Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Free riding off of what develops naturally rather than teaching what doesn't

Besides teaching TFA students about language disabilities, I’ve just finished up my last (and final) quarter teaching a class on language development in typical children. This has long been a requirement for teacher certification, even though it’s long been known by psycholinguists that typical children develop language on their own without special intervention from teachers. The authors of the materials used in this class (which I didn’t design) are therefore at pains to show ways in which teachers can nonetheless make a positive contribution to their students’ language development.

The (unintended?) side effect is that teachers are being encouraged in yet another way to steer their classrooms away from academic skills that must be taught towards skills that are largely developmental and aren’t easy to teach. I’m thinking especially of emotional maturity, empathy, social skills, organizational skills, and public speaking ability, all of which significantly influence the grades students get for the growing numbers of assignments involving group activities, interdisciplinary projects and project presentations.

When it comes to language skills, my students tend to finish up my class convinced (by all those materials I didn’t choose) that they need to be infusing even math classes with more language activities--not questioning either whether this is necessary, or whether it might water down the math.

Like I said, I no longer teach this class. But classes on how math, science, social studies, and reading skills don’t develop naturally the way language skills do, and on how to teach these skills based on the latest actual cognitive science research--those I would find highly worthwhile: for myself, for my students, and, most of all, for the students of my students.

If these were the classes that ed schools offered.


Anonymous said...

True, with the exception of children raised in homes where there isn't much talking. Then, intervention is definitely needed.

Cynthia812 said...

It would take severely limited talking (I'm thinking parental deafness) for a child to not learn to talk. Vocabulary size and standard grammar are separate issues.

Katharine Beals said...

Cynthia812, agreed! And vocabulary and stylistic grammar are two things that today's schools either aren't teaching well (i.e., via weekly in-one-ear-and-out-the-other vocabulary quizzes rather than repeated practice via vocabulary-rich reading assignments), or not at all (stylistic grammar).

Anonymous said...

Hmm. many children can talk when they arrive at Kindergarten, but not well. They can't speak in complete sentences, their vocabs are small, their pronunciation is so far from typical that they'll have a hard time with reading through phonics. Engelmann and colleagues developed a curriculum for this sort of child that begins in Pre-K, and focuses actively on language development.

Katharine Beals said...

Anonymous, I'm curious to learm more about the population you are talking about.

According to the standard linguistic milestones, neuro-typical, non-linguistically isolated, native speakers are capable of speaking in complete sentences, accurately producing most speech sounds of their native languages, accurately *perceiving and processing* all of these sounds (auditory processing having a greater influence on phonemic awareness than speech production does), and producing all the basic grammatical constructions of their native languages by the time they are 4 or 5.

Non-neurotypical speakers--those with Specific Language Impairment, auditory processing problems, and autism specctrum disorders--are different. So are non-native English speakers and speakers of non-standard dialects of English.

And so are children who haven't experienced immersion in their native languages, but, as Cynthia812 notes, this happens only in extreme circumstances--e.g. in cases of deaf parents or severe isolation and neglect.

Vocabulary is different, and varies widely depending on home environment.

In any case, from what I know of Engelmann's curriculum, it is highly effective. I would guess it is most effective in teaching vocabulary, explicit phonemic awareness, and, for non-standard English speakers, standard English grammar.

Again, am curious to hear more--both about what the typical pre-K kids are like, and what the curriculum teacers them.

Anonymous said...

"Non-neurotypical speakers--those with Specific Language Impairment, auditory processing problems, and autism specctrum disorders--are different. So are non-native English speakers and speakers of non-standard dialects of English."

Katherine, in some schools, these categories of children make up a large proportion of the entering K students, especially non-native speakers, and speakers of non-standard dialects of English. Add to that a home environment with half of the usual vocabulary range. That's why Engelmann's research and programs focus on low-income schools; it's designed to remedy language deficits. Of course, in low-income schools there are also plenty of kids who don't have language deficits, for the reasons you point out.

Cynthia812 said...

I was raised and went to public school in a mid-sized Southern city, so I have first hand experience with this, albeit from the perspective of a bright child. I was one of the few students who came to school speaking standard English. Accent and dialect does add a layer of difficulty in learning to read. I vividly remember being in second grade learning about homophones. The book said that "our" and "hour" were homophones, and I objected and said that "our" and "are" were homophones. But the point I was making was that the children I went to school with did have a native language. It had a smaller vocabulary and simpler grammar than standard English, but it was a language, and therefore they didn't have the same mental deficiencies that have been documented in children without language. They were really more like ESL kids.

Amy P said...

"The book said that "our" and "hour" were homophones, and I objected and said that "our" and "are" were homophones."

That's a real fail on the part of the local textbook adopters.

(I'm from up north (with some southern-born relatives), but I would have had exactly the same issues with the pronunciation of "our", "hour", and "are".)