Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Using Science Activities for Developing Academic Language (part 2)

Most children have had countless first-hand experiences with objects, toys, and the outdoors by the time they arrive at school for their first day of Kindergarten. The greatest number of high utility words can be mastered through these events. However, the quantity of pre-Kindergarten first-hand experiences has decreased significantly in the last decade with the advent of handheld technology.

More children today have a greater involvement with "in silico" experiences (not of the real world). Classroom practitioners have noticed a sharp decline in linguistic ability as a result of children spending more time playing with technology toys rather than having the normal "serve-and-receive" language exchanges with caregivers and older more language-capable children. 

Research tells us that of the most common language interactions used, 400 to 600 high frequency words are used most often out of the nearly 90,000 most widely-used English words (actual figure = 86,741): 

1. Children's books contain 627 of the high utility words
2. Primetime children's TV shows use 543 of the high utility words
3. Conversations among non-college graduates typically deploy only 496 of the high utility words 

4. However, science reading use 4389 of the high utility words rendering science the richest source for developing academic vocabulary (and it simultaneously teaches students how to think scientifically).
It is through discourse during active experiences with others that children learn syntax and vocabulary usage. When they are engaged in science activities and investigation, children have a opportunity to practice and further develop their proficiency in syntax and vocabulary. The chart below summarizes how such experiences can enhance language competency.


Content-specific terms (atom, germ, osmosis, photosynthesis)

Polysemous words (multiple meanings)

Morphology (prefixes, suffixes, root words and other parts of words)

General academic terms (analysis, argument, connotation, resolution, aspect, etc.)

Everyday vocab., specialized vocab (life cycle, metamorphosis, pupa, chrysalis, larva), and technical academic words and expressions  
Understand and use abstract words/concepts (chaos, energy, fragile, principle)

Functional language (making requests; giving advice, etc. - “If I were you, I would…)

Figurative speech ("So hungry I could eat a bear.")


Sentence structure (simple, compound, complex) and length

Transitions/connectives (e.g., however, because, therefore,)

Complex verb tenses (imperative verbs: preheat, combine, mix, etc.)

Passive voice (“Magnetism is one of the four major forces in our universe.”)


Posing arguments using claims and evidence

Drawing conclusions

High amount and density of speech/written text

Using discipline-specific language

Understanding that voice, perspective and audience can change

Clarity and cohesion of ideas across longer sentences/paragraphs

Transitions of thoughts

Variety of sentence types
No offense intended towards English majors, but the purpose of developing competencies in language is to understand how to use them in disciplines/contexts like science and social science.


Developing Academic Language (part 1)

Many students struggle in school due so much to the difficulty in understanding complex concepts, but instead due to the unfamiliar and specialized language used when presenting the concept. As most parents and educators realize, everyday language skills do not translate into successful academic experiences.

Research from Jim Cummins is among the most comprehensible on this topic. Cummins divided language into to easily digestible categories.

The first is "Basic Interpersonal Communicative Skills" (BICS), and the second is "Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency" or CALP.

         BICS (also referred to as "communicative competence") is highly contextualized with lower cognitive demands to understand, and includes the listening and speaking skills that students tend to acquire quickly as they learn a language or as they learn a new language (within the first few years). The young learners master the language in order to communicate with others as they engage daily in ordinary social interactions, such as asking someone for his/her name, asking for directions, requesting food from a menu. BICS are often beneficiaries of non-verbal cues, gestures, facial expressions, and objects that can immediately be referred to (including pointing to them).

        Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP): describes the academic language and the cognitively demanding language skills necessary for success in a formal classroom setting. CALP typically requires 5-7 years to develop, but longer for students with less native language proficiency. CALP is far less contextualized. Lectures, classroom conversations, teacher-student discussions, research projects and complex language skills such as summarizing, analyzing, extracting and interpreting meaning; evaluating evidence; composing; and editing are heavily dependent on a student's mastery of CALP, where one's language proficiency does the heavy lifting (listening or reading) without the assistance of environmental clues or cues.



Monday, November 28, 2016

The“Survival of the Fittest”? No: It Was the Survival of the Fastest Adapting Brains

Evolutionary biologists have estimated that 99.99% of the species that have ever lived on earth are extinct today. From devastating meteors and asteroids to natural environmental hazards, their survival was under constant threats and many of which spelled immediate doom. Human beings, on the other hand, became quite adept at avoiding danger partially by creating their own environment, rather than just adapting to it. They crafted ways to solve problems, and became the only animal on the planet (1) that looks for problems, (2) that even predicts future problems, and  (3) that invents “practice problems” to solve.  (The imaginary and practice problems were/are presented in a safe and controlled environment that we called “schools”).
With the capacity to think flexibly, and after amassing an incredibly robust repertoire of problem-solving strategies, human beings evolved as the only species that could run away from a problem, swim away from a problem, climb away from a problem, talk our way out of a problem, create vehicles (sometimes with cooperating domesticated animals) to take us away from a problem, and use technology to design remedies to our problems. Mastering a wide range of possible problem-solving strategies and passing them down from one generation to the next permitted the survival of our species. However, it was not as much governed by the “survival of the fittest” rules as it was the survival of the most innovative and fastest adapting brains.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

8 Fascinating Things We Learned About the Mind in 2015

I recently came across an article from last year that is worth sharing. It describes “8 Fascinating Things We Learned About the Mind in 2015” written by Carolyn Gregoire. While a couple of items would certainly constitute “no-brainers,” several of them are quite startling.

