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Collaborate or Work Alone?

17 Jan

I came across an interesting article in the New York Times about the growing tendency toward collaboration in all sectors of society, including education.  Working in groups i.e. “group thinking” is  better than working alone, right?  Not always.

The author, Susan Cain says, “…we need to move beyond the New Groupthink and embrace a more nuanced approach to creativity and learning…Our schools should teach children to work with others, but also to work on their own for sustained periods of time. And we must recognize that introverts …need extra quiet and privacy to do their best work.”  Cain expounds upon the claim that, “research strongly suggests… people are more creative when they enjoy privacy and freedom from interruption. ”  Yet contrary to this theory, it seems that our schools are rallying more and more around the themes and practices of collaboration, group work and group brainstorming sessions.  And not without good reason; there is plenty of existing research to support the move toward more collaboration.

From my experience, it seems more accurate to say that students learn best and are most creative when they are actively engaged in the learning process.  Groups do have the ability to engage students in the learning process, which is why working in groups offers many benefits to a classroom environment.  On the flip side, group work is distracting to some learners and can stifle individual creativity.  As special educators and communication specialists, we know that there is no one size fits all model when it comes to student engagement.  Fostering a breeding ground for learning and creativity requires a highly individualized investigation into each child’s disposition, interests and needs.

Group work and group thinking has its place and in some situations is a crucial aspect of the learning process.  This is especially true when we look at theories of active learners, and the benefits of peer models in early childhood education or when specifically targeting social skills.  But sometimes we do our best work, our best thinking and our creative juices flow most freely when we offer ourselves the time and space to work alone. Uninterrupted. Unconcerned about group pressures and dynamics.  Uninhibited.

For me, the take home message of this article is, like anything else in life, we need a balance.  We need group work and team work to thrive, but we also need solitude and individual time to create, grow and empower.  This is the way we are as humans, and our schools and workplaces should work to preserve this balance, being careful not to get caught up in too much of any one approach.  It takes a master teacher to approach this balance.  Ideally our classrooms and language therapy sessions are a well oiled machine, where all the parts are working together, integrating, and collaborating, yet creativity is not stifled and the capability some students gain from working alone is not overlooked.

Here is the link to the full New York Times Article by Susan Cain:


Deb Roy: The birth of a word

13 Dec


Last night I watched this fascinating TED talk given by MIT researcher Deb Roy.  Roy wanted to understand how his infant son learned language — so he wired up his house with video cameras to catch every moment (with exceptions) of his son’s life.  He ended up with 90,000 hours of home video.  Using the 3 years of video footage, Roy traced each new word his son learned to the specific circumstances that led to his son’s acquisition of the word.  For example, he showed how his son’s babbling slowly changed from “gaaaa” into “water.” He looked at every context in which his son heard the word “water” during his first three years of life.  Roy analyzed many variables, such as who was present during each occurrence of the word “water” in the home, what room of the house were they in, and what were the adult language models or how was the word ‘water’ embedded in a sentence?

Roy’s research is data intensive and allowed him to draw conclusions and make connections between environment, language and learning.  He used beautiful, systematic, high-tech graphics to display his data.  The question of how we acquire new words during infancy has been explored readily in the field of language development.  We know that babies learn new words through repeated exposure, that it’s largely dependent on context and surroundings (ie. hearing the word water and seeing water at the same time), and utterance length of the language model (does mom embed the new word in short 1-2 word phrases or in long, complex sentences?).  However, Roy’s data is novel in that the time-lapse technology he uses and his graphic displays have implications for a new way of observing word acquisition over time and provides a closer look at how learning is taking place.

Roy also extends his findings to social media and examines how people behave and communicate in response to specific events in time.  He explores and pinpoints how trends get started, and how new ideas spread, through social media.

Roy’s research both confirmed what we already know about how babies acquire new words and pushed the field of Language & Communication Sciences to a new boundary.  Scientists may have a new way to create models and graphically display language data, connect language circumstances and observe not only language acquisition in infancy, but the larger implications for tracing behavioral patterns through language in social media.

