Good listening?

Teachers constantly exhort children to do ‘good listening’. And of course it is an excellent idea. But those who work specifically with children who have problems with attention, language delay, learning difficulties or a combination of all of these also encourage the provision of a ‘permanent trace’ to support learning. This may be a picture, a symbol, text or – combining all of these – an illustration plus symbol supported text!

In our household from my earliest memories comes a very morose ditty, always spoken with mock solemnity and guaranteed to have an effect:

Mrs. ———– gave a party     (pause)

No one came.

And her brother gave another     (pause)

Just the same.

We never saw this written down. I interpreted the party-giver as being Mrs. Hearty because the emotional tone merited a rather pejorative term to us. One sibling thinks of her as Mrs. Arty – which was actually far from uncomplimentary at home. Another has in mind Mrs. Harty – a name without emotional connotation.

This serves to point up the importance of learning topic vocabulary, suitably illustrated, before the introduction of the new lessons. We bring to words a bubble of emotion, meaning, context etc. and it is as well to set off down a new path with the Baedeker already perused!

Posted in Association, Child language, Helping children understand, Inference, Promoting language development, Teaching

A real there there

My grammar check immediately spots I have repeated a word, but never mind! As soon as I heard this wonderful new noun (a ‘there-there’), I found it captivating. How much more immediate than solace or consolation.

Other recent activity has also shown me that the vocabulary of interesting words I was encouraged to use in the old days so as to avoid repetition and cliché now has to be set aside in certain circumstances. In order to be found by the all-controlling search engines, one must use a prescribed set of words for each situation. It’s not that other wow words (as the youngsters call them) are proscribed, it’s just that the search engines don’t recognise a thing described with them!

This reminds me of linguistics lessons back when linguistics was a new topic: the prescribed expression is what you should say; you may not say the proscribed version if you wish to be correct; and the described version is what people actually do say – even if the books say they shouldn’t.

My meaningful UK English also seems to be mocked by new vocabulary. The children are learning about the rainforest. I receive the important vocabulary to be studied, which includes canopy, forest floor, emergent trees and the understory.

Canopy and forest floor I can understand. Emergent is a nice word – though hardly an everyday one, and confusingly similar to emergency for 7 year olds. Understory – hmm! The word story in UK English comes up with tale, rumour, article, lie with the trusty Shift+f7 Thesaurus, whereas storey has row, level, layer. US English on the other hand has tale, rumor, article, lie for story but tells me I cannot spell if I enter storey. So I presume that the rainforest understory has been named in US English and the UK has not done its own version!

How lucky that most children will automatically spell it without the e – even if the ancients are turning in their graves in the ‘understorey’!

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That’s very funny!

The child’s voice rang out, all consonants crystal clear.   Probably every adult in the surrounding pews had to resist the urge to turn round and engage with the little girl at the carol service. Communicating with attractive children who make comments on life or ask questions is so compelling. She offered other interesting remarks to her family – all easily heard for several yards around, I’m sure – throughout the hour. Later on I found she was only 2 years and 4 days old.

The world is truly not a fair place when it comes to speech and language development! Some acquire the means to hold a conversation understandable to all at 2, while others can be struggling for many more years. Which one will get more input, response, encouragement? You’ve guessed it! It does take an effort to keep talking to a child who doesn’t seem to be making much of your remarks. Or whose speech is so unclear you cannot understand it. Many adults do not take the risk.

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I smell a rat…

I see it floating in the air; I’ll nip it in the bud!

From English Language lessons many years ago this Mixed Metaphor sprang to mind when I heard another lovely example on the radio recently: ‘We’ve opened the Pandora’s Box and the can of worms is out.’

This is a surprising mental picture, but the message of the speaker is clear. Would it be so to anyone who could not call up the myth and the metaphor?

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Let’s not add to confusion

English is very open to misunderstanding because of the number of homophones we have. Some are not spelt the same way – but when you hear examples there is scope for confusion – and of course non-readers cannot visualise both spellings. When the homophones occur in situations where the words have ‘jargon’ meanings linked to a topic, it makes it really difficult for children with weak language skills and slow auditory processing.

