The Language Fix

A blog for sharing language and learning information


January 2009

Following Directions

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,


Around The Web – Language in the News

This link courtesy of USA Today – 1 in 7 adults in America can’t read material more challenging than a children’s picture book.  adults-cant-read-photWhile some states, such as Mississippi actually made gains since the last similar federal study from 1992, many larger states saw increases in illiteracy.  Undiagnosed learning disabilities, immigration, and high school dropout rates are listed as the main culprits.

Time Magazine reviews two related books here.  One book, by Hanna Holmes, details the many ways that humans are really just animals with fancier language skills.  While Holmes attempts to describe humans using language normally reserved for animals, Temple Grandin does just the opposite.   Grandin, a skilled author noted for her autistic background, describes animals using language normally reserved for humans.  Both books seem interesting; the article itself is a good read.

The New York Times, and New York Times Magazine have hosted a couple of pieces by Steven Pinker in the last few weeks – one on how Chief Justice Roberts’ gaffe in administering the oath of office occurred precisely because Roberts is such a stickler for proper grammar.  His mistake of accidentally attempting to correct the Constitution illustrates the potential dangers of nitpicking language.  In the other, Pinker entertainingly digresses concerning the likely influence of genetics over our personalities.  Usually these influences are more probabilistic rather than deterministic.

Study Shows Language Driven by Culture, Not Biology

I like learning new things that may have future relevance.  That’s why this story from Science Daily especially appealed to me.  It taught me about the Baldwin Effect, an effect relevant enough to have over 9 million Google search results, and a Wikipedia entry, yet something I’d never heard of.  Essentially, the Baldwin Effect can be a sort of an evolutionary short cut from learning to instinct.  Animals that have a predisposition to learning anything (like language) that enhances its survivability can turn that anything into an instinct under lengthy continuous circumstances.  The study authors conclude that a “universal grammar” must have arisen by societal impetus that predates the relatively recent divergence of language over the last 100,000 years.

I personally believe the univeral grammar is an invention that describes a phenomenon that occurs because of universal human needs.  Because (nearly) all humans need to describe things that have happened, we get past tense, for instance.  There are guys and gals in all human cultures, and they all possess things, so we get possessive pronouns.  What linguistic construct exists that has been used as support for universal grammar, and is useful to one group of humans, but not another?  Let me know if you come up with one.

Early Reading Deficits Most Affected by Language Deficits

According to a study published in the December 2008 Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, children in second grade with language impairments have a pronounced delay in word recognition and reading comprehension that remains delayed through tenth grade.  This delay, however, only widens slightly for reading comprehension, and does not widen at all for word recognition.

The study, by Hugh Catts, Mindy Sittner Bridges, Todd Little, and J. Bruce Tomblin, compared the development of over 600 kids with language impairment and normal language over a nine grade span.  The authors stressed that while the delays did not worsen or worsen much over this time, they did not get smaller either.  This lends strength to the assumption that early language impairment is an excellent indicater of later reading disability.

Implications?  More screening early on, and also more in-depth screening.  In addition to looking at phonological awareness and letter knowledge, early screening would be most effective if it also looked at vocabulary, grammar, and narration abilities.

children reading and using language

A Few Facts About… Selective Mutism

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 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, “the majority of SM children do not overcome SM.”  In an interview here at, 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.

Around the Web – The Child Language Research Center

I’ve recently rediscovered The University of Iowa’s online Child Language Research Center, which has some interesting material, much of it related to their work on Specific Language Impairment (SLI).  By clicking one of the following two links, you will be directed to the most informative areas of the site – 1) stats tutorials, published articles, and posters 2) newer posters and powerpoints, especially concerning their expansive longitudinal SLI study.  These guys have studied SLI and relationships among factors from reading, smoking, autism, comprehension, phonology and much more – some of which can be accessed at their site.  As a language diagnostician I especially enjoy the sliding scale exercise that challenges my assumptions regarding what should be considered a language impairment.

Snapshot of interactive sliding scale
Snapshot of interactive SLI tutorial

Great Post re: Gifted Ed

Tamara Fisher’s blog for Teacher Magazine includes this clipboard01post detailing several reasons why the needs of gifted students aren’t often being met in today’s classrooms.  Not only do gifted children have to overcome lacks of awareness and teacher training, but also many excuses from teachers about why not to teach the gifted.  Included are “I don’t have enough time to teach students already at their benchmarks,” and “Identifying some children as gifted makes the other children feel bad.”  Fisher tackles a wide variety of moral and rational issues surrounding the gifted at her blog titled, Unwrapping the Gifted.  Fisher does a really good job of showing (and reminding) that today’s teaching far too often tries to funnel people on both ends of the learning difference spectrum into some socially acceptable middle.  Even though most teachers are well aware of the need to challenge learners individually, the reality of today’s classroom makes this particularly difficult for advanced learners.

3 Interesting Articles from PsychCentral

I was about to link this article (1)  when I noticed this one (2), and then this one (3) too, that caught my attention.  Here are short summaries of each:

1)  Older Parents, Birth Order Linked to Autism– This, from the U. of Wisconsin,  is claimed to be the largest study ever to look into autism correlations.  In short, older parents and/or earlier birth order = greater chance of autism.  While the “complex combinations of multiple causes” are up to their usual shenanigans, waiting longer to have children does appear to slightly increase one’s odds for autism.

2)  Facial Expressions are Innate, Not Learned – Researchers from San Francisco State found that both blind and sighted athletes demonstrate similar facial expressions after winning or losing competitions.  Social smiles after winning and lip pursing after losing were found to be similar regardless of sight, prompting the conclusion that these are well developed instincts that trace back long through evolution.

3)  Mother’s Care Influences ADHD Diagnosis– The results of this study imply “that the diagnoses and health care utilization that a mother receives prior to having her child is predictive of having a child who is diagnosed with ADHD.”  Those mothers who more often seek other forms of health care are more likely to seek (and get) ADHD diagnoses for their children.  Hey, they said it, not me.

More Research Implicates Broca’s Area in Language Production

Rice psychologist identifies area of brain key to choosing words in this link.

Specifically, The researchers found that while two parts of the brain, the LIFG and the left temporal cortex, respond to increased conflict among words competing for selection during speech, only the LIFG is necessary to resolve the competition for successful word production. The LIFG includes Broca’s area, named after the 19th-century French scientist Paul Pierre Broca. It is responsible for aspects of speech production, language processing and language comprehension.

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