Monthly Archives: August 2013

How to Teach a High School Class with a Wide Range of Language Differences

It is clear from the literature that socioeconomic status, parent language usage and modeling, cognitive impairments, regional and cultural language variations, appropriate use of language registers for different situations, alternate primary languages, and many other factors contribute to language differences from early on in a child’s life (Hart & Risley, 1995; Payne, 1996; Pence Turnbull & Justice, 2012). What is less obvious is how all of those language differences, many of which developed prior adolescence, affect a child’s high school literacy abilities and the necessary teacher responses to these differences as children progress through secondary school to create an equitable classroom for all. Further complicating the issues, secondary verbal, reading, and writing expectations become increasingly complex as the student become more aware of how their ability of communicate effectively affects their social status among their peers. How can a high school teacher account for all of his or her students’ language and literacy abilities, inabilities, and social needs while creating and adjusting curricular activities that best support each student’s individual needs?

In prior generations, most classes were relatively homogeneous, divided by race, ethnicity, ability, SES, and development/disability. Today, inclusive classrooms frequently include children from across the economic spectrum, English language learners, children with cognitive and developmental disabilities, and various ethnicities, all of which introduce different instructional needs into the mix. It seems that the traditional style of the teacher lecturing from the front of the classroom while student take notes is not effective in the current environment because it favors some students abilities over the others. Alternatively, a newer kind of pedagogy that might be more effective for accommodating language differences is to create a classroom atmosphere where students are encouraged to explore ideas with one another while the teacher facilitates the discussion (Cazden, 2001, p. 54). Prensky (2008) suggests

…the basic direction is away from the “old” pedagogy of teachers “telling” (or talking, or lecturing, or being the “Sage on the Stage”) to the “new” pedagogy of kids teaching themselves with the teacher’s guidance (a combination of “student-centered learning,” “problem-based learning,’ and the teacher’s being the ‘Guide on the Side.”) (p. 1).

While Prensky (2008) is primarily concerned about how technology fits into the classroom, this teaching paradigm also provides more opportunity for students to practice using oral and written language, while teachers can differentiate instruction by supporting each student’s language needs as they become the speaker. True interpersonal discussion rarely happens between students in classroom lessons, but if teachers held back from speaking and allowed the language to progress, the nature of the language would shift. Not only will language shift so the teachers can learn about the students’ primary dialects, language register shifts, syntax, and oral prosody, but also the nature of learning changes from explanatory to exploratory providing opportunities for deeper learning (Cazden, 2001, p. 62).

When one operates a classroom as a language environment, he or she facilitates discovery by the students about how they need to adjust their language usage through trial and error. This practice is similar to the Silent Method, which taught language to ELLs and was embraced by the cognitive revolution in the 1970s for ELLs (Pence Turnbull & Justice, 2012, p. 68). Teacher modeling can gently correct mistakes, and the teacher can develop scaffolding techniques to facilitate better individual language usage for each student regardless of his or her specific differences. In addition, adopting language objectives to supplement content objectives for each topic and making those objectives an explicit goal for the conversational aspects of the student dialog could foster skills practice along with the deeper learning provided by student investigation for all students in the classroom who may be lacking those language skills (Center for Applied Linguistics, 2013). Other SIOP suggestions will also help in a language intensive classroom. These things can assist the teacher in adjusting the classroom to differentiate for the wide range of language abilities in today’s heterogeneous classrooms.

Cazden, C. B. (2001). Variations in lesson structure. In C. B. Cazden, Classroom discourse: The language of teaching and learning (pp. 53-79). Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Center for Applied Linguistics. (2013). SIOP resources. Retrieved from CAL SIOP:
Hart, B., & Risley, T. R. (1995). Meaningful differences in the everyday experience of young American children. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co., Inc.
Payne, R. (1996, March). Understanding and working with students and adults from poverty. Retrieved from Concordia University—Portland Blackboard:
Pence Turnbull, K. L., & Justice, L. M. (2012). Language development from theory to practice. Boston, MA: Pearson.
Prensky, M. (2008, Nov-Dec). The role of technology. Educational Technology , 1-3.

