Language & Literacy

Musings about language and literacy and learning

Natural digital

Regularity and irregularity. Decodable and tricky words. Learnability and surprisal. Predictability and randomness. Low entropy and high entropy.

Why do such tensions exist in human language? And in our AI tools developed to both create code and use natural language, how can the precision required for computation co-exist alongside this necessary complexity and messiness of our human language?

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A statistical tapestry

”. . . the fact, as suggested by these findings, that semantic properties can be extracted from the formal manipulation of pure syntactic properties – that meaning can emerge from pure form – is undoubtedly one of the most stimulating ideas of our time.”

The Structure of Meaning in Language: Parallel Narratives in Linear Algebra and Category Theory

In our last post, we began exploring what Large Language Models (LLMs) and their uncanny abilities might tell us about language itself. I posited that the power of LLMs stems from the statistical nature of language.

But what is that statistical nature of language?

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“Semantic gradients,” are a tool used by teachers to broaden and deepen students' understanding of related words by plotting them in relation to one another. They often begin with antonyms at each end of the continuum. Here are two basic examples:

Semantic gradient examples

Now imagine taking this approach and quantifying the relationships between words by adding numbers to the line graph. Now imagine adding another axis to this graph, so that words are plotted in a three dimensional space in their relationships. Then add another dimension, and another . . . heck, make it tens of thousands more dimensions, relating all the words available in your lexicon across a high dimensional space. . .

. . . and you may begin to envision one of the fundamental powers of Large Language Models (LLMs).

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an organized classroom

Thanks to a podcast, Emerging Research in Educational Psychology, from professor Jeff Greene speaking with professor Erika Patall about a meta-analysis she was the lead author on, I learned about her paper that looked across a large number of studies to synthesize findings on the impact of classroom structure. I thought some of the high-level takeaways were well worth highlighting with you for our 4th research highlight in this series!

  • Citation: Patall, E. A., Yates, N., Lee, J., Chen, M., Bhat, B. H., Lee, K., Beretvas, S. N., Lin, S., Man Yang, S., Jacobson, N. G., Harris, E., & Hanson, D. J. (2024). A meta-analysis of teachers’ provision of structure in the classroom and students’ academic competence beliefs, engagement, and achievement. Educational Psychologist, 59(1), 42–70. https://doi.org/10.1080/00461520.2023.2274104

I think it’s no surprise to most educators that providing structure for kids, both in terms of the classroom environment and culture, and in terms of the design of instructional tasks, is critical to improving student learning. Part of this work is what we often term “classroom management,” but as the paper describes, the work is far more encompassing than that:

“In sum, creating structure is a multifaceted endeavor that involves a diverse assortment of teacher practices that can be used independently or in various combinations, as well as to various extents, and are all intended to organize and guide students’ school-relevant behavior in the process of learning in the classroom.”

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a boy struggling to read a book

  • Paper Citation: Philip Capin, Sharon Vaughn, Joseph E. Miller, Jeremy Miciak, Anna-Mari Fall, Greg Roberts, Eunsoo Cho, Amy E. Barth, Paul K. Steinle & Jack M. Fletcher (2023) Investigating the Reading Profiles of Middle School Emergent Bilinguals with Significant Reading Comprehension Difficulties, Scientific Studies of Reading, DOI: 10.1080/10888438.2023.2254871

A few months ago, a study crossed my radar that caused me to stop, print it out, mark it up, and then begin digging into related studies, which is what I do when a study grabs my attention.

Getting into research is akin to getting into Miles Davis—if you like a given song or album, you may start checking out the other musicians he plays with, and they'll lead you into a new and ever expanding fractal universe, because Davis had a knack for collaborating with musicians who were geniuses in their own right. A few examples: John Coltrane, Tony Williams, Keith Jarrett, Herbie Hancock, John McLaughlin, Wayne Shorter, Jack DeJohnette, the list goes on and on.

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In a previous post, Thinking Inside and Outside of Language, we channelled Cormac McCarthy and explored the tension between language and cognition. We dug in even further and considered Plato's long ago fears of the deceptive and distancing power of written language in Speaking Ourselves into Being and Others into Silence: The Power of Language, and how bringing a critical consciousness to our use of language could temper unconscious biases and power dynamics.

If you find any of that interesting, I recommend reading this short interview, How to Quiet Your Mind Chatter in Nautilus Magazine with Ethan Kross, an experimental psychologist and neuroscientist at the University of Michigan.

Two relevant quotes:

“What we’ve learned is that language provides us with a tool for coaching ourselves through our problems like we were talking to another person. It involves using your name and other non-first person pronouns, like “you” or “he” or “she.” That’s distanced self-talk.”

“The message behind mindfulness is sometimes taken too far in the sense of 'you should always be in the moment.' The human mind didn’t evolve to always be in the moment, and we can derive enormous benefit from traveling in time, thinking about the past and future.”

Check out the full interview here.

#language #research #unconscious #cognition

Researchers with gifts This has been a great year for education research. I thought it could be fun to review some of what has come across my own limited radar over the course of 2023.

The method I used to create this wrap-up was to go back through my Twitter timeline starting in January, and pull all research related tweets into a doc. I then began sorting those by theme and ended up with several high-level buckets, with further sub-themes within and across those buckets. Note that I didn’t also go through my Mastodon nor Bluesky feeds, as this was time-consuming enough!

The rough big ticket research items I ended up with were:

  • Multilinguals and multilingualism
  • Reading
  • Morphology
  • The influence of physical or cultural environment
  • The content of teaching and learning
  • The precedence of academic skills over soft skills
  • Brain research and Artificial Neural Networks
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2nd grade students eagerly listening to a read-aloud by their teacher

Teacher Vocabulary Use and Student Language and Literacy Achievement

The Power of Teacher Talk

We know that the explicit teaching of unfamiliar words that students will encounter in written text is important. But what about the language that is used by teachers throughout the school day? What implicit learning opportunities are constrained or afforded through the model of the language that a teacher uses while teaching, and what are the impacts on student learning?

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a Hawaiian shirt

This post was written back in 2015 and was originally available on VIVA Teachers and EdPost, but it looks like it's no longer on either. I'm re-posting here for nostalgia and posterity.

Prior to becoming a special education teacher in the Bronx through NYC Teaching Fellows, I was a novitiate store manager at a Trader Joe’s in Queens. I was only there 10 months before I moved on to the classroom, but I learned a lot about warm service to others, hard work, and leadership by example that I continue to apply in my work each day with children and their families.

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I'm going to try out a new type of post here, in which I'll share one interesting research item I've happened across in greater depth. In the past, I've simply tweeted them out, but then I forget about them. I'm hoping this will be a better way of retaining them in memory and deepening my understanding — and of course, sharing them with you!

Individual differences in L2 listening proficiency revisited: Roles of form, meaning, and use aspects of phonological vocabulary knowledge

  • Citation: Saito, K., Uchihara, T., Takizawa, K., & Suzukida, Y. (2023). Individual differences in L2 listening proficiency revisited: Roles of form, meaning, and use aspects of phonological vocabulary knowledge. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 1-27. doi:10.1017/S027226312300044X

This paper explores how various aspects of phonological vocabulary knowledge affect second language (L2) listening proficiency. The study involved 126 Japanese learners of English.

Back in 1978, Bloom & Lahey presented a simple and useful model of language: form, meaning, and use.

Bloom and Lahey's model of language

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