Archive for the 'Intelligence' Category


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.


?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.



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.


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.


A Wandering mind

In my last post, I wrote about Vince.  I suspected dysnomia, which turned out to be the topic of that post.

It also turned out that he was no more dysnomic than a rhetorician. He simply couldn’t recall that one name (Charles Dickens). Otherwise, he was fluent and linguistically sophisticated.

But he did turn out to be what I have come to call the “unconventional thinker”. I will be writing about this sort of learner in future posts quite often because they are very interesting and very much misunderstood. I alluded to this sort of mind in a previous post.

Suffice it to say at this juncture that Vince could generate multiple plausible responses to any test stimuli that permitted some degree of response latitude. So, while the answer to “What is two plus two?” is highly constrained, the answer to the question , “In what way is first and last alike?” is not. There are a number of correct responses to this question (e.g.  they’re both “extremes” or they’re both “ends”.)

But what Vince could do effortlessly was conjure a range of plausible (or possible) responses to items that seemed to have a very limited range of appropriate answers. This capacity to think discursively (non-linearly) appeared most strikingly in his efforts to assemble a series of pictures (presented in mixed-up order) into a “sensible story”.

The IQ subtest used, called Picture Arrangement, has been deleted from the most recent IQ battery; nonetheless I use it to assess just this type of thinking. Imagine, then,  a five-panel cartoon strip, without words, that has been cut up into individual panels and then presented in a disarranged sequence . The examinee, in this case, Vince, is told to “put the pictures as fast as you can into an order that tells  a sensible story.”

Vince spent a great deal of time with these items, shifting and repositioning the panels until he settled on one that he considered correct. But in nearly every case, his facial expressions and body language emanated uncertainty even as he said, “Done.“… as if he wouldn’t be surprised to learn that he was wrong.

I talked to Vince about his delays and uncertainties, asked him what it was about this task that seemed to confuse him. After a moment’s reflection, he said, “ I just could see so many different ways to put the pictures together.” Asked to give an example, he selected one of the card sequences he’d already done. Then he set about explaining how the features of each panel could mean something slightly different…depending on the assumptions made about the rest of the pictures.

He subsequently demonstrated no less than five different ways in which the pictures could be sequenced and explained how each was plausible, even if some were unlikely. “I sorta’ guessed which sequence was right because really they all could have been right.”

Vince turned out to have an IQ at the 98th%ile; his Verbal powers were no less than gifted. In effect, then, it was the very “generativity” of his intelligence, his enormous powers of perception, inferential reasoning, fund of information and abstracting capacities that he deployed in extraordinary idea proliferation.

Consider the simple sentence,”Mr Jones sold his house by the beach.” Consider then a multiple choice question like ,”Where was Mr. Jones’ house located ?” 1) in the city 2) out of town 3) by the beach 4) in the suburbs.

If you picked #3, you’d probably be right. But it could also be any of the others. Why? Because it may have been the case that Mr. Jones was standing by the beach when he sold his house that was #1, #2 or #4. That is, Mr. Jones’s house was nowhere near the beach though  he did contract to sell it as he stood on the beach.

Needless to say, Vince “hates” multiple choice tests. “I see more than one answer,” he says. He also dislikes essay writing: “I come up with so many ideas, good ones. But I can’t decide how to organize them.  I don’t know what the teacher expects. My teachers say I ramble, include too many details and the connections between my ideas aren’t clear to them.”

Vince dislikes the authoritarianism of text books, of grammar rules, of the idea that are absolute scientific “truths”. He’ll dislike formal education until he gets to Graduate School… maybe.

But he’ll be an innovator, a discoverer…unless education defeats him.

I’ll be writing about this type of person, this wandering mind,  often.


“It’s Right on The Tip of My Tongue”

Just yesterday, Vince, a 17-year-old from a prestigious private school, came for an Evaluation.  Soft-spoken, a bit self-conscious but wholly committed to doing his best, Vince demonstrated very sophisticated verbal aptitudes – faculties nearly essential in the particular school he attended where so many peers possessed superior abilities.

But Vince was struggling in school and seemed unable to overcome his diffuse but substantial achievement problems.

Though no pattern of deficits or even weaknesses emerged in the first of two test sessions, one interesting moment arose when I asked (as part of the IQ Battery’s “Information” subtest), “Who wrote ‘Great Expectations’?”

Vince shot up straight, clapped his hands together, snapped his fingers once and exclaimed, “Wait, I know this!  I KNOW I know it! Gimme a sec!”  But after some 40 seconds passed, after much grimacing and sighing and seat-shifting, he seemed to sag in his chair, as if he were deflating.  “I can’t think of his name.  I know it!  I know it!”  A moment later, he sighed deeply and groaned “Aw, I don’t know.”

At that point, I took out a piece of paper and asked him to guess how many letters were in the author’s last name.  At first, he looked amused, but after some encouragement, he said, “Uh, eight!”.  I said, “No, there are seven” and drew seven short dashes on the paper (like the kids’ game, “Hangman”)  The dialogue continued:

Me:  “How many letters are in his first name? “

 Vince:  “I’ll say seven”.  

ME:  “Right”  And I drew seven short dashes to represent the seven letters that Vince guessed were in the author’s first name.  Now, he was looking at two groups of seven dashes:

ME:  “What’s the first letter that comes to mind when you think of this writer?  Just guess.”

Vince:  “Okay, um…’I’?”