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Posted by on August 24, 2013 in Uncategorized


Word Recognition vs. Sociopsycolinguistic Views of Developing Written Language Skills

In trying to discern which theory, the word recognition view where written language development is a learned skill as opposed to the sociopsycolinguistic view where written language development is innate and acquired, it was necessary to consider how my own children transitioned from using oral language exclusively to introducing reading and writing. While I tend typically to take a pragmatic view that most things are learned and we are born with few innate abilities, I had to reconsider because of my eight-year-old son who has autism. When Sam was small, under two-years-old, I noticed that he had significant oral language delays, which seemed at the time to be both that he lacked listening comprehension and oral speech. I do not think he spoke a real word until sixteen or eighteen months and he had difficulty following directions for the first few years. Yet, at the same time, Sam had an inordinate interest in alphabetics. At sixteen-months-old he would take a Frisbee type toy, and always oriented it so that the letters were in reading position. At first, I thought it was a coincidence, but over time I could see that he did it consistently regardless of whether he was spinning it, or someone handed it to him, he always adjusted the orientation to reading position.

Before Sam had much verbal language production, we would go to places and come home hours later and he would arrange his alphabet blocks or tiles to spell out words he saw while we were out. One day when he was in his early-intervention preschool, the group went on a field trip to an indoor amusement park, and when he returned he shocked his teachers by writing out the words Fun Zone in foam letters, which was the name of the amusement park. Sam was only three then, and he still had very limited, verbal communications skills. While he already had the diagnosis of autism, the team subsequently gave him the label of ASD with Hyperlexia.

Newman, et al., (2007) conducted a study to investigate certain aspects of ASD children with Hyperlexia. They define hyperlexia as “…children of average or above-average intelligence who demonstrated exceptional word-reading ability above that expected given their IQ, and at a higher level than their ability to comprehend and integrate words” (p. 760). The key thing that defines hyperlexic readers is that they have an understanding of word-letter systems, grapheme-to-phoneme correspondence, and phonology without having built up a lexicon to match. One of the questions they were trying to answer relates strongly to the current discussion. They wondered, “…whether word reading exhibited by individuals with HPL develops in the same way as “typical” reading taken to a level of expertise through practice, or whether hyperlexic children employ different componential skills to identify single words” (p. 762). One test they conducted showed that children with HPL had more success with decoding non-words, which suggests that they “…rely on phonological decoding, like typical readers, rather than visual memory or whole-word recognition” (p. 771). This is significant as it reinforces that these children are not merely reading words they already have in their lexicon, but cannot express to show that they comprehend. They are reading using phonologic skills that they seem to have taught themselves or of which they have an innate understanding.

One hypothesis is that these children with hyperlexia have an obsessive relationship with letters and numbers. Sam is certainly evidence of that in that since he was very little he always preferred letters to other toys and if one was missing we had to find it or replace the entire set or he would not be appeased. He still has an obsession at eight, as his most common interests are with logos (which are essentially designed words) and typefaces. One activity he loves is to use Adobe Illustrator with me to recreate close facsimiles of popular logos. Generally, even in cases when the design is unique to the company logo, and there is no commercially available typeface, Sam can tell me one that is close to a match that we can manipulate to try to emulate the font of the logo. Sam’s obsession with letter forms has been so strong over his lifetime, that it matches the hypothesis that a child with HPL has such a powerful impulse to use letters that the “…intensive practice with printed word leads to a precocious ability to read single words” (Newman, Macomber, Naples, Babitz, Volkmar, & Grigorenko, 2007, p. 773). What is interesting is that in Sam’s case, that ability seemed to begin before he had developed speech, so his practice was executed solely using other letters to match words and phrases he had seen hours earlier. Pronunciation came later as he developed better control of the phonemic aspects of language. Newman et al., (2007) conclude, “…our evidence suggests that although they [HPLs] are reading earlier, these children are engaging the same processes typically developing readers (i.e., phonological and orthographic mapping) do to recognize single words…the more mechanical reading skills of word recognition are disconnected from the more abstract skills of reading comprehension” (p. 773). These findings are significant in that they show that these children are not using additional skills that typical readers do not have. They are using the same skills except before comprehension, which typically precedes oral production (Pence Turnbull & Justice, 2012, p. 180), and certainly before reading emerges. Therefore, it seems that for a child to develop hyperlexia for manually or vocally producing words prior to listening comprehension, there must be some innate understanding of graphemes and or phonemes, which they employ at a time earlier than most. Perhaps this is due to the obsessive nature of ASD children, or it could be similar to how a blind child develops stronger senses of smell and hearing, so to could someone with a communication disorder develop an advanced use of innate reading skills. Therefore, I will fall on the side of the sociopsycolinguistic view of reading development.


