Posts Tagged ‘language disorder

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.

02
Feb
12

“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.

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

I heard what you said; I just forgot

An Attention Disorder is manifested in numerous ways because, quite simply, attention is involved in nearly every activity, even the generation of thoughts.

One common feature of an Attention Deficit is rapid forgetting of what one has just read or heard.  Consider Liz, whom I described in my 1/22/2012 posting.  Essentially, she couldn’t reliably register and maintain incoming information for a period of time sufficient to interpret or manipulate it in some way.  This process of data-maintenance is a function of Working Memory.  But Working Memory must be extremely reliable if one is to respond correctly to whatever the incoming information requires. And its processing powers are formidable.

If someone says the word “grand”, for instance, you will not be able to understand it until you register all the sounds of that word in Working Memory.  “Grand” consists of five sounds, /g/, /r/, /short a/, /n/, and /d/.  So each of these five sounds must be identified precisely.  If any one is inaccurately identified, you will not be able to identify the word.  Or you will misidentify the word (e.g. as “grand” or “grunt” or even “”can’t”).  In fact, you may not be able to tell whether what you heard is a word or not. When you listen to a young child speak, a person with a foreign accent, a drunken slur  or one with an unfamiliar dialect, you find yourself concentrating very hard. You narrow your eyes, watch their lips and facial expressions, focus intently on the sounds they’re producing and often enough ask them to repeat.  All you are trying to do is identify  sounds  so that you can assemble those sounds into a word you recognize.

Meanwhile, you are “holding” the sounds you do hear in Working Memory, sustaining them there until you finish your analysis or give up. I’ve been amazed with young mothers whose toddlers seem to be saying “Ahwanceal” and the mother instantly responds,“No it’s lunch time; cereal is only for breakfast.”  You might notice here that even determining how many words were said can be daunting because you can’t tell where one word ends and the next one begins (locally, the spoken unit “Jeweet?” is easily segmented into “Did you eat?” by a listener familiar with the local dialect patterns.).  Indeed, our ability to recognize slang, “accent” and dialect variations depends on precise identification of aberrant sounds as acceptable variants of standard sounds (the unit “Yall” is nonsense since there is no such word, yet few have difficulty assigning it the meaning of “You all”.)

Recognize that the time it takes to say “grand” amounts to a small fraction of a second. Recognize further that you effortlessly identify all its sounds in that sliver of time. The sentence, “I’ll be reading Dickens this afternoon” contains 25 sounds, yet all of them are easily identified in about 1.5 – 2.0 seconds. That’s over ten sounds a second.  And all this “Auditory Processing” takes place in Working Memory.

So, Working Memory  has to be extremely efficient and reliable.  But suppose it is NOT.  Suppose information (sounds) entering this system are very rapidly corrupted (deleted, mis-sequenced, garbled).  Or suppose that something heard exceeds the limits of Working Memory because it’s too long. Then, the information is lost or misinterpreted.  So, what was happening to Liz was that her Working Memory could not reliably and correctly “hold onto” language data (sounds, mainly).  So, before she could interpret what she heard, the data themselves were being corrupted…or erased.  And then, she suffered the consequences: misunderstanding in some cases, in others, instant and wholly INvoluntary forgetting.  In circumstances where she couldn’t request a repetition, she was defeated.  For her, forgetting what people said to her, forgetting what she’d just read were all too common experiences.  And when her job depended on efficient auditory processing, where the consequences of mis-hearing or mis-reading a direction, dosage amount, drug or patient name could be lethal, she despaired.  Because she couldn’t stop forgetting.