Archive for October, 2010

Isn’t it ironic?

October 15, 2010

A recent study, published in The British Journal of Developmental Psychology, examined how children recognize and use ironic language (defined as sarcasm, hyperbole, understatement and rhetorical questions) in natural household conversations.

Previous research, performed in a laboratory setting, indicated that children had no comprehension of irony before age 6, and little before age 11. This study looked at normal conversation in the home, and determined that even very young children understand and can use ironic speech, even if they can’t describe what they’ve done to a researcher.

Here’s the lead author of the report, Dr. Holly E. Recchia, an assistant professor of education at Concordia University in Montreal, quoted in a NY Times summary of the study:

You really see that they respond appropriately to this language in conversation. That’s not the same as saying they can explain their understanding explicitly.

The researchers identified a few patterns in the use of ironic speech. From the Times summary:

Although it is unclear why, compared with fathers and children, mothers used ironic language more in negative interactions than in positive ones, and rhetorical questions more frequently than any other form.

With all the children, hyperbole and rhetorical questions were most common. When the children were involved in a conflict, rhetorical questions and understatement were used more, while positive interactions usually involved sarcasm and hyperbole. Unlike their younger brothers and sisters, older siblings used sarcasm (“Thanks a lot — now you wrecked my collection”) more often than understatement (“I’m just a tiny bit angry with you right now”).
Compared with their parents, the children were more likely to use hyperbole, typically to emphasize grievous injustices done them by their siblings and parents: “You never give me an allowance, even when I’m good.” Older children used more irony than their younger siblings, and while younger ones were less likely to understand the meaning and function of the remarks, the differences were not large.

We should note that while we didn’t participate in this study, our families would fit squarely into the norm of those who did!

So what’s the relevance of research into children’s use of irony? Dr. Recchia, the study’s author, says that even though children’s understanding of irony was limited, it could still be useful:

“Parents tend to view ironic language negatively, but it’s not always negative or nasty. Sometimes it’s quite playful. It may be that humor and irony can help to defuse situations that might otherwise cause conflict. It may be an effective tool.”

Babbling Babies

October 14, 2010

On a visit to the pediatrician’s office, parents of newborns can expect to be asked about whether or not their kids are making noise. Recent research, highlighted in the NY Times, suggests that we should be looking for a specific kind of utterance from babies as young as 7 months old: their sounds should have developed into “canonical babble” that includes consonant sounds as well as vowels:

Babies who go on vocalizing without many consonants, making only aaa and ooo sounds, are not practicing the sounds that will lead to word formation, not getting the mouth muscle practice necessary for understandable language to emerge.

“A baby hears all these things and is able to differentiate them before the baby can produce them,” said Carol Stoel-Gammon, an emeritus professor of speech and hearing sciences at the University of Washington. “To make an m, you have to close your mouth and the air has to come out of your nose. It’s not in your brain somewhere – you have to learn it.”

The consonants in babble mean the baby is practicing, shaping different sounds by learning to maneuver the mouth and tongue, and listening to the results.” They get there by 12 months,” Professor Stoel-Gammon continued, “and to me the reason they get there is because they have become aware of the oral motor movements that differentiate between an b and an m.”

What’s the best way for babies to learn? Sorry parents, but it’s on us: “Babies have to hear real language from real people to learn these skills. Television doesn’t do it, and neither do educational videos: recent research suggests that this learning is in part shaped by the quality and context of adult response.”

Even gifted students can improve

October 13, 2010

When the Fast ForWord programs were first introduced in the late 1990s, there was a general consensus that the programs were appropriate for students with diagnosed language and learning difficulties. The standard for “appropriateness” was typically that students should score at least one standard deviation below the norm on a standardized language battery.

When Fast ForWord was introduced into schools, students from across the learning spectrum were exposed to the program. Mainstream educated students, including many who were designated as gifted and talented, trained with the programs and saw tremendous improvement in foundational cognitive skills as well as general learning and reading abilities.

The programs target cognitive skills that are critical for effective learning. These skills don’t necessarily correlate to grade levels (for example, there’s no such thing as a second grade working memory), so kids with varying abilities across these skills and of many ages can benefit.

Scientific Learning (creators of Fast ForWord programs) just released the results of a study of gifted students who trained with the programs. The study looked at early fourth graders whose average reading grade equivalency was mid-fifth grade. After training with the Fast ForWord programs, the students grade equivalency in reading improved to mid-seventh grade. These dramatic results indicate that even gifted and talented students, who would not be identified for additional reading support, can still benefit from improved foundational cognitive skills developed by Fast ForWord.

There is more information on the study at Scientific Learning’s blog.

