Posts Tagged ‘exceptionality

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.

31
Jan
12

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.

28
Jan
12

He’ll catch on; he’s such a nice boy

Kyle’s 8 years old now. But he’s just beginning second grade; he was “held back” in kindergarten because his teachers thought he was immature. Kyle’s Verbal abilities reached into the Superior range at 124, better than 94 % of the kids his age. Put another way, he had the “mental age” of a child two or more years older than he. That is, he answered test items that the typical 10 or 11-year-old would answer. Of course, that age group is in the 4th/5th grade NOT the first month of 2nd grade.

Kyle was told to write about his dream house. He dutifully positioned his lined paper on his desk and began to scrawl, gripping he pencil tightly as if at any moment it would squirt from his fingers and clatter on the classroom floor and invite a warning from his teacher, Miss Warmsly.

He thought of a lot of things, actually pictured his dream house in his mind’s eye, colorful and detailed in ways only children can imagine. His house would be near the ocean; it would be a house boat so he could watch the fish go by and swim any time he wanted.

Below you can see what he wrote.  He spent ten minutes on it. When his teacher strolled by his desk, she cooed, “Good job, Kyle. Why not add some more?”

But Kyle knew that the tangle of lines and curves he’d just engraved on his paper were garbage. They made no sense to him. As a matter of fact, he wasn’t sure whether they were wrong or right because when he went to write, he couldn’t think of how the letters should look, “How do you make a ‘y’?” he’d asked himself when he started to write the word “you”. Just a vague knot of lines floated momentarily in his head. He prayed (he was a good Christian boy) he wouldn’t have to read his description to the class because he  had no idea of what his markings “said” or even when  one word ended and the next began. How did the other kids do it, he wondered and make it look so easy and even add illustartions.

Kyle was very bright. And so knew he was an abject failure; kids had laughed at his work before. Anger and tears competed just below the surface as Kyle stared at his paper.  Miss Warmsly was sooooo nice and he wanted so much to please her. But he knew her coos and smiles and kind gaze were basically those of sympathy and pity and well-disguised disappointment. He knew these things because  her coos and all were replaced by genuine sounds of praise and pleasure when she looked at the other kids’ papers… and because he was sharp, insightful.

Kyle dreaded the possibility that anyone would see his “writing”. He dreaded it so much that nausea began to get  jumbled in with his anger and tears. So, he put his head down on his desk and wouldn’t look up, put his arms and head over his paper so his shame would be hidden.

Later, a “learning specialist” tested Kyle’s writing skills and concluded that they were in the “average” range and that he should try harder because she and all his teachers “knew he could do it”. The specialist did note that “Kyle’s spelling errors and sentence structure made it difficult to gain meaning from his writing” but that “overall, Kyles’ writing skills were in the avegrage range.”

Two months later, Kyle became obstinate,”oppositional”, even “defiant”. He was sent to the principal’s office several times. His parents were called in. They were told he had an emotional problem, that he needed help and, of course, that he was “coming along” in his writing.

Three months later, Kyle was in my office so I could see how he was doing. He was sullen, defensive. He did not smile at all…only once when he talked about a science fair he went to with his Dad. He was severely limited in both reading and writing. Indeed, he was a long way from literacy, a very long way.

Kyle’s dream house remained invisible to everyone, friends, family, teachers. It stayed in his head, this elegant floating boat house on a sapphire sea, beautiful fish leaping at the bow, the sun so warm on his face. He swore to himself he’d never, ever, ever again put his heart on paper where it would be ridiculed and trampled in the laughter of his classmates.

At a meeting I attended, one where his teachers and specialists and parents gathered to discuss Kyle’s  “issues”, I asked if any one  of them would be so kind as to read Kyle’s “dream house” paper  aloud (I’d made copies for all). They politely declined. “He’s such a nice little boy!” his teacher cooed.

Kyle will be in therapy soon, superior intelligence and all.

The humiliation of a dyslexic

25
Jan
12

Right Church, Wrong Pew

Liz wanted to be a nurse. And so she went to college, got her degree, then earned a Masters degree in Nursing at a prestigious university.  She graduated with a 3.95 GPA, with honors and everyone’s applause.

Finding immediate employment at a world-renowned hospital, she soon started to become depressed and anxious, disenchanted with the job though she loved working with other professionals and the patients. But the demoralization continued  and she sought therapy. The therapist referred her to me for evaluation. “Something doesn’t make sense,” the therapist said. “Liz is very bright, she’s  had a stable upbringing, has lots of friends, no trauma, no evidence of familial disposition to mood disorders. But she keeps complaining about the work, how nervous she gets. Maybe you can help clear up this matter.  She’s on medication, an antidepressant, but that’s not making much of a difference.  I’m at a loss.”

