The Language Fix

A blog for sharing language and learning information


December 2008

Categories and Teaching

Information that can be organized in some manner is most easily retrieved (Nippold, 1998).  The organization of words into categories provides effective neural “hooks” for retrieval and an effective “filing cabinet” for storage.  Many words fall neatly into categories that help this storage and retrieval, while many other words require more linguistic manipulation to find category relatives.  The philosopher Immanuel Kant’s claim that categories are essential in understanding the world has both influenced and withstood generations of philosophical debate.  The notion that things exist independently of human categories which are then imposed upon those things in order to better understand them has deeply influenced metaphysics, language, psychology, and education.

Examples are the opposite of categories.  For example, spring and summer are examples of the category of seasons.  The term “superordinate” is frequently used in linguistic circles to refer to categories.  “Subordinates” is used to refer to category members.  For example, trumpets and flutes are subordinate members of the superordinate class of instruments.

The use of categories is especially relevant to memory  (McCormick and Schiefelbusch, 1990).  Short term memory relies on techniques such as chunking, while association is key to long term memory.  Chunking and association both use categories.  The use of categories also aids us in describing related words, allowing us to more effectively communicate our knowledge of these words.  One of the most widely seen features of semantic language impairment is the deficient use and understanding of categories.

As with any word, or word group, some categories tend to be learned before others.  Below is an abbreviated list that I’ve used in my language teaching.


The Best Online Guide to Grammar

This may be the best guide to grammar, online or not.  The site is sponsored by the Capital Community College Foundation, a non-profit organization from Hartford Connecticut.  Well organized drop down menus, the quick index, and the guide’s search engine all allow a user to quickly find information on just about anything grammar related.  If I gave out awards for top internet language related reference sites this definitely win the top award.  Here’s the link:  Guide to Grammar and Writing


Second place would go to Purdue’s Online Writing Lab (OWL). purdue-online-writing-lab

On the Use of Foils

In teaching and assessment a foil is simply an incorrect alternative.  Any time a choice is given the foil itself can make or break a response’s accuracy.  As an example, consider this picture:

What is this?

Now, here are four questions designed to determine your knowledge of the picture’s subject.

    1)  What is this?

    2)  Is this uranium, pyroxite, or feldspar?

    3)  Is this plagioclastic-orthonograph feldspar or uranium? 

    4)  Is this a type of fruit or uranium?

Much can be ascertained about one’s uranium knowledge depending upon which questions can or can’t be answered.  We can learn that somebody that can answer the question without foils (labeling, in this case) knows his rocks.  Conversely, when using bad foils nothing may be discovered at all.  Most second graders could answer the fourth question correctly which, of course, tells more about the child’s knowledge of fruit than uranium.  The third question’s foil is almost as bad.  If someone answers “uranium,” how do you know it’s not simply because the foil was so hard to pronounce?  While these examples may be extreme, they illustrate the significance that seemingly simple framing and foils can have on good assessment.

Continue reading “On the Use of Foils”

Around the Web – Timothy Mason and Language Acquisition

Timothy Mason, a faculty member at Université de Paris 8, has written prolifically, and much of this writing is generously available on his web site.  A part that I particularly enjoy is some extensive information on language acquisition that comes from some previous lectures.


His  Could Chomsky be Wrong?  is an interesting mix of multiple links, synopses of others writings, and Mason’s well thought out arguments.  For anyone wanting this often ignored side of the story this is a great place to go.  I particularly enjoyed Geoffrey Sampson’s linked There is no Language Instinct, which can be found on his site.

Research Rehash – Jerome Kagan and Temperament

Whether Jerome Kagan has been pulled or thrown himself full bore into the nature-nurture debate, there is no doubt that his work on babies, children, and the development of temperament has greatly influenced both sides ofuntitled-1-kagan-pic the discussion.  What is in doubt is which side Kagan is on.  His views have both been lauded (a 2002 study published in the Review of General Psychology named Kagan as the 22nd most influential psychologist of the 20th century), and criticized for “blowing in the wind.”   His early work downplayed the significance of early mother-child interaction in lieu of later life experience, which had before Kagan and his contemporaries, been overestimated.  Thus, his initial stance seemed anti-nature.  Later work on the incorrigibility of inborn traits seemed to many to endorse the genetic/nature side.  Specificially, longitudinal studies done by Kagan and colleagues at Harvard have found that of of all infants 20% demonstrate “high reactive” personalities, and of this 20%, roughly two-thirds develop into shy adolescent children.  Lately Kagan has scathingly criticized Judith Rich Harris’s popular dismissal of parental influence on child rearing. 

