The Language Fix

A blog for sharing language and learning information


A Few Facts About…


Should Batman kill the Joker? While there is no objectively definitive answer, like there is say for “What is the capital of Australia?” the two main possibilities just so happen to be the two main opposing forms of moral philosophy: utilitarianism vs. deontology.

  • Utilitarianism advocates judging actions by their consequences. The consequences of killing the Joker would be to save the lives of everyone the Joker will kill in the future.
  • Utilitarianism contrasts with deontological ethical systems, such as Kant’s and Christian ethics, in that in those systems, certain duties apply regarding how we should act, regardless of the consequences of our actions. In this theory, no one should kill people ever, not even the Joker. (Note that even in deontological systems, rules can, and are often bent, such as the Christian prescription not to kill ever; well, except in cases of perceived self defense and war.)
  • There are two types of utilitarianism – act and rule. Act utilitarianism specifies that we should do actions with the best consequences, and rule utilitarianism specifies that we should adhere to rules that will lead us to the best consequences.
  • Act utilitarianism is basically the old-school form, that because it ran into problems in specific instances, came to be replaced in popularity by rule utilitarianism. For example, if you’re selling a lemon of a car because you need the money, act utilitarianism might prescribe that it’s okay if you need the money more than the person to whom the car is being sold, while under rule utilitarianism nobody would want to live in a world in which only car salesmen get to make these decisions.
  • Rule utilitarianism has the practical benefit that you don’t have to perform a complicated calculation every time you make a moral decision. For tricky moral situations, you simply ask yourself, “Would most people want to live in a world in which most people did this action in this situation?” And, one can’t take a single action, and ask if it is right or wrong, without taking the context into account.
  • Philosophy, in it’s seemingly perpetual mission to confuse, often uses the terms “utilitarianism” and “consequentialism” interchangeably.
  • One way of arguing for rule utilitarianism starts from a commitment to consequentialist assessment, and then argues that assessing acts indirectly, e.g. by focusing on the consequences of communal acceptance of decisions, will in fact produce better consequences than assessing acts directly in terms of their own consequences.

So, you can have rules, such as “don’t physically attack others,” “don’t steal,” “don’t break promises,” and “be generally helpful to others,” with the acknowledgment that sometimes in life’s myriads of situations, there will be times when the rules must be made

batman 2
The Joker would root for Batman to be deontological instead of utilitarian

more specific. Almost everyone all of the time can live under the rule “don’t kill,” just fine. But just in case you’re ever given superhero powers, and the realization that you can stop a lot of future evil by breaking this rule just this once, under rule utilitarianism, you can make your decision by asking yourself, “Do most people want to live in a world in which Batmans let Jokers live?”


The Ad Hominem Fallacy

Ad Hominem means “against the person.” It is an attack on an aspect of someone rather than on the argument of that person. These often emotional attacks are usually against the character, background, or belief of a person.


  • Oh, so your statistic shows that plumbers are successful 95% of the time? That’s obviously false because you got that from The Plumber’s Digest magazine.
  • The only reason that he thinks that Republicans are against the government is because he’s a Democrat.
  • Kid talking to teacher: “You just want me to do my homework because you’re a teacher.”
  • Susan thinks that George Washington could not have owned slaves, because Wikipedia says he did, and she thinks that Wikipedia is biased.
  • A son speaking to his mother: “Of course you want me to stay out of the street. You’re my mother, and mothers always want their kids to stay out of the street.”

Sometimes a person’s background or belief is actually relevant to the argument. The difference is that ad hominem fallacies are often emotional attacks, or claim a causal relationship when one doesn’t exist.

Examples when background is relevant: A reporter says to a lawyer, “You’re only arguing that your client is innocent, because you’ve been hired to be his lawyer.” The lawyer responds, “Well, that is my job.”

Farmer speaking to friend from the city: “You don’t know what it’s like to raise cattle. You’ve lived in the city your whole life. (It is a valid point that if he’s lived in the city, he probably hasn’t raised cattle.)

Examples of attacks or when background is not relevant: A reporter says to a lawyer, “You think that your client should go free because you’re nothing but a sneaky lawyer.”

Farmer speaking to friend from the city: “How could you possibly like the show, Hee Haw, when you’ve lived in the city your whole life?” The city friend replies, “They air Hee Haw in the city, and I’ve never missed an episode.”


The Fallacy of Cherry-picking

Cherry-picking is a logical fallacy that occurs when there is more than one important part to an argument, and a person intentionally omits the part or parts that do not support the person’s preferred conclusion – picking the parts that do support the preferred conclusion.

Cherry-picking is also called the fallacy of incomplete evidence. It can be informally called, “suppressing evidence.”

Sometimes we cherry-pick evidence to no one but ourselves. This is called confirmation bias, and it happens when we first form a conclusion, and then pay attention to arguments and evidence that support the conclusion we want to be true, while ignoring any evidence against.