As a Language Development nerd, I found this talk fascinating, and if you have 20 minutes to watch the video, I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Super Duper Core Curriculum Cards

16 Nov

From all of your emails (thank you!) I can see that there is great interest in aligning classroom and speech therapy activities with the Common Core State Standards.  So I’d like to share with you a great product to have on hand (in a speech therapy room, classroom or even in the home if you’re a parent) to help students develop a core curriculum vocabulary.

Many of the Common Core State Standards include vocabulary words that are found in Super Duper Publication’s Core Curriculum Vocabulary Cards.   The authors of this product reviewed several research studies to determine 100 words at each level that students need to know in order to participate in their classroom.

These card decks come in three levels (Pre-K through K, grades 1-3, and grades 2-4).  Each level comes in a compact, colorful tin (sorry, I love great packaging!) and the cards are divided into four separate card decks (Language Arts, Math, Science, and Social Studies).  Each deck has 25 card pairs and each pair consists of the definition card and the vocabulary word card.  Both cards include the same graphic so matching the word to the definition can be simple.

I’ve been experimenting with using the cards in different ways.  Each grade level set comes with a booklet of different game ideas for how to use the cards.  I’m thinking of lending certain cards to individual students who may need picture prompts in the classroom.  They can also be used on a rotating word wall.  One thing I love about these cards is the language used on the definition cards.  It is very accessible and kid friendly, even for kids with language disorders.  Furthermore,  the graphics on the cards help make the definitions more salient.

Most of my readers know I am a big fan of the iPad because it cuts out the need for flash cards and handouts and simplifies the paper load.  While I would love to see these core curriculum cards available on the iPad, I also love that I can physically manipulate and rearrange these cards for certain games (ie. I can place them in various corners of the room and have students search for the correct card pairs this gets them up and moving and actively engaged), hang them on my word of the day wall, laminate and tape them to a students desk, or help teachers build some of these games into independent student centers.  These are things I wouldn’t be able to do on the iPad, so there is a time and a place for both formats.

I also think this could be a great set for parents to have at home to help transfer academic vocabulary to other contexts outside of school.  Parents can help their kids make new connections and expand their understanding of core vocabulary words by using the same words students hear in the classroom in other settings outside of school.  Since kids needs to use new words in a variety of contexts to help them retain the meaning, playing games with these cards at home is a great way for parents to help reinforce the language teachers are using in the classroom.

Teachers at PS20 feel free to stop by my room to borrow a set for your classroom.  I’d also be happy to discuss how you can use these cards in independent student centers in your room.  I would also love to hear other ways people are using these cards so feel free to leave a comment or shoot me an email.

Recent Studies on Learning New Language- When and How?

19 Oct

Most public schools do not introduce foreign language instruction until Middle School.  Considering what the research says about the “critical period” for learning language, this doesn’t make a lot of sense.  But here at PS20, we are following evidence based research and have implemented a dual language Mandarin program that starts in Kindergarten.  Research suggests that the younger the brain, the more flexible it is in regards to discriminating between sounds of a foreign language.

When children are exposed to more than one language, their brain will wire itself to discriminate between the phonetic sounds of  both languages.  In a child exposed to only one language, eventually the brain wires itself to discriminate between a smaller set of sounds- only those native to the language the child hears.  By the time we are 7, we begin a systematic decline in our brain’s flexibility to learn new sounds.  Therefore, as an adult having never been exposed to Mandarin, for example, I cannot listen to a Mandarin speaker and discriminate between all of the sounds in the language.   My brain has solidified patterns and pathways and limited them the English language.  This isn’t to say I can’t train my brain to hear and learn new sounds- it will just be much more difficult for me to learn.

Some parents have concerns that by teaching two languages their kids might become confused or fall behind their monolingual peers in terms of language development.  According to a recent New York Times Article entitled Hearing Bilingual: How Babies Sort Out Language, scientists are showing that there are differences in the brains of children who grow up bilingual (exposed to two languages), vs. children who grow monolingual (exposed to only one language).  Ellen Bialystok, a distinguished research professor of psychology at York University in Toronto, has shown that bilingual children develop crucial skills in addition to their double vocabularies, learning different ways to solve logic problems or to handle multitasking.  These skills are known as executive functioning skills.  Bialystok says that, “Overwhelmingly, children who are bilingual from early on have precocious development of executive function.”  So rest assured – research is showing that our bilingual kiddos are enhanced, not hindered by second language acquisition.