Newman, T. M., Macomber, D., Naples, A. J., Babitz, T., Volkmar, F., & Grigorenko, E. L. (2007). Hyperlexia in children with autism spectrum disorder. Journal of Autism & Developmental Disorders , 37 (1), 706-774.
Pence Turnbull, K. L., & Justice, L. M. (2012). Language development from theory to practice. Boston, MA: Pearson.

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Posted by on August 13, 2013 in Uncategorized


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Reflection: Do Stress Pattern Differences between American English Dialects Affect an Adolescent’s Reading and Listening Comprehension

According to Hirst and Di Cristo (Cambridge University Press, 1998), research has shown “…as early as four days after birth infants have already acquired (presumably during the last months of pregnancy) the ability to distinguish the prosody of their native language from that of other languages” (p. 2). Prosody is “the patterns of stress and intonation in a language” (Apple, 2011). Upon reading the early chapters of the Pence Turnbull and Justice (2012) text, the quesiton arose about what effects dialect differences have on students trying to learn in academic GAE if their native dialect, the one they learn so early in life, has significant variations in stress pattern from that of the English dialect used in school? Could this difference cause difficulties in either reading or listening comprehension? A brief literature review was conducted to see if there has been research on the subject, and what the research shows.

The primary reason that infants learn to distinguish prosodic differences so early is that it helps them to parse their caretakers’ speech into distinct words. “During the first year of life, infants use their knowledge of predominant word-stress patterns to locate boundaries between words in running streams of speech” (Pence Turnbull & Justice, 2012, p. 79). Since the dominant stress pattern of English is the strong-weak pattern, infants are able to tell that many of the individual words end after a weak syllable, and the next word starts with a srong one.

Being aware of some differences between some of the Northeastern and Southern dialects, it became a curiosity whether that dominant stress pattern has been overgeneralized by Southern speakers who tend to use it nearly exclusively saying things like police and guitar as opposed to the pronunciation typically expressed in the north, which sound like police and guitar. Jarmulowicz, Taran, and Seek (2012) discuss how African American English (AAE) and Southern American English (SoAE) dialects have similar features, including overuse of this iambic syllable stress variation from traditional academic English used in school. They write, “These features include…a tendency to generalize the trochaic (strong-weak) stress pattern in nouns with an iambic pattern (e.g., `police or `July)…” (p. 413).

If this is a concern, then it may present an issue for the students at the Drop Back In Academy schools where I teach. The students are 16- to 22-year-old people from Southern states that are generally conversant only using AAE (aka AAVE) or SoAE dialects. Their core academic subjects are presented using e2020, an online system that consists of primarly video lectures, online reading, and multiple choice assessments. One quesiton is whether the speech of the video lecturers, which is typically mainstream GAE, is easy for them to understand, or if the prosody contrast of the monologues confuses them at points making listening comprehension difficult. Second, is there an effect on their reading in general, and/or online reading skills based on the differences between their typical speech patterns, and the ones they used trying to learn vocabulary?

While the research available is exclusively related to the second question, one could possibly conclude that if the student’s reading comprehension is compromised by the dialectic differences between MAE (mainstream American English) and NMAE (non-mainstream American English), then listening comprehension is likely to be affected as well considering that reading prosody is generated by the reader (student), while the prosody of the spoken word is provided by the producer (teacher or lecturer). Jarmulowicz’, Taran’s, and Seek’s (2012) reseach shows that there is a correlation between speech pattern prosody and reading comprehension. Their study of typically-developed, third graders demonstrated that the more AAVE or SoAE patterns used by the child, the trend was toward lower comprehension. Furthermore, those children who successfully had become bidialectical had stronger test results. They concluded “Speakers of more than one dialect, much like speakers of more than one lanague, may have a metalingiustic advantage, partiulary if they can code-switch between the vernacular and mainstream variatons” (p. 418). Since the Drop Back In Academy students are typically the ones who were least successful in their homeschools, that may demonstrate that they lacked the ability to code-switch, or they completely lacked proficiency in the MAE dialect used at school. Therefore, prosody differences may well be affecting their listening and reading comprehension, making it difficult for them to succeed.

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Posted by on August 10, 2013 in Uncategorized


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