The coach said, “Mary, you’ll be a great help to this team by staying at home.” Mary told her mother, “The coach said I’ll be a great help to this team!”

Joe’s puppy barks at all people except Joe. When Joe tries to sell his puppy, the possible buyer asks if the puppy likes people. Joe says, “He loves people. He licks me all the time.”

Calvin tried out a new diet. He lost ten pounds, and then gained nine. He tells everyone, “That diet was great, because I lost ten pounds!”

Mahatma said, “Freedom is not worth having if it does not include the freedom to make mistakes.” Stanley, his political opponent says, “See! Mahatma said that freedom is not even worth having.”

Often, when only one or two examples is given as evidence, the speaker is cherry-picking. An exception would be when there are only one or two possible examples.

Cherry-picking:  Mary’s new friend says that Mary eats ice cream all the time because she has seen Mary eat ice cream the past two days. (She doesn’t know what Mary’s ice cream eating habits were before that. Maybe Mary just bought some ice cream for the first time in a long time.)

Not cherry-picking:  Mary’s friend says that Mary must really like red cars because her last two cars have been red. (This would not be cherry-picking if Mary has only owned two cars, but it would be cherry-picking if Mary has owned many non-red cars in the past.)

More cherry-picking info can be found by following this linkthis link, or this link.

Bloom’s Taxonomy – Influences and Implications

Bloom's Taxonomy has been often represented by shapes - such as the triangle and the circle.
Bloom’s Taxonomy has been often represented by shapes – such as the triangle and the circle.

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.

For more in depth information, check out this from Intel.  Or this from Bloom’s hometown paper.

Teaching Functions

functions pic for blog
Here’s one way to practice identifying functions.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone specifically teach functions.  Well, maybe, but definitely it seems rare.  Which is a shame, because functions are huge in expressive language and semantics specifically.  If you want someone to be better at describing, one of the best things you can do is teach functions.  And if you want somebody to be better at expressive language, one of the best things you can do is to work on improving describing.  Just a little contemplation can reveal just how common functions are in describing.  Filling in the blank in “What’s a _______?” for so many things requires a function for the answer.

What’s a refrigerator?  It’s an appliance (category) that keeps food cold (function).

What’s a ruler?  It’s something that measures length (function).

What are quotation marks?  They’re a type of punctuation (category) that shows that somebody is saying something (function).

Come to think of it, maybe I need to do a blog post about how we should teach categories more too.  Anyway, assessing for deficits in using functions are common in tests and screens such as the DIAL, the CELF, and the PLS tests, so it’s easy to figure out if a kid has difficulties in this area.  Someday good language therapy will include teaching functions to kids we’ve identified as having function using deficits.  Hopefully that day won’t be too far away.

Some Myths of Vocabulary Learning

These vocabulary learning myths were from a Missouri Speech-Language and Hearing Association presentation this past spring by Shirley Patterson and Eva Trumbower.  I think the first two myths are especially notable.

Incidental Teaching and Interrupted Behavior Chains

Incidental Teaching – Incidental teaching overlaps or is often used interchangeably with manipulating the environment, naturalistic teaching, communication temptation, and milieu teaching.  It uses changing the environment, or changing the routine, to encourage initiation.

examples:  wear a hat, put the trash can on the table, instead of giving a pencil for a writing assignment give a ruler, walk past an intended door


Interrupted Behavior Chain – This is a type of communication sabotage, or incidental teaching.  A specific routine is identified that the child knows well, and one step is intentionally omitted – intended to elicit protests or requests.

example: child is taught to prepare her own breakfast by getting milk, cereal, spoon, as well as the steps involved – one day one step is “sabotaged,” for example the adult may place the box of cereal out of child’s reach

Expansion and Extension

Expansion and extension are two of the main types of conversational recasting.  Recasting, which is sometimes called, “responsive modeling,” is used to describe a larger category of techniques used to add or correct a child’s utterance without interrupting the flow of conversation.  Imitation and targeted questions are other types of recasting.

Expansion – Expansion takes what the child says, and adds grammar and semantics to turn into a comparable adult utterance.  The point is to keep the communication flow going smoothly, while not making the child realize that he is being corrected.

example: The child’s “doggy house” may be repeated as,”That is the dog’s house.”

Extension – Extension takes what the child says and adds information.  Extension is typically used in conjunction with expansions.

example: The child’s “doggy house,” may be repeated by caregiver as, “That is the dog’s house. He is a large dog.”  

Expansion and extension are extensively confused.  It helps for me to think of when a balloon expands, it stays the same.  It does not add information or substance as would, say, an extension on a deadline.

Piaget’s Constructivism

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.

Visual of assimilation - accommodation cabinet
Visual of assimilation – accommodation cabinet

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 hereThis, also is kind of cool.

A Few Facts About…Second Language Acquisition

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 (I mean actual language disorders where the language deficits occur in similar dimensions across all languages), 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.

Sphere Flags Clip Art

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

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.

Continue reading “Cognitive Referencing”

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.

Blog at

Up ↑