I put the letter “I” in the second dash of the last name group of seven

_ _ _ _ _ _ _  –  _I_ _ _ _ _.

ME: “Guess again.”

 Vince: “I dunno – ‘C”?

 I put the “C” in two spaces: C _ _ _ _ _ _  –  _IC_ _ _ _.

Me: “Next?”

Vince: “E”.

I put the two “E’s” in.  Now he was looking at:

C_ _ _ _E_  –  _ _ I C _ E_ _.

ME: “Any guess as to his name?”

Vince:  “No, not at all”.  

ME:  “Guess again”.

Vince:  “I keep thinkin’ “S'”.

ME:  “Right”  And I added the “S’s”

C_ _ _ _ES – _ IC_E_S.

ME: “Next?”

For the sake of brevity in this post, I continued to ask Vince to guess letters one by one,  and as he guessed a correct one, I inserted the letter in the appropriate space.  In order, he “guessed” the following letters, “D”, “K”,”A”, “N” and “R”.  He was now looking at:  C_ARLES DICKENS.

He’d guessed all the letters in the name without error, the number of letters in the name (OK, he guessed one extra space) . But he couldn’t recall the name !! How is it that he could take ALL those absolutely correct guesses ( and he was genuinely guessing as far as I could determine and he was concerned) and NOT KNOW THE NAME?

He looked again, threw his hands up in the air, smiled broadly but in some embarrassment, and nearly shouted, “Oh God! Charles Dickens, of course!”  Until that moment, he could not recall the name.

What Vince had been experiencing was what is popularly known as a mental block.  When this “block” occurs frequently in a person’s speech efforts, it is called “Dysnomia”  Often described as a “word-finding” difficulty, it entails spontaneous, inexplicable failures to recall names, dates, even math facts or word pronunciations on demand.  This disposition to “draw blanks” is not a manifestation of anxiety or an intellectual deficit.  It disrupts speech spontaneously and unpredictably in circumstances in which the speaker has to recall a name to answer a question or specify a particular object or person in a sentence he wants to communicate.

While it is fairly common for true Dysnomics to be able to recall individual letters or sounds of the desired name and while they often can specify facts associated with the desired name (e.g. Vince knew Dickens was an “English” writer of the 19th Century”), they all too commonly fail to “find”  names.  But later on, perhaps driving home or sitting in a chair watching TV, Dysnomics will spontaneously recall the name:  “It just popped into my mind!”

In future posts, I will describe how exasperating and  how frequently Dysnomia can impede academic achievement.  At the same time, I’ll review what I ultimately learned about Vince.  I don’t think he’s truly Dysnomic but…I’ve been wrong before. We’ll see.


Attention Disorder? Felicitous Flaw

Steve was not a kid. He was a middle-aged Professor in some arcane scientific field, a member of the National Academy of Sciences, an international scholar. He was getting depressed because he couldn’t master some coursework in mathematical computations he had been trying to learn.

Steve’s IQ turned up at the 150 mark, higher than 99.9% of the adult population, far into the exceptional range. But measures of attention were peculiarly lower, not dismal, just too low for such an otherwise gifted person.  No history of psychiatric disorder or  recent trauma could account for these low scores.

But in discussion with him, he recounted how hard he had to work in school, how he spent so much time on homework, especially with foreign language work (“I hated French!  Math was hard too, until I got to calculus and statistics.  They were easy.  I don’t why,” ).  He told me how he had to double- even triple-check his work and still find mistakes, how he had to re-read everything. He said he got good grades because he worked much harder than his classmates. He figured he was just average but did well because he just spent all his time with schoolwork.

I reported to him the results of my testing, his exceptional scores, his singular intelligence. He stared at me as I reported these facts to him. Then he began to cry, just for a short period, quite against his will. He was embarrassed: “I’m sorry. But this is a real shock!  All my life, I just thought I was, you know, sort of slow and certainly not smart.”

Steve had been laboring, all those years, under the adverse effects of a rather severe Attention Deficit. He had been young when he could handle all the re-reading and double-checking that his deficit demanded of him. But now, in this current coursework which required strict attention, he was unable to generate the extra energy and effort  necessary to learn the material.  And it was demoralizing and depressing him.

We discussed the benefits and liabilities of medication, among other treatment options. In a subsequent conversation, he reported that he had tried the medication – on an as-needed basis – and had found it “incredibly helpful”. “I could concentrate!”, he exclaimed.

But then something really odd happened.

For when I said, “It’s a shame this medication wasn’t available to you when you were younger”.  He replied: “I’m glad it wasn’t.” A bit stunned, I asked why. “Well,” he said, “over the years, I learned to learn in different ways, ways that made the job easier though it  never became really easy.  But these “different” ways led me to think about things from original or unconventional points of view.  And that’s what won me all the accolades and honors I’ve enjoyed over my professional career, my ‘unusual’ ways of looking at things and all the discoveries and insights those ‘ways’ generated.  IF I’D TAKEN MEDICATION I WOULD NOT HAVE LEARNED THESE WAYS AND I DEFINITELY WOULD NOT BE WHERE I AM TODAY!” 

Steve made me think, hard and long.  And I realize now, as I’ll report in future posts, that there are real advantages to having an Attention Deficit, that strengths of enormous amplitudes can spring from that “deficit”.  He taught me a deep respect for the legitimacy and dignity of all learning types and styles . . . . if I would only take the time to look for them. Needless to say, I have.  Thanks to Steve.