Furthermore, research has shown that babies learn new language through human interaction and not through listening to audio (through headphones) or watching and listening to TV.  This has profound implications for early learning.  The social brain must be active for children to learn new sounds and language.  A recent study by Patricia Kuhl showed that English-speaking babies exposed repeatedly to a Mandarin speaker were able to discriminate between Mandarin sounds during a lab test.  However, when English-speaking babies were exposed to the same amount of Mandarin through watching it on a TV and listening to it through headphones, the babies learned nothing.

To hear more about this new research, watch this ten minute talk entitled, The Linguistic Genius of Babies, in which Dr. Kuhl shares astonishing findings about how babies learn one language over another  by listening to the humans around them and re-wiring the brain to remember the sounds they need to know. Brain scans show how 6-month-old babies discriminate between sounds.

Piggy-backing on Kuhl’s research was another recent New York Times Article, entitled, Parents Urged Again to Limit TV for Youngest.  This article appeared in yesterday’s paper and reports that video screen time has no educational benefit for young children.  Children learn through face to face interactions with others- the social brain needs to be active  for learning to take place.  “What we know from recent research on language development is that the more language that comes in — from real people — the more language the child understands and produces later on,” said Kathryn Hirsh-Pasek, a professor of psychology at Temple University.

The article reports that according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, parents should limit the amount of time their young children are simply watching a screen (TV, iPad, cell phone) because there is no such thing as educational programming for young children.  There is evidence to suggest that older children can learn through some types of media, but younger children learn best through real life interactions and play. The articles author, Benedict Carey, summarizes that “for every hour a child under 2 spends in front of a screen, he or she spends about 50 minutes less interacting with a parent, and about 10 percent less time in creative play.”

I talk a lot about the use of technology, specifically the iPad, in Speech & Language Therapy. The iPad is useful because it takes the place of wasteful paper materials such as worksheets and flashcards, and saves time on preparing certain activities and games that I used to make by hand.  It can generate thousands of vocabulary words and pictures and stories at the click of a button without me having to spend hours searching for specific target words or sounds online or in books.  But in order for it to be effective in the learning process, there must be face to face interaction with the therapist or parent, activating the social brain and facilitating the learning experience.

In summary:  Learning new language – When?  Early.  How?  Through human interaction.

In the News: Parents’ Ums And Uhs Can Help Toddlers Learn Language

15 Apr

I’ve posted a bit about stuttering lately, and this article from yesterday’s NPR Health Blog is a very cute, informative and related follow up. 

While language modeling for young children can be critical to how they develop language,  don’t worry about having perfectly fluent and smooth speech when talking to your kids!  Research from the University of Rochester suggests that when parents have disfluencies in their speech (or fumble over their words) children learn to anticipate that an unfamiliar or “big” word may follow and it may in fact help them to learn new words and acquire language.

You can click on this link below to access the short article on NPR’s Health Blog:

The King’s Speech and Some Stuttering Information

1 Mar

“Listen to me… I have a voice!”

Colin Firth as King George VI


I saw the King’s Speech a few weeks ago and absolutely loved it.  Now that it won an Academy Award for Best Picture, I simply can’t avoid mentioning it here.

I loved the portrayal of the speech therapist, Lionel Logue.   Besides the fact that I simply admired his personality and his deep understanding of his client, I felt that his character was a positive nod to the profession of Speech Pathology at large.  Lionel Logue certainly contributed to the early development of the field of Speech Pathology.  And I find that many people don’t exactly know what I (a Speech Pathologist) do for a living, or they are quick to assume that I mainly help to correct lisps.  To learn more about what a Speech Pathologist does, click this link for a short cheat-sheet.

(P.S. I currently only have 3 kids on my caseload who are working on intelligible speech or articulation errors, like a lisp, and 3 kids who stutter.  I see a total of 34 kids so it’s a small percentage of what I do every day).

Lionel Logue was a pioneer in the field of Speech Pathology.   His background was in public speaking.   Although he didn’t have the same training in anatomy, physiology, child development and communication science and disorders that Speech Pathologists have today, he did possess  an ingenuity, and a deep sense of empathy that, in conjunction with his background in public speaking,  set the stage for him to achieve better levels of speech fluency with the clients he worked with.

