Category: Language Teaching

We Are Not (Usually) Teaching Metalinguistics

Something keeps popping up from time to time, which after its most recent occurrence, reminded me of something I can do to improve my own collaboration with teachers regarding my language teaching.  I was told something like this again:  “I don’t think (the student) is ready to learn prepositions.  We’re just working on what nouns and verbs are, and even that’s difficult for a lot of the kids.”

Many professionals do not understand that when we are teaching a language skill, such as prepositions, we are not teaching metalinguistic skills.  We are not working on knowing the different parts of speech.  Many teachers, as well as parents, think that our goals toward specific deficits are that we are teaching kids to understand what prepositions are, for this example, and not as is actually the case, using prepositions as a grouping for kids that have difficulty with specific types of words that their peers normally don’t have.  I don’t know how many times I’ve had to explain that I am not teaching a child what prepositions are, or what pronouns or adjectives are, but rather I’m teaching them to be able to use and understand these groups of words as well as their peers can.  But, this is something I need to improve.  Too often, I’ve just assumed they know this, when I should instead be assuming that they don’t.

So, my plan is that in the future whenever I mention to anyone what specific language skill a specific child is working on, I will try to automatically include that we are working on things such as following directions with the target and using the target in conversation.  I will try to include examples.  And although I may include a bit about how it may be helpful to explain to the student what these types of words do, that is not the goal.

Using the example of prepositions again, I’m thinking it will sound a little something like this:  “We’ll be working on prepositions, such as inonabove, and below.  Although we may try to increase his understanding that we’re working on ‘where words,’ I will not be working on him knowing what these words are.  Rather, I will target the specific words themselves which he has particular difficulty using in his conversation and understanding when others are talking and giving directions.”

Maybe this is another one of those cases in which a little bit of extra work now can not only benefit the kids and teachers, but also save me from doing more work in the future.

Language Research – Making Research Relevant

A common gripe for a long time with research of language disorders is that much of it has often been irrelevant to the actual teaching of language.  And by often, I mean nearly always.  A lot of the research seems geared toward one isolated characteristic of one subset of one small segment of people, and only to that particular population.  The similarity of the following fake titles to actual titles may help demonstrate my point…

– “Toward Understanding Morphologic Tendencies in Left Handed Nicaraguan Preschoolers.”    or

– “Past Tense Comprehension in Bilingual Adopted Children; A Conceptual Framework.”

It just has long seemed that these are the sorts of research titles that usually exist in the most commonly read sources of language research.  And that’s when these journals even decide to address language at all, which has long seemed to be much less common then research addressing say, hearing, or voice, or stuttering.  And this is too bad.  Because there are many, many language related questions out there that can be addressed scientifically that would actually be useful in teaching language.  So what might these “practical” studies look like?  Here are some ideas I’ve had.

Question:  Do twins often have one member with more language deficits than the other?

Implication:  This often seems to be the case.  Anecdotally, it seems as though one twin often speaks for the other, almost creating deficits in the less talkative twin.  If the research would support this hypothesis, then we could prepare for this with extra early intervention, and assistance for twin parents.

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Targeting Specific Structures in Reading

Earlier, I was tutoring some speech kids working on reading. I just happened to have some comprehension flash cards targeting comprehension – oral or reading – of specific targets. These kids needed help with reading more than oral language, and so because I don’t have a lot of materials targeting reading, I decided to use the cards. One deck had about 12 cards with negative contractions (can’t, aren’t, isn’t, etc.), and the other deck had regular plurals.
Bottom line – this activity rocked. The kids missed the first couple. I told them to focus on “those tricky word endings,” (you know the kind that so many speech and language kids miss in oral language), and after struggling with the next few cards, by the end, they were getting it with no problems. They’d improved right then and there.
That got me thinking. These kids didn’t have deficits with plurals and contractions in oral language. But they did in reading. And I bet they did in writing too. They used to have these kind of errors in oral language, and we know from the research that young kids with speech and language deficits often turn into kids with reading deficits. I’ve never seen anybody targeting specific language structures like these in reading, but I’m pretty sure it would be a good idea.

What’s Wrong With Our Goals for Following Directions? (.)

Goals for following directions are commonly seen in Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) of language disordered kids.  Anecdotally speaking, they’re probably the most common language goal.   Most of them tend to have some serious problems though, which perhaps we can illuminate from a quick analysis of one or two examples.  And there’s one thing that’s really conspicuous by its absence.  We’ll see if we can use these examples to figure it out.

Example 1:  “Paul will follow two step directions in the classroom for three consecutive days.”   What’s wrong with this?  Plenty, actually, but one thing especially.  Let’s say that for three straight days Paul is handed some trash, and after receiving the directions, “Paul, take this to the trash can and throw it away,” he does it.  Goal achieved, right?  There’s two steps and three days in the classroom, after all.

Symbol of my example, or of these goals?
Symbolic picture

But what if Paul is twelve years old?  What if Paul has been throwing away trash like this for years?  Maybe he has done it so often, he knows what to do merely by giving him trash.  He may not have even been listening to the directions.  In this case, Paul has not been taught, nor has he accomplished anything that he wasn’t already able to do, despite having “achieved his goal.”   The goal did not include something measurable that he wasn’t already able to do.  And there still is that one thing that’s seriously missing.

Example 2:  Mary will follow multi-step directions in the classroom or wherever at some percentage.  Okay, this admittedly is a softball example, but it’s one I’ve seen plenty.  What’s wrong?  It’s not specific enough.  I’m assuming it means more than two, but it doesn’t really say.  Again too we run across the difficulty of the fact that no two directions tend to be equal in difficulty.  “Get the ball and give it to me!” and “Please walk to the board and write the answer below the date,” are both notably two step directions.  But they’re vastly different in difficulty.  Which leads us to the one biggie that’s missing in these goals, and almost all following directions goals that I’ve ever seen.  It’s the language itself.

Continue reading “What’s Wrong With Our Goals for Following Directions? (.)”