Posts Tagged ‘intelligence


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.


“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.


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.


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.


The Reality of Testing Human Beings

As I sit in my chair one day, and across several days, ask 10 different  10 year-olds  this question: “Who discovered America?”. It’s  one of the questions on the INFORMATION subtest of the Wechsler IQ scales for children. It’s a simple “right-wrong” item. Isn’t it? Easy to score?  It should be. But it’s not! Below is what you may well hear as  responses. Decide how you would score the response: right earns one point; wrong earns a zero.

Alison: “God, we learned that in second grade. Mrs. Jones . She was mean. Lessee, discovered America?? Well, the Indians. I mean people say Columbus. But it was really the Indians. (You ask: “So, what’s your answer?”). “Well…Indians. I’ll go with that. “

Greg: ” The Norsemen!…I’m pretty sure. Yeah, that’s it!”

Rene: “Christopher…uh…oh, what’s his name? Christopher…Vespucci? No, No. Oh, god! I KNOW this! I can’t get it! Aw, I don’t know!” 

Benny: “George Washington! Wait. What’d you say? I forgot. (You repeat the question). Oh! Columbus!”

Rosalie: “It begins with a “C”. I never really learned it. Leif Ericson? Jefferson? Something Columbia? I know his first name was Leonardo. I can’t remember. We were never taught it!”

Bill: “America? That’d be, uh , can I  take a guess? Columbus? Naaa. He was another explorer who came over and found, like, the Bahamas. So, I’ll pass…I don’t know!”

Raine: ” I can never remember this! We studied it a loooong time ago. The Pilgrims did, right before Columbus!”

Charlie: “Welp…that’s eeeezee! Vikings. I remember that because Mrs. Dinwiddie showed us pictures of their boats. It gets confusing sometimes, because my kindergarten teacher said the guy’s name was ‘Clumba’. But he was later.

Jim: “Columbus! Christopher Columbus! Is that it?  Just a sec…Yeah. Whatever”

I don’t know how easy it was for you to score these right or wrong. If you score it as wrong, the child gets a zero and is thereby less “intelligent” than the one who gets it right.

Human beings simple don’t do what they’re supposed to do, even when they try their hardest to do so. The sheer variation in these responses is sufficient to demonstrate that no matter how much you STANDARDIZE test items, you can’t standardize  responses to those items. And this “Columbus” question is just one of the many, many items on the 10 or so subtests of the IQ battery. As variations pile upon variations, it doesn’t take long to discover the uniqueness of human beings. But how can this uniqueness be defined and communicated to others? That is the question to be addressed, And I’ll be doing it in many postings to follow. Come along!


When the word “average” hurts badly

Jeremy at 9 years of age was altogether immersed in the tasks of assembling small red and white  blocks to duplicate  designs printed in a stimulus manual. He spun the blocks deftly in his fingers, sometimes using both hands to bring blocks together in a near-perfect integration of small motor movements.

Jeremy’s speed and the accuracy of his final products earned him an “exceptional” score (99th percentile) on the IQ subtest called “Block Design”. His speed itself won him “bonus” points awarded for “speed of assembly”. His parents and teachers were told of his score and how its exceptionality disposed him to much achievement and success in domains requiring such ability: mathematics, the sciences, engineering, Later, he was invited to take advanced coursework in science/math. And he prospered, delighting in the exercise of his “gift”.  His parents exposed him to stimuli and learning opportunities that refined and elaborated on his special competence.

Evan, another 9  year-old, was equally enthralled by these block assembly challenges. And he devoted himself to each one. Unfortunately, he kept dropping the blocks just before he placed them on the desk surface where he was working. Frequently, he’d turn a block, by accident, a bit too much, these causing a misalignment of block edges that required correction. At these times, frequent enough to exasperate many a child, Evan seemed undeterred…as if he were quite use to the clumsiness of his fungers. Indeed, on more than one occasion he would apply just a tad too much pressure as he moved blocks together, this “collision” misaligning already-correctly aligned edges which then required repair. But Evan loved the tasks, often exclaiming “cool!” or “that’s neat”  as a new design was presented to him. He got them all right. He produced perfectly accurate designs.

BUT, Evan earned NO bonus points for speed even though he finished them all well before the time limits set for each design assembly. As a result, he earned an “average” score…not because he was less perceptive, less competent than Jeremy. And certainly NOT because he was at all perplexed by the designs. For he knew EXACTLY what to do and how to do it, regardless of difficulty level. He was as expert as Jeremy. But his fingers wouldn’t move fast or deftly; they did not do what he wanted them to do, what he knew they had to do.  Needless to say, his “average” score won him no special consideration, no offers of advanced work in mathematics and science, no recognition of his expertise AT ALL. His teachers and parents were told by the school psychologist that he had “average” non-verbal reasoning…and that was that. Later, because he loved “non-verbal reasoning” tasks so much, he became a highly regarded and exceptionally competent architect. Colleagues marveled at the precision and elegance of his work, especially at how he “took his time” to get everything right in his drawings and models.

Ironic how the “real” world can be so much more competence-revealing and competence-affirming than the educational world that assigned him the label “average” and they dismissed him. Worrisome , however, is the fact that, had Evan been less determined, less inclined to believe in himself, he would never have discovered the delights of his own gift. He would have given up much earlier on.


An “average” score can mask essential facts

There’s a short Intelligence subtest called “Digit Span”.  A string of digits is dictated to examinees and they must repeat the string in the same order as the original string. After an upper level is reached (usually two strings in a row), digit strings are repeated backward by examinees. The resulting score purportedly measures something like “attention span”.  And if this score falls bewtween the 25th and 75th percentiles, it is called “average”.

Joan, for example, got a Digit Span score at the 63rd percentile. She was average…But not so fast. Consider HOW she handled the task.

First, while listening to the “digits forward” series, she stared directly at the examiner, “tracked” the numbers by touching her fingers for each digit said and responded only after she had subvocally repeated the string to herself several times. She accurately recalled enough strings to score in the superior range (the 90th percentile).

BUT, when she had to repeat digits in reverse, her performance dropped off dramatically, so much so that her “digits reverse” score fell to the deficit range (10th percentile). Moreover, she labored much more intensively in the reverse conditions, despite lots of subvocalizing, rarely able to keep the digits in order, even the few she could recall.

Even taking into account that” digits reverse” is more difficult, Joan’s very inconsistent behavior strongly suggests that some underlying “information-processing” system is erratic and unreliable.

BUT, since her final “Digit Span” subtest score reflected the combined forward and reverse scores, she turned out to have an “average” score.  As such, any possibility of an “attention” deficit was effectively eliminated. She was described as “of  average attention”,  the 50th percentile

In fact, Joan’s teachers and parents had reported quite a few attention-related problems. But her “average” Digit Span score eliminated Attention-Disorder as a possible cause.  Indeed, the person testing Joan  concluded that whatever academic problems she was having were from “emotional” conflicts. And she was sent off to therapy.

Yes, “average” can conceal real problems and deficit. The term can also conceal “gifts” as I’ll explain in my next report.