Some of the strategies he used with the King to help him produce fluent speech in the movie are not supported by evidenced-based research to be effective across patients.  However, other strategies are still part of the framework that many Speech therapists use today when working with people who stutter.

For more information on Lionel Logue, and a brief background on the field of Speech Pathology , you can read a short article in the ASHA Leader by Dr. Caroline Bowen, an Australian Speech-Language Pathologist.

It is estimated that more than 60 million people in the world stutter, including 5% of all children.  There is still no conclusive evidence as to the cause of stuttering.  Some more recent studies suggest that there is a genetic component to the disorder, and it is not just a product of environmental factors.  We do know that stuttering is more common among males than females.  However, how stuttering develops, and when and where stuttering occurs (at beginning of words, on certain words, a whole word, a part of a word, certain sounds, at certain times of day, in certain environments, when talking to certain people, etc.) is different for each person who stutters.  It has been said that no two people stutter alike.

Researchers believe that some children are born with a predisposition to stutter.   Many kids when they are learning to talk, have “disfluent” or “bumpy” speech.  Some kids grow out of this as they gain a better command over language.  Many kids who begin to stutter early on will stop.  Other kid’s who exhibit these same “disfluencies”, “bumpy speech”, or “moments of stuttering” can be exacerbated by how other people react to them or how frustrated they themselves are with their speech as they are learning.  Kids who are easily frustrated and/or have a predisposition to stutter may tense their muscles more and have a more difficult time stringing together coordinated muscle movements necessary for fluent speech.

What is most interesting to me, and what I focus on in therapy sessions with people who stutter, is that, all people, even those who are very disfluent (or stutter A LOT) have moments of speech in which they ARE fluent and they are NOT stuttering.  The focus therefore, is on what they are doing with their muscles, tongue, teeth, lips, and breathing in those moments of fluency.  Then it becomes a matter of translating that awareness to other, more bumpy or difficult moments of speech.

If you’re interested in learning more about stuttering, a great place to start is the American Speech-Hearing Association’s (ASHA) Information for Public section. Or, feel free to stop by my office if you are at PS20 or email me with any questions if you’re not.

Finally, I will probably write another blog entry at some point on the Our Time Theater Company, a FREE program right here in New York City that aims to improve the confidence and communication skills of kids who stutter through the arts, but I need to quickly mention it because their upcoming show I Could Be King is a tribute to David Seidler, the screenwriter of the King’s Speech, and a childhood stutterer.

Here is Our Time’s Mission Statement, but I really encourage you to take a peak at their website, especially if you know a child of age 5 -18 who stutters.  It is an incredible organization and best of all, many of their programs are FREE:

Our Time is a non-profit organization that uses the arts to improve the confidence and communication skills of children who stutter.  Through a local New York City-based program and a summer camp open to children from around the nation and abroad, Our Time helps young people transform their fear and shame from stuttering into confidence and determination to reach their fullest potential.  Our Time participants gain enriching friendships and experience tangible success, giving them the confidence to overcome the challenges presented by stuttering.

Our Time serves children who stutter, their young family members and friends, ages 5 to 18, from a wide diversity of backgrounds.  The company is committed to offering its NYC programming free of charge and providing financial aid for its national program, Camp Our Time.

Early TV watching and Attention Problems

7 Dec




Regardless of how you feel about children watching violent TV or age-appropriate programming,  research from The American Academy of Pediatrics concludes that early television exposure (between the ages of 1 and 3) is associated with an increase in attention problems in children by age 7.

From a language development perspective, I could not agree more.  Watching TV is a passive activity.  It is one way communication.  When we watch TV, we are not actively engaged in listening and communication and so much of learning language is centered around active listening.  When we watch television, nothing is expected of us in return, so even though we are hearing the words coming out of the TV and understanding them, we are passively listening.   Children learn words by hearing, experiencing, and using them in a variety of contexts.

The brain grows through auditory stimulation- that is, training our brain how to process sounds and words.  This happens for children through engaging play activities, reading books with parents, telling stories and communicating with other children and adults who can provide good language models.  Even “educational programming” is no substitute for conversation when it comes to developing strong language and listening skills.

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