Archive for the 'Education' Category

12
Apr
12

Attention Disorders and Dumb Mistakes

Most people think of Attention Disorder as a deficit in one’s ability to listen, to concentrate on the details of what is going on. These symptoms refer to an individual’s failures to follow directions and focus on what is being said to them. Of course other symptoms are observed (restlessness, impulsivity). But listening problems are frequently cited as major features of an attention disorder. In fact, however, these problems characterize only half the pitfalls engendered by an attention disorder; they describe only the “input”or “receptive” impairments of this disorder.

But an Attention Disorder also compromises the functions of a rather different set of mental actions. These functions control output behavior, what one DOES in response to some stimulus. Defects in this “output regulation ” system occasion repeated experiences of defeat and self-contempt as I will explain next.

Imagine that I ask you  how you to spell the word “RECEIVE”.

What you have to do is generate some sort of VISUAL image ( mental representation) of this target word. We will call this your “intended spelling”.  Let’s say your image is correct, that you  generate the image “RECEIVE“.

Now, to spell this, you convert this mental image to a series of strokes on paper that correspond to the series of image segments in your mind. It is crucial for you to recognize that you must “hold” these image segments in your “mind’s eye” until you have  executed them on paper because you want to ensure that what you intended to write and what you actually write correspond exactly. Provided all goes as planned, you will find that you have written R-E-C-E-I-V-E correctly.

We can also say that your intended action and your actualization of that intention are congruent; you did what you intended to do.  Simple enough if you’re a good speller. **

But now, imagine that you have to spell the word ORALLY.  This is quite a different matter. First, of course, you generate the VISUAL image of “RECEIVE”.  But unlike writing it, you now must hold all the segments of that image in some temporary storage system UNTIL you’ve named all  the letters of “RECEIVE”.  The reason you have to do this is that you have to have a way of confirming the fact that what you INTENDED to spell (the image) and what you actually spelled (the names of the letters in that image) are the same. For example, if you SAY ” are – ee -see – ay – ee – vee -ee” (receive), you may spontaneously CORRECT your oral version because you detect a mismatch between your intended  utterances (naming the letters in your mental image) and your actual utterances (naming the letters aloud).

Now these intended utterances are registered and maintained in a memory system designed to hold representations of things you INTEND to do. So, this system is called PROSPECTIVE MEMORY.  This memory system is responsible for storing actions we are going to take in the FUTURE.  And people vary in the extent to which they can hold intentions reliably in this system.

Folks with lousy prospective memories are constantly forgetting bits and pieces of what they WANT to do.  Or they’ll get the pieces out of order.  Or they’ll substitute one segment with another unintended segment.  Quite involuntarily and below the level of conscious awareness, they execute all sorts of DUMB mistakes that they neither intend nor notice. These glitches occur in fractions of seconds.  Many’s the person I’ve asked to spell words out loud that they had just finished spelling correctly on paper.  But if they have Attention Disorders, they’ll invariably produce an incorrect ORAL spelling of a word they just spelled correctly on paper!  And not even know it!  They’ll leave segments out, duplicate them, even add letters that aren’t even in the correct spelling. The reason?  Because even as they’re spelling the word out loud, this or that letter in prospective memories is, in a few milliseconds, corrupted in some way.  But since the only “record” they have of their intended spelling exists in Prospective Memory and since that record is already being rapidly compromised, their attempts to compare their intention (the image in prospective memory) with what they’re actually saying meet with failure because that intended image or its parts have too quickly decayed.

Notice that in written spelling, the letters are made concrete, tangible, permanent and so the segments of the intention and actual representation can be compared and confirmed (or disconfirmed).  No such luxury exists for the oral speller.  He or she is left with nothing but a very fragile, rapidly deteriorating  mental image to go on.  And a set of equally evanescent spoken words that come and go in milliseconds. . . as soon as each is pronounced, it disappears. Without a reliable way of confirming that what you intend to do and what you subsequently do are perfect matches, you open yourself to all sorts of dumb mistakes.

