+ Language Skills : “Literate” vs Conversational

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This post is NOT about “reading”; it’s about language — as it is heard, interpreted and produced.  Many of our learning disabled children have severe language processing difficulties. No wonder they are slower to pick up what other children just seem to osmose.  Language use needs to be directly taught.  Modeling is one way to do it.

Note: this has nothing to do with “intelligence”.

“Language is a dynamic system that involves the ability to integrate knowledge of

  • phonology (individual speech sounds)
  • morphology (individual word parts — roots, affixes)
  • syntax (sentence structure)
  • semantics (word meaning)   and
  • pragmatics (expected rules of discourse or conversation)  

to create sentences within conversational, narrative, and expository discourse contexts.”  [ASHA, 1983]

When students have language impairments, they learn language more slowly for a variety of reasons: slower information processing, inefficient attention, imprecise perception, and/or ineffective working memory.  As a result, these children receive less distinct mental representations of the language input directed at them. 

So language learning for these children requires more mental energy, and their language usage is more variable.

Language occurs on a continuum of formality: oral conversation with friends about daily events would be at the “informal” end; a written essay intended for an audience of strangers about the nature of the universe would be at the “formal” end.

Language As Used in the Classroom

In order to participate fully in classroom communication contexts and acquire academic content and skills, students must learn to deal with, and acquire, versions of the formal (or “literate”) end of the continuum.

The book, “Contextualized Language Intervention” (Ukrainetz, 2006), discusses attributes of literate language.  

Literate language is decontextualized; it is more abstract, more formal.  It is more carefully crafted, with attention to rhetoric as well as content.  It is fluent, well-planned, with a minimum of fillers (“you know”) and vague words (“the thing there”).  Vocabulary is more diverse, abstract, multisyllabic, and more sophisticated.  The syntax can be strikingly different from informal conversations.

Here are some examples of literate lexicon and syntax:

  • Sentence conjoining, with conjuctions and adverbials (however, consequently, as a result, nevertheless)
  • Sentence embedding, especially objective relative clauses (I want the book that is new.)
  • Elaborated noun phrases, especially with “postmodification” (The tall man with the great booming voice took control of the rowdy crowd.)
  • Expanded verb phrases, expressing subtleties of tense or aspect (I would have preferred that he had left immediately.)
  • Mental and linguistic verbs, (wonder, ponder, discuss, clarify)
  • Adverbs, adverbial phrases and adverbial clauses, particularly “fronted forms” (Quickly and silently, he dropped into the tunnel.)

Some Techiniques 

 The book offers some ways to contextually scaffold (model and support) language learning, with 1)  linguistic,  2)  response, and  3) regulatory “facilitation devices” which are embedded in conversations with the child.    The following suggestions are in the context of storybook readings.

1.     Linguistic Facilitations

  • Syntactic expansion — a contingent (meaning triggered by the student’s previous statement) verbal response that makes their utterance grammatical.      Child:   “That bird gonna ask him come in.”  Adult: “Yes, the bird is going to ask him to come in.”
  • Semantic  expansion — adds new, relevant information; also called extension.    Child: “Then him fell over that.”   Adult: “Yes, the kangaroo fell into the bear’s swimming pool.”
  •  Recast — retains the semantic information, but alters the syntax.   Child: “That board picture was from Jason.”    Adult: “Yeah, Jason drew that picture on the board.”
  • Prompt —  comment or  question that leads a student to complete a thought or adjust grammar.   Child: “Hims going to run back home.”    Adult: “Who’s going to run back home?”    Child: “He’s going to run back home.”
  • Elaboration question — leads the student to expand on what he or she just said.    Child:  “He was scared of that dinosaur.”    Adult:  “Why was he scared?”  Child:  “He thought the dinosaur might chase him and bite him.”
  • Vertical structure — a question is posed to get more information; student answers; then both student utterances are framed by the adult into a more complex sentence.  Child: “That moose holding up a hammer”.    Adult:  “What would happen if he dropped it now?”    Child:  “It would hit his toe.”    Adult: “If the moose dropped the hammer, it would hit his toe.”

2.     Response Facilitations

  • Model –you model the target word or form.     Adult:  “Little Grunt is very sad because he doesn’t think he’ll ever see his dinosaur again.”
  • Question to elicit a new utterance — designed to elicit the target structure.  Adult:  [points to a picture]  “Tell me how each person in the Grunt family feels about what the chief said, and why each person feels that way.”        
  • Prompt — you pause, and repeat student’s statement; or provide a partial response to encourage the student to use the target structure.  Adult:  “Little Grunt is very sad…”

3.   Regulatory Facilitations

  • State the goal or target — tell the student what they will be working on.  Adult:  “We’re going to look at the book again, and we’re going to focus on talking about how the characters feel about what happens.”
  • Compare or contrast — highlight the similarities or differences between related words or grammatical structures.     Adult:  “Little Grunt is sad about having to tell his dinosaur to go away.  But Chief Rockhead Grunt is happy that the dinosaur is leaving, because he was too big to live in the cave.”
  • Informative feedback — tell the student whether something he said was right or wrong, and explain why.     Student:  “Everyone was happy that the dinosaur left.”     Adult:  “Not Little Grunt.  Little Grunt was sad when the dinosaur left, because the dinosaur was his pet.”  

These kinds of guiding scaffolds should be frequent and consistent.  Research shows that to be effective, these techniques must be intensive; every day and for extended periods.  Do what you can to carry on such conversations.  Eventually teachers will make sure the child knows what is being worked on (targeted):  The child will be able to say, “We’re learning to make longer sentences;” or, “I’m telling the story in sequence today.”

sole source: “Contextualized Language Interventions: Scaffolding PreK – 12 Literacy Achievement”, ed. Teresa Ukrainetz, Thinking Publications 2006   ISBN 1-932054-47-2 

tutoring in Columbus OH:   Adrienne Edwards   614-579-6021   or aedwardstutor@columbus.rr.com


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