Two such examples occurred recently:

  • An IEP item included the target to learn to do word sums with addition and subtraction ‘and to be able to tell the difference’. Since the numerical concept of ‘difference’ is one that some children find really difficult to master, ‘the difference’ could be replaced with ‘which is which’. Since ‘which’ is another homophone word, the whole item should probably be rephrased altogether!
  •  Talking about the Numicon pieces each player held in a game, an adult commented, ‘I’ve got a 2 too.’ When you hear that sort of utterance come out, you can revise it immediately: ‘I mean I’ve got a 2 as well.’ Did you ever laugh at the following silly ditty?
Wunwun was a race horse
Tutu was one too
Wunwun won one race one day
Tutu won one too.

As adult speakers, we can try to think ahead about words that can be avoided in some situations and use e.g. correct/right, difficult/hard, as well/too… Listen out and you are sure to hear other examples which might have been expressed more clearly.

Posted in Helping children understand, Promoting language development, Speech & Language Pathology, Speech & Language Therapy, Teaching | Tagged , , ,

What do you know?

A friend said she would enjoy teaching older people to use the computer but she was not an expert herself. Since she runs a big office, regularly sends emails and writes documents every day, she has obviously achieved excellent competence in some tasks. ‘Unconscious competence’ even – she knows, and doesn’t have to think about it.

She is however aware of many tasks the computer can be used for that she can’t do: here she has ‘conscious incompetence’ – she doesn’t know, but at least she knows that she doesn’t know.

So, since she is a confident trainer, I feel she could teach lots of people what she can do almost without thinking because she will see where they are starting from. And they will soon be able to do the useful tasks my friend has mastered. At a ‘conscious competence’ level: they will know, and know that they know – but it won’t be second nature for quite a while!

Better for the learners that they learn some skills they want really well than leap in without any guidance at the level of ‘unconscious incompetence’ – when they don’t know, and they don’t know that they don’t know. That way is the maelstrom of spam and corruption!

Trying to help children who have made little progress with literacy and numeracy, it is all too easy to take for granted the skills we have at the unconscious competence level – and forget we once had to learn them. Usually from someone who had analysed the task, thought about the sub-tasks, and who taught in logical steps.

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A Marmite relationship

Watch one of the men in charge of a display of birds of prey! He strides around the ring, talking non-stop in an informative but colloquial style about the birds, while his colleague gets the birds to fly. As the speaker comes closer, the sound quality from his amplification system is a bit distorted. He is referring to one of the birds and – still walking and talking at speed – he comments that he has a ‘Marmite relationship’ with the bird which is out at that moment.

Through my mind flashes ‘you love it or you hate it’ and I presume he means that the  bird doesn’t like him as much as the other handler. The unknown toddler in front of me can’t be making anything of the commentary really. But Marmite – he knows that word! He exclaims like an echo ‘Marmite!’ as if he’s encountered an old friend.

I guess we are primed to pick out words we know and attempt to make sense of them! All the more reason to introduce children to words carefully and make sure they say them clearly, and know they can have hidden extra meanings sometimes!

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The cobbler’s children go unshod!

Don’t you love earwigging? Not in an unpleasant way – just overhearing because you can’t help it.

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Look, mummy, look!

Many of the children who fall behind with language development have immense problems with drawing inferences: from events, from pictures, from conversation and especially from text when they get to that stage.

It is delightful to observe children who do not have such problems commenting on things they see around them. The ‘comment’ might only be to point or look amazed, but very young children can be quick to appreciate there’s something ‘not quite right’. The little boy I saw pointing and telling his mum to look appeared to be about 3. What he had noticed as striking was a narrow, hilly street – looking like any other, with pavements and a roadway between – but half way down the Council had erected two posts in the roadway to stop it being used by cars. The child didn’t attempt to verbalise this quirky sight but he was clearly very satisfied by his mother understanding what he found surprising and making a suitable comment to acknowledge the oddity and explain the reason for it. He had inferred (at some level) that roads – to be any good as roads – should not have permanent obstructions blocking them.