We all have had moments when we say, “Oh, I forgot what I was going to say!”. We’ve all gone into a room to fetch something and “forgotten” what we went there for. We’ve all dialed wrong numbers and don’t know that we’ve done so until the WRONG person picks up. Then we mumble an apology and check and redial. These all are manifestations of Prospective Memory failures. They are inconveniences for most of us..  But for those with Attentions Disorders, these failures become ever-humiliating and embarrassing, relentlessly recurring indices of incompetence, “carelessness” and a poor attitude.  And they engender peculiar, sometimes scary feelings of helplessness.

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**It is of interest to note that spelling a word “backward” makes you quite conscious of this “output memory” system by becoming more aware of the stress on this system and your need to maintain deliberately in this system your intended spelling, intact for a much longer period.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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21
Mar
12

Correct English

When I taught English in a community college some years ago, my student were mostly young, black folks who spoke in the dialect of their culture.  I was genuinely fascinated by the complexity of the dialect’s grammar, pronunciation and syntax rules as well as the intricate vocabulary that was invariably referenced as “slang”.  In polite (now called PC) company, it was called “non-standard English”.

At the beginning of every semester, the issue of “correct” English came up, whether it had to do with word pronunciation or grammar.  Nearly all my students considered their own speech incorrect, something to be vaguely ashamed about. I loathed this self-derogation, this disdain for or shame about their own speech patterns.

So I’d ask the students to give me some slang terms for money. “Chump change”, “knots”, “jits”,  “bread” and the like were offered. Then, I took each term and made up sentences using them.   And I asked the classes to tell me whether the sentence was right or wrong (for example, “His chump changes were small”.).

It was not long before we’d amassed many judgments about a sentence’s rightness or wrongness.  I then proceeded to ask them how they knew right from wrong sentences and why. To neither question could any student give a convincing response, except the vague, “It just sounds stupid, funny, etc.“.  Soon it became clear to them that the determinants of  “correct” and “incorrect” English was a judgment call, a reflection of social preferences. But I did make it clear that whether dialect or “standard”, speech forms were driven by rules (for example, “chump change” is NEVER plural; it’s a MASS noun, like milk or sand.)

Then I’d turn attention to “correct” pronunciation and ask, “What makes the pronunciation “bref” wrong and “breath” right.  After a bit, someone ultimately said,  “Bref’ isn’t in the dictionary.”  To this , I would ask, “What makes the dictionary right?”.  To this they had no answer.

I’d then take time to explain how dictionary makers sample the speech of many different speakers, then calculate the frequencies of different pronunciations (what most people said).  But there were just too many cases when NO pronunciation was most frequent.  So, the dictionary folks focused on the pronunciations of nationally known and respected speakers, Presidents, actors, TV personalities, professors, etc.  But they found that even within this group, pronunciations varied widely.  New Englanders said “Cuber” (Cuba), Georgians said “Nauf Kalina”, New Yorkers said, “aftuh” and on and on.

Ultimately, the question “What makes the dictionary pronunciation ‘right’ ? ” could only be answered with something like, “Because the dictionary says so!”  In the end, I’d point out to the classes that what was in the dictionary were “prestige” pronunciations, those used by people of influence, wealth and power. They were neither right nor better.  In fact, I’d add, they’d be dead wrong in contexts in which a dialect was spoken. I’d ask, “So what would happen if tonight you sat at the kitchen table with your families and started saying things like, “Hwen (with an initial /h/ sound) was the “wahter”  (to rhyme with “hotter”)  turned (not “turnt”) off?”.  And universally they’d laugh and say something like, “My mom ‘d  think I’d gone nuts!”

And when I asked what would happen if they continued to speak “correctly”, the unanimously agreed that “I’d have no social life, no friends and a very disappointed and insulted family”.

So they came to understand that all language forms have equal legitimacy, that these forms vary as social circumstances vary and that the truly correct speaker . . . . and educated. . . . is one who knows as many of those forms as possible.   And I added that as speakers of both so-called “standard” and “non-standard” dialects, they could move in circles that those who only knew standard forms could never do.

