, top part of the pyramid – where very few kids are supposed to be at level three.
So how can RTI be used to improve language services? Well, under RTI, educators are supposed to constantly monitor the progress of all kids. One of the things about language is how difficult this is. It is easy to miss a problem spot because of the complexity of language, and kids with language problems often compensate by using less of it. Kids with language deficits – and critically, not just kids with IQ/language discrepancies – then must be given good language “support.” As there is currently no research supported language intervention that has been validated for use with kids of higher functioning than the severely autistic kids receiving ABA therapy, it seems likely that this support would mirror the often subjective methods SLPs currently use to provide language therapy.
Conventional wisdom in education once held that only some children could be genuinely helped by their educators. The others were pretty much doomed by their circumstances. But then along came Benjamin Bloom, who in 1956 published his widely influential, Taxonomy of Educational Objectives. Bloom’s work helped lead an educational renaissance over the next several decades resulting in such things as Head Start and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
Starting in the 1950s, research exploded exploring the hows and whys of using structure, individualized attention, and feedback, to give educators the tools to help all children maximize their potential. Bloom contributed his list of cognitive processes that organized thinking and learning from the simplest (recall) to the most complex (judging or evaluating). The point was to use the understanding of exactly where a person’s specific knowledge of a topic is to guide further teaching on that topic. After acquiring recall knowledge of an objective, learning proceeded hierarchically from comprehension, to application, to analysis and synthesis, before ending up at the top step – evaluation.
Of course the taxonomy wasn’t perfect. Since that time, educational researchers and cognitive psychologists have learned a great deal more about learning, especially concerning the impact of feelings and beliefs, as well as social and cultural influences. Bloom’s hierarchy came to be seen as too rigidly denying these external factors, while oversimplifying the progression from one step to another, and too strictly separating specific areas of knowledge. Other researchers, such as Marzano and Anderson have since made their own contributions, helping increase the taxonomy’s relevance and accuracy. In particular, the skill of creativity has been added to the top level. Creating specifically involves combining skills needed to generate, plan, and produce things, which are hopefully useful.
Other useful classifications often accompanying the taxonomy include procedural and declarative knowledge, and meta-cognitive knowledge. Procedural knowledge can be thought of as “know how” knowledge. An example would be knowing how to tie shoes. This kind of knowledge, which is greatly helped by actually doing the task, is often seen as the most difficult to teach. Declarative, or conceptual knowledge, is the “know what” type of knowledge. This usually involves facts and/or linguistic representations. This would involve, for example, the verbal instructions of what you do when you tie shoes (First you grab one lace in each hand, then…). Meta-cognitive knowledge is the “know why,” of knowledge. Why do we need to learn to tie shoes? “Meta” knowledge can also be very difficult to teach and to learn.
Okay, this is going to be a controversial post with the potential to make a lot of people a lot of mad. But, after much contemplation, fueled by relentless personal experience, I feel very strongly that this is the right thing to do. Today, on Autism Awareness day, I’m going to assert the following position: our society is too aware of autism. And way too often, autism is used to shield parents from what’s actually going on with their children. So, before I get into the controversial part, let me get the facts out of the way. Autism is a real and serious public health issue. While we seem to be getting some better guesses, its causes are still pretty much completely unknown. The best way to treat autism is intense and personally tailored therapy. Autism diagnosis has grown rapidly over the last couple of decades, and more rapidly over the past couple of years. Some of this seems to be due to increased awareness. Some seems due to a yet to be discovered cause. It is not due to cold and non-responsive mothering, which was an early and long ago repudiated suspect. But something else is no doubt going on, contributing insidiously to this recent rise. It keeps happening to me over and over again, and I’m done with merely grumbling to those around me each successive time.
I assess hundreds of children each year, many with multiple types of language delays, and many with concerns of autism. I get several very valid autism referrals each year. I also get several referrals from more borderline cases. What makes identification of all of these autistic kids more difficult, however, is the fact that I also get multiple referrals from parents and professionals alike – and I’m carefully choosing to put this bluntly – who want these children to get the label. Yes, this happens. And inevitably, it hurts all of these children.
The kids vary. Sometimes it’s just kids who are a little “weird.” Sometimes it’s kids with families with a history of known or suspected abuse. Other times diagnosticians will get referrals from parents or family members of a child with a different diagnosis who think that autism is somehow less severe. Sometimes no one knows exactly what’s going on, and so the finding of any label at all satisfies the human need to know. Additionally, I have seen, over my many years, parents emulating the actions of seeking the joining of a friendly and supportive community, not only of parents with autism, but also of community members who give extra care and compassion toward parents of disabled children. I’m sorry, but it happens. Continue reading →
As a speech and language diagnostician, I’ve tested a lot of kids. I’ve seen many, many patterns of language deficits, and while admittedly, my evidence for my upcoming assertion will be entirely anecdotal, often anecdotal evidence does accurately reflect reality. My assertion: when determining goals, language therapists should (usually) not separate receptive and expressive language. It’s usually much more effective to separate goals by morpho-syntax, semantics, and pragmatics.
Why? The bottom line is that most kids don’t have major differences between receptive language and expressive. It is just extremely difficult to produce something that you can’t understand. In this way, receptive language can be thought of as foundational, or a precursor for similar expressive language. Usually, the converse is true too – a kid can’t understand something that he can’t produce (with some exceptions). If you have a deficit in an area – pronouns for example – the majority of the time this deficit exists in both receptive and expressive language. So, since this is usually the case, and since it is usually the case that with most people there are not major differences between scores (and abilities) in receptive language and expressive language, it stands to reason that the deficits themselves can be more effectively addressed by shifting the focus.
Looking at reception as a foundation for expression also gives us a means of structuring our goals to more accurately reflect deficits. What a lot of people accept as difficulties with understanding, or following directions, really are problems with understanding (and producing) specific structures. Verb tense, prepositions, pronouns, negatives, clauses, etc. – these are the typical culprits of comprehension problems. And when kids have problems understanding a certain structure, they nearly always have problems producing that structure. Importantly, the pattern of these deficits vary from kid to kid. This means that goals for following directions usually cast too wide a net, and miss a kid’s uniquely specific problems. (Here’s another post for more on following directions.)