1. Smartphones are wildly distracting (constantly looking at a screen is detrimental).

2. Psychedelics may be the next big thing in mental health care (there is a renaissance in psychedelic research  for psychiatric purposes).

3. Pollution is worse for the brain than we realized (exposure to air pollution is associated with neurodegenerative diseases.)

4. The brain and immune system are actually linked (there is a direct connection between the brain and the body's immune system)

5. Erasing memories could be the future of addiction treatment (mind hacking can help with permanent memory erasure)

6. Nature does the mind good (there are mental health benefits to spending time outdoors)

7. To boost your mood, boost your bacteria (increasing healthy bacteria in the stomach can improve health)

8. Good sleep is critical to a healthy emotional life (healthy amounts of sleep can improve emotional intelligence).

For more details on these discoveries, see the website below.


Sunday, November 6, 2016

Is Dyslexia a Disorder Affecting Life or Just School?

While there is hardly an argument that dyslexia can interfere with learning to read, we must also acknowledge that reading is one of many cognitive artifacts and strategies by which we learn. Any experienced educator or child psychologist will gladly tell you from both training and experience that the manner is which children learn is wide-ranging.  

Over 55% of the astrophysicists are dyslexic. Dyslexia causes difficulties with language processing and thus language development, which is most noticeable in formal education settings. However, dyslexics become more adept at VST (visual-spatial-thinking or thinking in pictures) and visualizing a big broad picture of things that others can only envision from "inside the box."

The list of other individuals who had learning difficulties because of dyslexia includes Albert Einstein, Beethoven, Steve Jobs, John F. Kennedy, Leonardo da Vinci, Walt Disney, Picasso, Mozart, Steven Spielberg, Richard Branson, and Winston Churchill. While each of them may have struggled in school, they did not struggle with achievement in life. Consequently, those individuals struggling with dyslexia at four times more likely to become self-made millionaires than the rest of us.


Friday, November 4, 2016

First-hand Experiences Are Essential Cognitive Rehearsals for Writing and Reading (in that order)

When asked to begin a writing assignment, students often respond by asking one of two questions (and often both). Their first question is "What do I write about?" Their  second question is frequently "How do I get started?" According to Colorado master educator, Eileen Patrick, “You can't make the words or ideas come out of your pencil, until you can get them to come out of your mouth first.”
Discourse and dialogue are the vitally important “cognitive rehearsals” that should always precede any writing assignment. Unfortunately, teachers typically tell students, "If you aren't ready to begin writing your essay, then outline it first," which is unwittingly asking them to engage in a higher cognitive task (synthesizing and summarizing) than the writing itself.  
Before students are asked to write about a given topic, they should be afforded (1) an opportunity to have a first-hand or virtual (visual) experience with it to gain some degree of appreciation for the "what," (2) some time allotted to reflect on and digest the experience, and then, (3) time to talk with peers about what was learned, what was discovered that was surprising, and what they might still "wonder" about the topic, both specifically and  generally -- the "why it is so."  Through the talking about related personal/virtual experiences with a given subject, students prepare themselves to write about it. They can write down that which they have just articulated.
Although we are prone to say that "words are used to communicate," before we can even utter those words, we must think about them first. A more accurate statement is "words are used to think, and we can say what we think." It is impossible to speak without thinking  first (yes, there are people who do so, sponsoring more derision than admiration). Prior to expressing our thoughts, we must "think them" first. Preparing a student to think more deeply about a topic and expressing that thinking coherently is the first step in what we refer to academically as "good" student writing.  
During first-hand learning experiences, students quickly add important new vocabulary words to their personal "working" vocabularies. We often hear that students can best learn new words "in context," it should be stated more precisely that they learn new words more efficiently in the context of doing, rather than in the process of reading. This is because, when the written text is unfamiliar, coupled with the introduction of words that the learner has never seen before, neither the concept or the vocabulary will be readily grasped. Most likely, both will remain elusive.
While the accumulated vocabulary that a student brings to a text largely determines if he/she will spend more time trying to understand the target concept or devote a majority of the reading time merely attempting to make sense of the strange new words being used to bring the concept to light.
Research suggests that 95% of what a student gains from reading a passage depends on his/her background knowledge or what the student "brings to the text." Students with little or no background knowledge will likely comprehend far less than a student who is well versed in the same topic. (Similar to cooking without many of the basic ingredients). No prior experience with the vocabulary words tends to expand the gap between the novice learner and comprehending the topic. Having either personal or virtual experiences with a subject, and having talked about and having written about it provide the level of background knowledge that enhances reading comprehension. 
Conceptual development progresses along a distinctly consistent pathway that is grounded in concrete experiential learning.

Experiences Are Cognitive Rehearsals
When playing with objects, learners are simultaneously manipulating/playing with ideas (internal dialogues attach words and meaning to actions – the “mind’s eye”) building the representative brain circuitry.
Exploring and experimenting involve examining relationships, interactions and systems, where learners formulate their own personal “theories” (mental constructs)
Thinking is a cognitive rehearsal for discourse.
Discourse is a cognitive rehearsal for writing (phonological loop or “inner voice”).
Playing with objects and ideas, exploring and experimenting, thinking, talking, and writing become cognitive rehearsals (background knowledge) for reading.
Writing and reading clarify one’s thoughts, generate coherent thinking, and cultivate precision in expressing one’s inner thoughts (supporting long-term memory consolidation).
Experience, discourse and writing become cognitive rehearsals for assessment.

In today's academic world driven by accountability, producing high test scores is viewed as the indicator of a quality education being offered. However, brain-considerate learning strategies such as these have a greater long-term impact on teaching "thinking," which is the true mission of formal education.