16
Mar
12

A liddle mistake means a lot

To be a good diagnostician, you have to attend to what a person does wrong.  What one does correctly is largely uninformative. And as  I’ve said elsewhere , scores are even less informative.

Jill scores at the 35th percentile on a standardized spelling test. That’s “average”; that’s about all we can say. We inspect her actual spelling work and see that she spelled train, bridge and receive correctly. So what have we learned? Not much, except it’s nice she can spell bridge.

But we also notice that she spelled little as “liddle“.  Now here’s something to think about, something that gives a clue as to why Jill’s teachers complain that she doesn’t know her phonics.  And how wrong they are when they say this!

Why , then, did Jill spell little as liddle? First off, NOBODY pronounces little with a /t/ sound. You can try to, but you’ll sound like you have a speech impairment. Secondly, NOBODY pronounces TWO /t/ sounds. If you do, you’ll be identified as a stutterer. As a matter of fact, no one ever says any “double” consonants. Even when the same consonant appears at the end of one word and the beginning of the next, you only pronounce the first one. Try saying “great taste” by saying one of the t’s immediately followed by another.  Makes you sound like a non-native speaker, one who hasn’t really mastered English.

Why our spelling system has rules for “doubing consonants” seems quite pointless then, if we never really say them both. But there are reasons, ones we “know” rather unconsciously, ones that have help reveal both the “phonetic” and “nonphonetic” basis to that system.

We can learn aout this from Jill . We can advance the following theories about her and this rather schizoid spelling system.

1.  Jill is quite aware of the sounds of English; she clearly noted the /d/ sound in the word little.

2.  Jill knows that when a consonant sound follows a short vowel,  short “i” for example as in hit, the consonant letters representing that consonant sound are doubled (compare later and latter). So she knows the rule for consonant doubling is based on this “diacritic” function of some spelling patterns, i.e. that double letters indicate the vowel preceding those letters is “short”. She also recognizes the “phonetic” rule that “t” stands for the sound /t/….except sometimes??

3.  Being a keen discriminator of sounds and knowledgeable about spelling rules, Jill spells the word “middle” in one of her home assignments as “mittle”.  Here she is “hypercorrecting”. That is, she is applying a rule that should NOT be applied. She’s saying to herself, “Aha!  I hear a /d/ sound in middle just as I do in little, so I’ll spell middle with two “t” s just as I did with little.  I also will use two letters because the first vowel in middle is short.”

4.  Jill will learn to be careful with words like ” liter” and “feeder” because the / d/ sound follows a long vowel. (i.e. they both are pronounced /leeder/). She might then spell liter as lider, knowing that double consonants never follow a long vowel. But she may be confused for awhile until she memorizes those sorts of words where a long vowel comes before a /d/ or / t/ sound.

What  we can recommend for Jill is instruction that makes her conscious of the fact that a double letter has a diacritic function (marking the preceding vowel as “short) AND a phonetic function (i.e. that it also represents a sound). We will NOT recommend phonics. She already discriminates sounds just fine. And we’ll teach her how to memorize the visual features of words.

Finally, we’ll appreciate how much a people can know about something when we examine what they seem not to know.

28
Feb
12

?isht daer uoy naC

So often, what we think is true and what turns out to be true are vastly different.  In fact, they’re sometimes contradictory.

Consider the “fact” that reading involves left to right decoding of letters into sounds.  In most cases, this is impossible, especially if you want to read aloud.

As an illustration, I ask you to consider the following:

First, I will tell you a word I’m thinking of that has 9 letters: _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _.  It begins with “u”: u _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

Now, if reading proceeds left to right, you should be able to say right away what sound this first “u” represents.  But you can’t, not yet.  It could be yoo or it could be uh.

Let me add another letter’ ” n”:    un _ _ _ _ _ _ _ What sound should the “u” represent?  Remember, if you read left to right, you should be able to tell for sure by now.  But doubts might linger.

I’ll add another letter, “a”:  una_ _ _ _ _ _. You’re probably pretty sure it represents the “yoo” sound.  Don’t bet on it.

But wait!  I’ll add another letter, “n”: unan_ _ _ _ _.  Sure now? Let me add another, an “i”:  unani_ _ _ _.