And so, a few days later, Liz entered my office.  Congenial, cheery, sophisticated and very mature in her ways, despite her youthfulness (she was 24), Liz seemed the epitome of all that makes up a competent and sensitive human being.  And she was hard-working, intent on doing her best on each task I presented her.  Her IQ reached into the 90th%ile+,  superior.  It would have been higher had she not obtained two remarkably lower scores. One was on a subtest called Digit Span, another on a subtest called “Arithmetic” .

Both are very sensitive to attention span. The possibility that an Attention Disorder was related to her depression soon occurred to me.  But more evidence was needed. So I asked some questions like the following;

1. Do you ever have to re-read something you’ve just read.

“All the time, even in high school and always in college.  I’d spend hours on homework!  I mean, I could read just one paragraph and then realize at the end of it that I was thinking of something else.  And then I’d have to re-read.  But that was OK. I never minded working hard.  I’m not really very smart if you want to know the truth.  I just work hard.”

2.  Do you make little mistakes, like forgetting to write some words in a sentence or miscalculate in math?

“Well, yeah. But they were never really a problem because  I’d double-check my work.  But I always hated math because no matter how many times I checked, an error would show up anyway, always a careless error, dumb, stupid. “

3.  How about lecture note-takng in college?

“I was OK if the professor didn’t talk real fast.  And I became a really FAST writer. I never participated in class because I was so focused on getting the notes that I couldn’t concentrate on WHAT the teacher was talking about.  Same thing with foreign language; I had to try really hard to remember what was said in French so I could translate it.  But I’d keep forgetting, and so my translations sucked.  I HATED French!”

I asked her about her nursing job.  I LOVE nursing, but… I…it’s getting to me, getting me down.”

And then the tears began, pained sorts, robbing her of the dignity and  self-possession she’d worked so hard to project.

” I have to give out all these medications, different dosages, sometimes three or more for some patients.  And I’d keep forgetting who got what.  And I’d study and study the dosage charts and names and still catch myself making dumb mistakes,  forgetting this or that. I’d spend hours reading and re-reading the charts.  But I was taking too much time, and the supervisors were getting on me because I was not giving enough attention to my patients.”

I was afraid I was going to hurt  somebody! “

Liz did have an Attention Disorder, quite severe.  It corrupted her ability to remember “little”  things, data, details, numbers and the like.  It compromised her efforts to monitor her work for “dumb” mistakes because those errors came so quickly, she didn’t know she’d made them; they were INvoluntary and so she could not know where her mistakes were.

Liz, at my encouragement, sought another position in Nursing, one that required far less charting and record-keeping, one where she had time to do her job well and with pride and satisfaction. Her depression lifted; it has not returned. She has become the very competent, sensitive and compassionate nurse she always wanted to be, that in truth she always had been.  In a Psychiatric position, she excels in her understanding of the human condition, of struggle and suffering, and her great empathy for her patients.  She found her calling.

21
Jan
12

Gifted and Learning Disabled?

Asymmetric Intelligence (note the scores above are derived from an older version of the Wechsler scales, It is displayed here to simplify the issues discussed in this posting. Later versions of the Wechsler scales, which I will address in subsequent posts, include "Index" scores that needlessly complicate the explication of the central issue in this posting: The differences between Verbal and Non-verbal Intelligence measures.

This set of IQ scores, including subtest scores, was obtained by a young man in his teens. He was angry, depressed , very sophisticated and confused. And he was brilliant and mediocre at the same time.

You should look at the difference between his  Verbal Score and his Performance Score. The former, Verbal, was of a magnitude shared by LESS  than FIVE in every THOUSAND kids his age; he was clearly gifted verbally.  His score far exceeded the mean even in his fast-paced private school setting, where the “average” was the 90th percentile. Even in this competitive milieu, he distinguished himself. His ideas were abstract, insightful, far beyond his years. He effortlessly generated fluent, grammatically complex and stunningly insightful comments and test responses, embedding in them vocabulary items both precise and scholarly. He read voraciously, debated issues with his teachers and refused to agree with things just because some authority said so. He loved TRUTH. He was respected, even awed by some of his teachers; he intimidated some with his astute reasoning and flawless logic.

But he was getting poor grades. He hated Science and Math. His writing was a scribbled tangle of lines and curves. He said he hated to write. His parents complained that he was disorganized, lazy, argumentative . But they loved him. “He’s a sweet boy,” his mother said. His father often discussed…and argued about…politics, the economy and especially morality, right and wrong. “He just seems frustrated all the time,” his father observed, just a hint of sadness in his voice. “He seems confused.”

Eric had good reason to be confused ! Look at his Performance score. About 50 of every 100 kids his age would score lower. BUT 50 would score higher. And so, in his high-powered, academically rigorous independent-school classrooms, he was well BELOW the average for that population. So, mathematical concepts like “square root” or “acute angle” didn’t make much sense to him. He could memorize formulas and procedures. But he couldn’t apply what he was learning. He couldn’t reason well at all when such concepts were involved.