I loved the look of astonishment on the face of an even younger child – no more than a toddler – in the park. He had made his way towards a shiny toy car, apparently left in the middle of the grass. He stretched out a finger tentatively to stroke it when all of a sudden it took off and drove at speed out of range! Why was he so amazed? Because, one assumes, he had already internalised the fact that toy cars should not move of their own accord. The young couple with the remote control who had been watching him with good humour laughed and made the car zoom around some more. Once the toddler had seen the couple and the ‘magic box’, he no longer seemed at all surprised.   He couldn’t have said what it was, but he seemed to accept there was an explanation after all.

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Keep speech simple too

It’s not just print that needs adapting – even talk can be confusing!

The words we use, the speed we go, the in-between time – all these will influence how much a child understands. Especially the child with delayed or impaired language development.

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Keeping text simple

It can’t be hard to make things simpler… can it?

Well, actually, it can be quite tricky. Creating or adapting resources for children with language impairment can take a long time. Not only that. After using the resources it may be necessary to revise the language if some counter-intuitive things come to light!

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Posted in Child language, Competence level, Grammar, Helping children understand, Promoting language development, Speech & Language Pathology, Speech & Language Therapy, Teaching | Tagged , , ,

Are you listening to me?

This is normally said in exasperation when a child has not jumped into action at the first time of telling.  It is often swiftly followed by I won’t tell you again… which may mean either I will tell you again (ad nauseam) or I will give you a slap!

So we expect children to listen to us – and to pick up on the many different ways we say things, together with interpreting the idioms, the hints, the sarcasm, the teasing, the facial expression and tone of voice. And we expect them to know we always talk sense, unless of course we’re talking nonsense on purpose as a game.

Sadly, however, adults often forget to extend the same trust towards children that they are talking sense – from their knowledge and viewpoint. So the adult may say or imply the child is talking rubbish because the adult forgot to extend the courtesy of trying to make sense of the child’s utterance.

1. Adult showing photo of large truck: What’s this?

Child (confidently): Bigwig.

Adult hasn’t seen the right TV show to interpret this as big rig and reacts as if child is talking nonsense.

2. Child: Why bus stopped?

Adult: More people are getting on.

Child: No bus-stop there.

Adult: We can’t see the bus-stop.   [It’s too near the side of the double-decker bus to be seen from the top deck.]

Long pause.

Child: Are there clear bus-stops?

Adult (puzzled): What? No.   [And does not think the child might have thought that the bus-stop can’t be seen because it’s clear like clear glass!]

If we as adults expect children to be saying something sensible, and take the blame if we don’t understand, then real communication may take place. If we don’t take the trouble to think What could this child be trying to express? then the opportunity will pass by (a) to gain insight into a child’s thought processes, and (b) to demonstrate understanding by making a sensible reply which may include a model of how it could have been said better.

Idioms are fairly confusing for children and foreigners alike!   These set phrases can’t be turned around or changed – that is proscribed by our linguistic rules.

Child: I didn’t see the squirrel.

Adult: You didn’t look properly.

Child: I did.   I peeled my eyes.

Adult: Oh well. Next time we’ll both keep our eyes peeled and we’ll be sure to see it.

(This helpful adult understood the child had attempted to use an idiom. Instead of saying You’ve got that wrong, the adult used the idiom correctly in her own speech – providing a modelled example.)

If you are involved with a child who tries to communicate but is very hard to follow, try to spend at least some time with pictures or a game where the content is in front of you both! The hardest remarks to understand are likely to occur when the child launches into a stream of talk including names and events you know nothing about. And the child nearly always knows you don’t understand when you make remarks pretending that you do!

Posted in Child language, Helping children understand, Promoting language development, Teaching | Tagged , ,

2-word and 3-word levels

It may not sound much but…

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