Now you’ve “decoded” five letters from the left. Your guess as to what the “u” stands for could still be wrong.   Add a 6th letter, “m”: unanim _ _ _ . The value of “u” is still indeterminate.

Not until you get to the 7th letter can you tell for sure what the “u” represents. That 7th letter is “o”:  unanimo _ _ and the word is “unanimous” and the “u” represents the sound yoo, as in “unit” yoo-nit (compare the first sound in the word “until”).  The other word you may have been thinking of was “unanimated” in which “u” represents “uh“.

Let me be very clear on this: IF you truly did “decode” the word “unanimous” in left to right order, you’d have to revise your pronunciation of the first letter several times, a very Inefficient system for sure.

The fact is that most of the time we have to look FIRST at the END of word before we read it aloud.  Compare: “rat – rate” where the FINAL “e” reminds you to pronounce the “a” as a “long a”.  Indeed, you can’t say what an initial letter “a”  in ANY word represents until you look at what’s farther along to the right of the “a”.

So it looks like “Phonics” rules are based on fantasies.  A child cannot look at words one by one in left to right order.  He’d take forever to read sentences.  Even a simple 4-letter form like “c _  _ _would be problematic:  Is initial  “c” a /k/ as in “cats” or  an /s/ as in ” cent”?

Learning to read is a marvelously mysterious activity;  research has not explained how ANYBODY learns to turn written symbols into speech sounds.  But being cognizant of what isn’t involved in reading liberates us and our children from needlessly taxing and frustrating “lessons”.

I think Phonics helps, especially with consonant sounds. But its limitations are very real.

I remember way back when I was helping a Dyslexic 9-year-old read.  He got to the word “enough” .  He inhaled deeply, squeezed his hands into fists and started “sounding out” the word letter-by-letter, right to left. By the time he’ d gotten to the letter “u”, he was gasping, nearly strangling. When he got to the “h”, he had said : /ee nih ah uh guh huh/.

I remember he sort of sighed, looked up at me hopefully and seemed to be saying to himself, “What was THAT?;  I’ve NEVER heard that word before.  I sure hope he doesn’t ask me to repeat it.”  I didn’t.  I muttered something about it being an exception . . . which didn’t do him much good after such a Herculean effort to string together 6 sounds he’d never encounter except . . . maybe . . . in the Hawaiian language.

 

24
Feb
12

You Can’t Learn Language by Imitation: The Case of “a”, “an” , “the” and “some”

For children with Language Learning  Disorders, the process of acquiring  skills is in part the very intricacy of language. In order for you have to appreciate their struggles, you have to be aware of the stunning nature of this intricacy. Indeed, the subtleties of language are such that one wonders how anyone can acquire any language, especially since so little of it is taught in any but the most tangential ways. Yet you did acquire these subtleties. And what helps a lot, what you must also apprecitate is the orderliness of the rules of language. For in the end, it is these rules that must be learned, not so much the individual sounds and words. For it is in trying to learn these rules that children with Langauge Learning Disorders  become so frustrated and defeated.

Of the most elementary yet intricate of linguistic forms the most common are called “Articles” (a, an, some and the) . They are  governed by a set of rules defining their uses in sentences. These rules, about which we are almost wholly unconscious, define which utterances are legitimate and which are not.

For example, you can say 1)”I’ll have a soda“. But you can’t ordinarily say 2) “I’ll have a gravy”.  So, what’s the difference?  The article “a” is followed by a noun in each case. So why can you say   #1 but not #2?  How can you assert with such authority that #1 is “right” and #2 is “wrong”? And  who taught you?

First, you have to be aware of the fact that most nouns can be divided into two great categories. The first set includes nouns like antelope, urchin, cat and highway.  This category is huge, and its members are called “Count” nouns.  They refer to separable, individual units and so  they can  be “counted”.  Logically,  they can be pluralized (antelopeS, catS, urchinS)

The second set includes nouns like gravy, sand, flour, meat and dust among  many others. These are called “Mass” nouns. They do not refer to an individual entity but more to an undifferentiated “mass”.  Generally they cannot be pluralized (flourS or sandS).