Be Amazing Learning is a provider of Fast ForWord programs. At Be Amazing Learning, we have helped students across the learning spectrum, including many gifted students, reach their full potential. For more information, visit our Web site at or call (800) 792-4809.

Early retirement may retire your memory

October 12, 2010

The New York Times today reports on a study, published recently in the Journal of Economic Perspective, that suggests that the earlier people retire, the more quickly their memory declines.

The study compared memory test results for aging populations from many countries and found a direct correlation between performance by a nation’s seniors on a memory task and that nation’s average retirement age. In the United States, where 65 to 70 percent of men are still working in their early sixties, seniors had the highest cognitive score (11 out of 20 words remembered when asked to repeat and later recall a list of words). In Spain, where only 38 percent of men are working in their early sixties, the average cognitive score was 6.

As the Times article pointed out, the study doesn’t indicate what aspect of working helps older individuals retain their memories, nor whether all types of work are helpful:

If work does help maintain cognitive functioning, it will be important to find out what aspect of work is doing that, said Dr. Richard Suzman, associate director for behavioral and social research at the National Institute on Aging. “Is it the social engagement and interaction or the cognitive component of work, or is it the aerobic component of work?” he asked. “Or is it the absence of what happens when you retire, which could be increased TV watching?”

Buzz: A Year of Paying Attention

October 11, 2010

NPR’s Talk of the Nation last week featured an author interview with Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist Katherine Ellison, whose new book Buzz: A Year of Paying Attention chronicles her struggle to effectively parent a child with ADHD, while dealing with her own ADHD symptoms.

You can hear the entire segment on the Talk of the Nation web site, or view a transcript of the discussion. There’s also an excerpt from Ellison’s book.


The Dreaded Parent-Teacher Conference

October 8, 2010

It’s back to school week. Then you turn around and it’s already time for the fall parent-teacher conference.

It’s hard to know who dreads the conference most. Parents? Teachers? Kids?

Does it have to be so bad? The Wall Street Journal describes efforts underway to improve the parent-teacher conference for all parties so that teachers can be less stressed, parents can get more (and more useful) information, and students don’t have to fear the post-conference dinner table.

On multiple fronts, there are now efforts under way to repair and improve how conferences are conducted. Researchers and consultants are touting new techniques to ease tensions. They’re focusing on how teachers should choose their words, where parents should sit in a classroom, how divorced couples should be accommodated, and how to avoid bruised feelings on both sides of what should be a “partnership.”

Some communities are trying unconventional approaches, such as asking students to lead the conferences or having parents and teachers meet at “neutral” locations, such as coffee shops and public libraries.

The article includes a list of 10 ways for parents to get the most out of the conference, covering everything from talking to your child before the conference to following up with emails. Definitely worth a look as we head into conference season.

The Secret Life of Psycholinguist Jean Berko Gleason

October 7, 2010

The Web site for the PBS program NOVA has a great feature called The Secret Life of Scientists and Engineers. As the Web site says, it’s “where the lab coats come off.” Each featured scientist provides a 30 second summary of their research and answers 10 questions that are completely unrelated to their field of study.

Psycholinguist Jean Berko Gleason is this week’s featured scientist. Check out the site to to hear a quick overview of her work in the area of language acquisition (specifically how children acquire morphological rules in English), and find out about her secret life (she drives fast cars).

For her research, Gleason invented the Wug:

To find out if kids have the same sort of knowledge we needed to use natural-sounding words that they didn’t already know. If we used real words like “dog,” they might know the plural “dogs,” but this could be an imitation of what they heard from adults. So I invented the little animal called a “wug,” a name that we could be sure they never heard before. We showed them pictures of a wug, and said “This is a wug.” Then we showed them another picture and said, “Now there’s another one. There are two of them. There are two….??” To our delight, even preschoolers could add the plural ending and tell us that there were two “wugs.” We used this invented word method to check kids’ knowledge of plurals, possessives, verb tenses, and a variety of other important features of English and found that by the age of 4 they could provide all the most common forms.

Gleason is one of about 30 scientists featured on the NOVA site (with a new addition every couple of weeks). Some of our favorites? The neuroscientist cheerleader, the climate scientist juggler, and the experimental psychologist foot photographer.

Developing abilities in gifted and talented kids

October 6, 2010

We spend a lot of time talking about struggling students, from kids with diagnosed learning difficulties like dyslexia or auditory processing disorder, to kids for whom reading and learning is just plain harder than it should be.