When I asked him how far it was from New York to Los Angeles, he said “About 30,000 miles.” When I asked him to show me how big a “foot” was by holding his hands apart, the space he produced between hands was a good three feet. On an outline map of the U.S., he drew the Mississippi River horizontally from Texas to California. He “lost” things, he said. “I can never remember where I put something.” And though he was close to getting his driver’s license, his parents worried because he got lost so easily and couldn’t read maps at all.

Because what the Performance subtests measure, the ones called  Block Design, Object Assembly , Coding, etc .(see above), is NON-VERBAL abilities.  Notions of abstract space, proportion, orientation, direction, even time participate in these Performance functions. And so, when weaknesses and deficits occur in them, concepts like “The day after tomorrow” or “bilateral symmetry” or “atomic shells’ , even  left-right , the order of months in the year, ratios and congruency become nearly impenetrable mysteries because they cannot be “pictured”, because the word and terms connect with NOTHING or only the most nebulous of mental representations. Handwriting is sloppy, planning efforts are perfunctory and athletic competition is minimized.

Eric could, I guess, be called gifted-learning disabled. He was rare, rarer than many a gifted child, but common enough for me to have seen quite a few over the years. In later posts I’ll discuss what becomes of such individuals, what can be done to support them, what they can do themselves.

I explained a lot of this to Eric in a conference after testing. His parents asked me to. He had a thousand questions. He smiled a lot.

13
Jan
12

Want to Learn Something About a Person? Look at His/Her Mistakes.

Years ago, I warned my then three-year-old daughter to “behave” when she went to visit her little friend down the street. Without pause, she chirped brightly, “OK, Daddy! I’ll be very have” (it rhymed with “save”). And she ran out before I could respond.

But her comment lingered. She’d NEVER heard that word before all by itself. Sure, there was “have” as in “I have a cold”; but her “have” rhymed with “save” and that had never been said anywhere, in any version of English I’d ever heard on this continent. Was she hallucinating? Hearing impaired? Was I a bad parent? Was my Baltimore dialect corrupting her?

But then I thought, “Wait a minute! She just INVENTED a word! How’d she do that? “It blew away the theory that children learn language from hearing and imitating it . Here she was happily and confidently uttering nonsense.

Then, a few weeks latter, my son asked for a “yapple” (“apple” with a “y”). Yapple?! What?!

I’m sure there were many other nonsense things they said, mistakes that I wrote off as “cute” or that I simply didn’t really attend to, the same way we DON’T attend to the speech miscues of foreigners, drunks, people with speech impediments and the nonsensical gibberish of other people’s three-year-olds.

But I wouldn’t let it go. And then, I figured it out! What she had done was segment the word “behave” into two words: “be” and “have”. Then, she assigned “be” the grammatical status of VERB. Then, recognizing that in commands,” be” is followed by an adjective, she assigned her second word (i.e.:”have”) the grammatical status of ADJECTIVE.  She’s heard commands like, “Now you be good” or “Be quiet” or “You be nice” and so, concluded that “have” went in that same adjectival category. From there, it was an easy move to put an “intensifier”(in this case “very”) in front of “have” and create the novel, never-utttered, never-heard-before statement, “I’ll be very have!” She figured if you can be very good, very nice, very quiet, you can also be very “have”. What I failed to ask her was, “So when you’re have, what are you doing?” Lamentably, I never got the chance; she grew up too fast. But I’ll bet she was very “have” when she visited her little girlfriend next door. She was…still is… very “have” as far as I’m concerned. But with that “cute mistake” she revealed an astonishing mastery of phonology, morphology, syntax and grammar…and an equally astonishing ability to exploit that knowledge to generate novel utterances… which all of us do effortlessly every day.

But what about the “Yapple”. Well, if you say “The apple” to yourself, you’ll hear a long “e” sound at the end of “the” because  the article “the” comes before a word beginning with a vowel “apple” (compare “the train” with “the engine”; the first “the” is like “Thuh”, the second is like “Thee”.)  Now,  when the second “the” is pronounced, the front part of the tongue moves toward the same place that “y” is made, near the hard palate. When this happens, the final sound in “the”(thee)  is actually “y.” Listen to the way you say “the owl” or “the elephant”. It’s not that you can’t say “thuh owl”; it’s just that “thee owl” is somehow easier. So when my son INVENTED the word “yapple”, he was articulating his analysis of “the apple” because he’d heard “th” + “ee” +”y” +” apple” and logically presumed he heard “yapple”.

And that’s when I began to appreciate not just the extraordinary linguistic sophistication of very young children. I also realized that mistakes are enormously informative, inviting one to pay attention to mistakes, to figure out where they came from and why and how. They are invitations to understanding and eureka moments. And I’ve been welcoming their appearances ever since!