In general, a, an, the or some can be used with count nouns (the cat, an urchin). With mass nouns, only the or some can normally be used (the gravy, some sand).

However, a or an may be used before a mass noun if the item referenced by the article is construed as a separate or self-contained entity.  For example, in “I’ll have a milk” the “a” is legitimate if  that milk is in a container of some sort. “A sand” is also legitimate if you are referring to a specific sort of sand. e.g. “A good sand for building castles can be found on the beach”.

Mass nouns are flexible.  Variations abound.  If, for instance, you go into a diner for breakfast and want butter for your pancakes, you can say, “I’ll have A butter ” and it will be served up in pat or sealed container. On the other hand, if you say, “I’ll have Some butter“, you will get it in whatever form the diner chooses. But if you say, “I’ll have The butter” the waitress may regard you quizically as if you were asking for all the butter that the diner has . . . . unless:

1.) the diner offers other pancake toppings (sour cream?, marshmallow?) OR

2.) the waitress already knows how you want the butter served (e.g. as a “regular” cutomer)

Based on these rules, you cannot say things like,” My mother wiped a butter off her shoe.” unless you want your listener to think she had one spot of butter on her shoe (by the way, you can’t say, “She had one butter on her shoe.” either). And you can only say ,” My mother wiped the butter off her shoe” if both you and she know that it’s there.

How anyone learns all these rules without anyone ever explaining them, much less drilling you on them, is a great mystery to theorists and language specialists alike. That these rules for article usage are far more extensive than indicated above only deepens the mystery. But it certainly eliminates the “explanation” that says we learn language by imitation. And it surely helps us understand how our children with Language Learning Disorders struggle so.

14
Feb
12

What’s in a word – A lot!

A subtest on nearly all measures of intelligence is Vocabulary.  So, on the Wechsler IQ scales (one is designed for children; one for adults) the Vocabulary Subtest consists of having the individual look at a printed word, pronounce it (assistance in pronunciation may be given) and then provide a definition of that word.

Margo was a 17-year-old in a private girl’s school.  She was laboring to obtain satisfactory grades, but her teachers were most perplexed by their belief that she “seemed” so much more capable than any of her test scores, especially on essay sorts.  They unanimously agreed that her “writing didn’t reflect her ability”, though their estimates of her ability were necessarily based on impressions and inferences, not on facts or test scores.

Early on in the Vocabulary test, Margo pronounced the word “conceal” and said (in almost invariably halting words and phrases), “to like close something up, closing all ends. . . concealing it. . . keeping it quiet, low-key. . . like a jar?. . keep tightly closed”.  When I asked her whether a person could conceal a gun, she instantly said, “Sure. . hide it. . by hiding it!”

Later, to   commence, she said, “to applause, to praise someone!” (commend?) and defined the word sentence, as “Like a bunch of words; it has a topic (subject) and a verb”. She involuntarily accessed the meaning of commend and found the wrong word for subject. She made these mistakes and others like them again and again, even though it turned out later that they were “not what I meant to say” (see below).

Later on, she defined much less frequent words with much greater sacuity.  She said tangible meant “palpable’, that remourse meant “guilt”  and that sanctuary was “a place to worship, a religious place”.

In the end, it became clear that Margo knew a lot more about word meanings than she could reliably explain or specify.  And instances of inefficient, misguided or tangential recall processes appeared across testing of of her verbal aptitudes.

I learned a lot from Margo and others like her.  I realized that “decontextualized” words (those presented in isolation) can, even for very bright Learning Disabled children, conjure up multiple and diverse” possible meanings”.  It’s as if they can access in memory not just conventional word meanings but also meanings peculiar to a certain circumstance.  What’s more,  other forms of a given word can spontaneously surface (e.g. “concealed” or “concealing” or “concealment”) and complicate the process of defining a word.  Too, words that are similar in sound (or spelling) can contribute their own features.  So, for Margo, “conceal” activated the word “seal” as well as “hide”.  So, the phrase, “conceal the jar” – without additional context, is ambiguous in meaning, at least for Margo.

