The Language Fix

A blog for sharing language and learning information


August 2009

Achievement Based Teaching

Although the title of this post sure looks like a set up for some boring educational acronym, it really describes making learning fun.  More significantly, it describes using fun to teach.  The purpose of the bureaucratic looking title is to please the administrative types that sometimes try to understand why it is often in the best interest of our students to use teaching methods that are actually fun.  I could have called it “Goal Directed Teaching,” or “Learning for a Reason,” or “Why’s Before Whats,” but these other possibilities simply don’t seem to fit as well. 

Achievement oriented instruction is when a teacher provides a goal that requires the student to use a targeted skill to accomplish something.  This is not quite functional teaching, and its almost the opposite of drill.  The goal itself provides the motivation, and for this reason the choice of the goal is critical.  It is perhaps as or more important than any teaching method that may be used.  And this is how achievement oriented instruction most differs from traditional teaching. 

Here are some examples that may best serve to illustrate my overall point:


Traditional Teaching

Achievement Based Teaching

simple addition

teacher instruction/ text book/ worksheets

using jelly beans, pennies, etc. and asking motivating questions, such as “Would you like two more, or six all together?”, etc.

labeling prepositions

discussing prepositions/ worksheets

asking preposition laden questions while playing hide and seek, hidden pictures, Simon Says, etc.

parts of speech

sentence diagrams/ teacher instruction/ worksheets

Mad Lib style activities, separate students into different parts of speech teams and score points when correctly identifying parts of speech, etc.



internet typing games, practice typing labels, letters, etc.

As you can see, the achievement based teaching column contains more possibilities, and an “etc.”  The only limit to one can go in the final column is the teacher’s imagination.  The more creative and varied the activities, the more salient is the learning.  This should not in any way disparage traditional teaching, however.  Another way to put it is that traditional teaching relies on expectations.  In achievement based teaching the learning is elicited.  The student constructs his own expectations, and uses specific targets to achieve these expectations.  Expectations and elicitations are both critical when teaching.

So when an administrator comes in and sees you playing a game with your kids, if you did this kind of teaching, you could say:  “You caught me on my ABT day.  Some days I do drill, some days I do direct instruction, some days worksheets, and about half of the days I do activities specifically designed to elicit my students’ target skills.  It just so happens that fun motivates.”

A Few Facts About… Conjunctions

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.

Explanations Help Teach Language

That’s the gist of a new study by Lizbeth Finestack and Marc Fey from the University of Kansas, published in the August ’09 American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology.  Their study compared 6-8 year olds assigned to either a deductive training group, or an inductive training group.  A computer program was used to teach a specific aspect of an invented alien language.   The deductive training group received explanations, i.e. a brief description of the target.  Both groups were made aware that the alien – “Tiki” – used many of the same words that we use, but this alien language also contained something different.  In this case that was different word endings for male and female verbs.  The kids in the deductive group were told that when it’s a boy you add -po to the end, and when it’s a girl you add -pa to the end.  The kids in the inductive group were just supposed to figure it out on their own, another way of saying they were required to use inductive reasoning.

Finestack and Fey’s results showed that significantly more kids in the deductive group acquired the target.   They concluded by asserting that generally, the most efficacious treatment may be one that combines natural language approaches with explanations.  For those with access, here’s the link.

Nicaraguan Sign Language

Nicaraguan Sign Language – Linguistic Holy Grail?

When, in the 1970’s and 1980’s, increasing amounts of Nicaraguan children without a common language were brought together in special education schools by a new government, one result was the invention of a completely new language.  These children had each been previously using unique forms of homesign or gestures to communicate.  Once brought together (after an initial period when their teachers unsuccessfully attempted to teach the native language), the children became part of a new and growing deaf community located in the capitol city of Managua.  Their newfound socialization necessitated creating a way to communicate; hence, Nicaraguan Sign Language.  The chance to study the formation of a new language in unprecedented ways appeared to many linguists to offer hopes of holy grail proportions.

nicaraguan sign language

Several researchers pounced on this unprecedented opportunity in hopes of finding clues about the formation of all human language.  Judy Kegl, an MIT trained linguist, and Ann Senghas, from Barnard College, were among the first prominent linguists to jump in.  Research on the early users of Nicaraguan Sign Language described some key aspects; the language was concrete, there were primarily only verbs and nouns,  and no complex sentence structure.  This group of early users became known as the “first cohort.”

The number of deaf kids entering the school in Managua increased incrementally each year after the Sandanista Revolution in 1979.  Soon there were hundreds of students with the new students communicating amongst the new and old using this rudimentary sign language.  A transformation occurred in the language after the arrival of this “second cohort” in the early 1980s.  It became quicker, more complex, and included grammatical aspects more like other sign languages than the gestural system used by the first cohort.  A language was born.

One thing has become clear from all of this:  the second cohort, and later incoming children, have generated much of what has become a complex system of communication.  Initially, at least, these aspects were not learned, but created.  Interestingly, studies have shown that earlier learners tend not to use aspects of the language created by later users, and that creations adding grammatical complexity occur only before age 10.  After that age, language advancement seems to occur by adding vocabulary, but not grammar.  Some have seen this as evidence supporting a “critical period” of language development, while others have seen this as supporting an evolutionary model of where language originated.  Research has yet to focus on the critcial reasons why the first cohort continues its use of a simpler language.  Is it that they can’t learn these things, or is that they don’t care to?  Is it that language itself is innate, or rather the desire to socialize coupled with the physical ability to talk, listen, and understand?  It seems certain that whatever else is hard wired into us, people are born with an innate desire to communicate.

Some recent info on this subject can be found here.  Languagehat has a good post hereThis , from the National Science foundation, was also interesting.  This book chapter  from Ann Sengas’ web site has good detailed info.  At the  PBS evolution site you can find a good five minute long video on Nicaraguan Sign Language.

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