One main reason for the signficance of Kagan’s work is that it has painted some colorful strokes to the canvass that is reality.  While everyone seems to want Kagan on their side, Kagan has long seemed more interested in discovering the truth.  Perhaps Kagan’s most important contribution is his notion that we seem to inherit a bias toward varied personality dispositions.  Like the personalities of dogs, these biases predispose us toward different temperaments – some dogs are naturally friendly, others are naturally aggressive, and many fall at different points along a continuum between friendliness and aggression.  Especially significant to Kagan’s notion here is that these biases can be overcome.  Under certain environmental influences shy creatures can be “made” more aggressive, while conversely, aggression can be molded into affability.  Our inborn temperaments may make this molding more difficult, but not necessarily impossible.

The implications of this often overlooked point abound.  Research has already strongly suggested that stuttering is the result of a combination of an inclination (or bias) toward stuttering combined with the right environmental factors.  This inclination tugs, but does not guarantee.  Other disorders – such as autism – share many etiological similarities.  Kagan’s descriptions of high-reactive infants may, after further research, prove particularly enlightening to an accepted description of autism’s complex causes.

A good in-depth (albeit somewhat critical) article was published in the Boston Globe in 2004, and can be accessed here.  Much of my information came from a great All in the Mind podcast, which unfortunately is no longer available – although the transcript is here.  An excellent post about Kagan’s recent critique of high rates of psychological diagnosis comes from the Smooth Pebbles blog.

Around the Web – Top Ten New Scientist Brain Articles

brain new scientist relatedNew Scientist Magazine’s web site is now offering all 2008 online articles free – this includes its top ten in-depth articles on the brain.  These include several that are especially pertinant to language and learning, such as…

Does brain training really work?

The brain may be nothing but a (extremely complex) probability estimating machine.

A healthy memory depends on essential and effective forgetting.

What makes genius? – IQ?  Focus?  Language?  Brain symmetry?  This article explores these and other possible contributors to our notions of genius.

Commentary – Underestimating Pragmatics

Is Pragmatic Language Teaching Too Often Ignored?

On some occasion a while back I came across a pragmatic language situation that I thought could be taught in therapy.  Since that occasion the regularity with which new social language situations that would be ripe for therapy has surprised me.  They just keep popping up.  The frequency of these situations varies.  What do you say to a friend who has just lost a loved one?  There are two similar questions on the Pragmatic Judgment subtest of the Comprehensive Assessment of Spoken Language (CASL), though hopefully this situation occurs less frequently in the lives of most people reading this.  I for one have not been good at these kind of situtations, but I’ve tried to identify my inadequacies, observed what others with these skills have said in these situations, and I think, I have improved.

For children who may learn these aptitudes eventually, early learning is both possible and preventative of potential conflict.  What do you say when someone is in your way?  I have not yet seen this question on a test, but people are in my way all the time, just as I find myself often in the way of others.  Nonetheless, it’s astonishing how many children I’ve worked with that don’t know the power of a simple “excuse me,” accompanied with a smile.  Even more astonishing is that despite how easy it is to teach this, how often it goes untaught.  It seems the usual assumption is that it will eventually be learned without direct teaching, implying that we rely on observation and/or learning by trial and error to teach this and many other pragmatic skills.  And because this kind of incidental teaching works for some, pragmatic skills are rarely the targets of teachers and language interventionists.

Consider these other situations:  What do you say when someone shows you pictures of his normal looking children?  What do you say when you still can’t hear a question after its already been repeated?  Or how about when you’re asked how another person looks?  Or how about when someone accidentally insults you?  What should you say, and how should you say it, if you have an honest disagreent with another’s opinion?  Or, …well, believe me, this list can go on and on.  If you have children, it’s possible that you understand how each one of these situations must be individually taught, and also how once taught, it’s probably no longer necessary to work on each individual situation again.  Conversely, consider how frequently kids with impaired language have simply not been taught these things.  And we all know people that are exceptional at knowing what to say at the right time, just as we know others who aren’t.  Was this knowledge surgically infused, or inherited?  Or did they have better role models than most?

Perhaps for starters, we need a list.  An abbreviated one can be found by clicking below.

Continue reading “Commentary – Underestimating Pragmatics”

Recent Research – Expository vs. Conversational Discourse

Marilyn Nippold and J. Bruce Tomblin are the headliners in this group of researchers finding that adolescents produce higher syntactic complexity in expository contexts when compared to conversational contexts.cover  Expository discourse is described by the authors as what “is often required in educational, social, and vocational contexts, as when a high school student is asked to interpret the outcome of an historical event, describe methods to control global warming, or teach others how to perform a chemistry experiment, operate a new cell phone, or prepare a multicourse gourmet dinner. The complexity of these topics suggests that successful explanations require sophisticated language skills and specialized background knowledge.”

Two points justified this study’s conclusion:  1)  There was very little difference between compared SLI (specific language impairment) adolescent groups and adolescent group members with typically developing language when using conversation.  2)  There was a difference between these two groups when comparing measures of expository discourse.

The conclusion:  In adolescents it appears that expository discourse may yield better diagnostic accuracy than more informal conversation when determing the presence of language disorder.  The study was in the November edition of the AJSLP.

A Few Facts About… Negation

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.”

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