One can observe just this sort of meaning/sound conflation in her definition of “commence”, which appeared to elicit the meaning of “commend” for Margo.  She subsequently “corrected” her definition when I said, “We commenced the meeting”, “Oh! she exclaimed.  “to begin something,” start it . . . I don’t know where I got ‘praise’ from . . .I’m sorry.  That’s so stupid!”

Margo got a low Vocabulary score; she got no points for words that later on, she instantly defined when I put them in context.

I had to report that score, of course.   But I spent considerable time explaining to the reader of my report why her score was a substantial underestimate of her true word knowledge.  And I explained how high-frequency words were more troubling for Margo than rarer words.  Why?  Because over the years, Margo had heard and read the former more frequently, in various contexts, all of which enriched and expanded their meanings, making their definitions intricate, context-sensitive and multi-layered. And her ability to search through this huge database was inefficient if not altogether undependable. Such languae memory difficulties are seen in many with language disorders.

In some sense, Margo knew “too much” about words, their phonetic structures and relationships, their grammatical features, and most of all, their multiple semantic components.  Her only “problem” was that, in academics, she was requird to “show” what she knew about words and meanings in artificially constrained, one-dimensional ways when little time and context were provided.

12
Feb
12

Haunted by the Past…Tense

Pronouncing even very simple words written in standard English can be treacherous. Consider the ending “-ed”, usually added to some verb stem to denote a past event (He painted the house) though it also appears  in an adjective function (painted chair).

(NOTE:  Items in parentheses below are supposed to represent sounds.)

Unfortunately for beginning readers, this ending can have THREE different pronunciations, none of which are even hinted at in written words. So while  the     -ed’s on pasted, razed and raced  are visually identical, they represent the SOUNDS /id/, /d/ and /t/:  /pays-tid/, /rayzd/ and /rayst/. This is not to say that you can’t switch the -ed sounds around. You could say /rayz-id/ or /race-id/.   Notice that you CAN’T say pasted any other way but /pays-tid).

The reason for this apparent silliness is really quite logical and economical and has to do with whether your vocal cords vibrate when the LAST SOUND of the stem word is said.  If you compare “bid” and “bit”, the difference between the two lies in the fact that /d/ entails vocal cord vibration; /t/ is nothing but a sort of hiss.  Sounds that are made by vocal cord vibrations are called “voiced”; sounds without such vibrations are called “voiceless”.

When you know this, you can pick up on sounds that differ only on the basis of whether they’re voiced or voiceless. Compare /b/-/p/; /d/-/t/; /g/-/k/; /v/-/f/, the first sound in each pair is voiced, the second is voiceless.

SO here’s the way it all works:

When a stem word ends in a voiced sound, the -ed will represent /d/. If the  stem ends in a voiceless sound, the -ed will represent /t/. Consequently, when you add –ed to roB, muG or saVe, the -ed sounds like /d/ because the last sound in the stems are the voiced sounds /b/, /g/ and /v/. But when you add -ed to roPe, muCK or golF, the -ed sounds like /t/ because the last sound in the stems are the voiceless sounds /p/, /k/ and /f/.

A problem arises, though, when a stem word ends in the sounds /t/ or /d/ because these are the sounds the -ed represents. So you can’t put a simple /d/ sound on pad or made. You could, I guess, but you’d wind up stuttering: /pad-d/.

The problem is solved in this way;

Regardless of whether if the stem word ends in a /t/ or a /d/sound, an added –ed will represent /id/ . Hence, /dot/ becomes /dot-id/ and /sod/ becomes /sod-id/. You can practice with nonsense syllables. What do you hear when you add –ed to nove vs. nofe or stibe vs. stipe or lete vs. lede?

You learned these rules for pronouncing –ed early on in your reading. BUT NO ONE EVER TAUGHT them  TO YOU. In fact, you never KNEW you knew them until now. So, how’d you do it?  How do kids do it. Would you even want to TRY to teach them these rules.

There are lots more of these linguistically sophisticated rules we know but don’t know we know. I’ll treat some in future posts.