But students across the learning spectrum can struggle to reach their potential. As an example, check out this recent post from Prufrock’s Gifted Child Information Blog (Prufrock Press publishes books and other resources about gifted education; blogger Carol Fertig is the author of Raising a Gifted Child: A Parenting Success Handbook):

Young people who have a strong visual-spatial ability visualize and retain images in their minds and then mentally manipulate those images. Kids who have this ability may be very smart but, because they learn in a style that is different from the usual sequential and verbal style of the classroom, they may not be a good match for the typical school.

Maybe. Or perhaps with assistance developing other foundational cognitive skills like sequencing and auditory processing, these visual-spatial learners can thrive.

We know from fMRI scans that learning and reading tasks activate various centers of neural activity in the brain, including those responsible for visual and auditory processing as well as memory. And we know that when particular areas are abnormally activated, significant challenges to learning can occur (for example, the visual centers of the brains of students with dyslexia tend to be hyper-activated during reading, while their auditory centers are under-activated).

But most importantly, we have programs that can strengthen areas of the brain, such as those responsible for sequencing and auditory processing, that may not be operating at peak efficiency.

Learners across the spectrum will struggle to reach their potential when their brain processing efficiency isn’t maximized. For gifted students who are visual-spatial learners, this may mean that they need assistance to develop their auditory sequencing and processing abilities. At Be Amazing Learning, we have helped many gifted students reach their full potential. For more information, visit our Web site at or call (800) 792-4809.

Teaching language to a machine

October 5, 2010

We posted last week about the Children of the Code Web site, and noted that reading is such an incredibly complex task that it’s not notable that some students struggle with reading, but rather miraculous that any of us can read at all. Computers are good at breaking down complex tasks like forecasting weather – could they be any good at learning language and reading?

Today’s NY Times describes a computer program under development at Carnegie-Mellon University called NELL (for Never Ending Language Learning). NELL is attempting to learn by acting not like a computer (computers are generally very good at following rules – for example, learning to play chess – but lousy at more nuanced tasks), but like a human being.

Researchers working on NELL cited an example of the following two sentences:

The girl caught the butterfly with the spots.

The girl caught the butterfly with the net.

A human reader inherently understands that girls hold nets, and girls are not usually spotted. So, in the first sentence, “spots” is associated with “butterfly,” and in the second, “net” with “girl.”

“That’s obvious to a person, but it’s not obvious to a computer,” Dr. Mitchell said. “So much of human language is background knowledge, knowledge accumulated over time. That’s where NELL is headed, and the challenge is how to get that knowledge.”

But if a computer is using a hierarchy of rules self-developed rules to resolve ambiguity in language, what happens if it gets a rule wrong?

When Dr. Mitchell scanned the “baked goods” category recently, he noticed a clear pattern. NELL was at first quite accurate, easily identifying all kinds of pies, breads, cakes and cookies as baked goods. But things went awry after NELL’s noun-phrase classifier decided “Internet cookies” was a baked good. (Its database related to baked goods or the Internet apparently lacked the knowledge to correct the mistake.)

NELL had read the sentence “I deleted my Internet cookies.” So when it read “I deleted my files,” it decided “files” was probably a baked good, too. “It started this whole avalanche of mistakes,” Dr. Mitchell said. He corrected the Internet cookies error and restarted NELL’s bakery education.

The researchers behind NELL (and other projects that are attempting to teach computers to attack language as humans do) cite the possibilities for improved natural language search (where searching returns answers to questions, rather than just lists of relevant Web sites) as a positive outcome of their research. One hopes as well that as we train a computer to think like a human we gain additional insight into how humans think and learn, with the potential to improve learning for our children.

Denver area presentation: Brain Rules for Baby

October 3, 2010

If you’re in the Denver Colorado area, you might be interested in an upcoming presentation by Dr. John Medina, author of Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School and Brain Rules for Baby: How to Raise a Smart and Happy Child from Zero to Five.

This lecture is aimed at early childhood professionals, family and pediatric health care professionals, parents, and parent advocates. With Dr. Medina’s engaging style and provocative approach to creating “brain‐friendly”environments, we will challenge ourselves and our communities to turn scientific evidence into the actions needed to provide a more secure future for our youngest citizens.

The lecture will be held at the University of Denver on Thursday, October 28 at 4:30. The lecture is presented by Early Childhood Colorado Information Clearing House (a “gateway to information and resources about all matters related to the healthy and thriving development of children, birth to age 8”). More information is available at their Web site.

At Be Amazing Learning, we’re intrigued by Dr. Medina’s work (we’re chugging through Brain Rules, and hope to have a review posted soon). In particular, it’s great to see educators and parents contemplating new approaches to raising and educating children that are driven by the newest research into how the brain develops.

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