Language & Literacy


connection to the world

There was a fascinating summary thread I came across recently that I want to dig into, as there’s some really interesting and rich areas of tension to unpack. Here’s the thread

What especially caught my eye and made me ponder for days afterwards was this:

The language network does not overlap or build on nonlinguistic cognitive abilities . . . fMRI evidence from 32 experiments, with 64 conditions, and 761 participants across 1,007 scanning sessions suggests language is separate from thought – when processing non-linguistic stimuli other areas are activated compared to when processing linguistic stimuli . . . The language system does not share resources with other cognitive abilities.

Language is separate from thought. I really struggled to understand this . . . isn’t language how we think, whether conscious or not?

Fedorenko argues that there are properties of language that suggest is is not suitable for complex thought, but is well-suited for communication . . .For example, language processing is fundamentally predictive, something that wouldn’t be useful if language was primarily used for thought and not communication. Although the language network and other cognitive abilities seem to be distinct systems, they need to integrate in some way. Shedding light on this integration is a key direction for future research

Where language does intersect with other cognitive systems, however, according to this presentation, is “some exciting new research emerging that language is intimately linked with the system that supports social cognition, such as Theory of Mind.”

Another tantalizing tidbit in this thread relates to syntax and word meaning:

language does not rely on abstract syntax. Syntactic processing is distributed across the language network and “every syntax-responsive cell population or brain area is robustly sensitive to word meaning” . . . . In every region, even at the most fine-grained level of analysis shows that there are no selective responses to abstract syntactic structure – everything that responds to structure building also responds to word meaning.

Well now, I want to unpack that one a bit more! It seems to suggest that word meaning i.e. semantics i.e. vocabulary/morphology is higher leverage than syntactical structure.

All of this really got me thinking, about thought and cognition, about language . . . and especially about how adding in literacy — a writing system — complicates all of this . . . I mean, writing is a form of thought, right? I sometimes don’t think things, or know what I think about things, until I force myself to write it. Does reading and writing connect cognition and language in a way that language itself does not?

In pondering about this thread further, I threw out the following on Twitter:

Is working memory a component of the executive function construct? Or an inter-related but separate domain?

I got some great food for thought in response to this query — Corey Peltier, Courtney Ostaff, and Andrew Watson confirmed that working memory is typically understood as a component of executive function — the cognitive system of thought that would appear to be distinct from language.

Lisa Archibald then went in deep on the relation between working memory and language, and it’s worth digging into her specific points, as they bear challenges to some of the points made above in the earlier thread.

Key points she makes that I found very helpful:

  • What is activated and therefore measured depends on the nature of the task
  • Whether the brains scanned are children or adults matters, as adult brains are more specialized
  • Just as with emerging reading/writing skills, language development requires more cognitive attention until we are fluent
  • And similar to struggling readers and writers, students struggling with language (i.e. DLD / SLI) have to apply more cognitive energy to using language accurately, which makes meaning/content/thinking harder to get to

She also referred me to another thread from DLD and Me that gives a neat way of framing this as unity but diversity — i.e. there is a single pool of resources of executive function (unity) but there is a diversity of different types of tasks we’re trying to apply that pool of resources to

Whew! This is heady stuff. Share your thoughts and Discuss...!

#language #cognition #DLD #workingmemory #executivefunction #literacy #thought #brain

In another post, I wrote about the riches of Speech-Language Pathology and what this domain of research and practice has to offer for all educators.

I'd also like to highlight that relatedly, the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) and it's publications has a lot to offer to those of us getting into the Science of Reading.

Let me just give you a recent example: the “JSLHR Research Symposium Forum: Advances in Specific Language Impairment Research and Intervention” offers some really interesting and useful open access research. Here's some tidbits:

  • There's a useful overview of dyslexia and DLD/SLI from Suzanne Adlof that stresses the need to screen and diagnose language for students who have demonstrated word reading problems because DLD and dyslexia often co-occur

“Considering the frequent comorbidity of dyslexia and SLI, all school-aged children who are identified with word reading problems should receive a thorough language evaluation.” —Suzanne Adlof

  • Spaced retrieval practice has gotten a lot of attention from ResearchEd type folks over the last few years (as it should), and so this piece on its benefits to word learning for students with SLI will be further reaffirming.

  • I found this one by Pamela Hadley on “Exploring Sentence Diversity at the Boundary of Typical and Impaired Language Abilities” especially useful, as while I am fully invested in explicit sentence-level instruction, I sometimes struggle to know exactly what to investigate and unpack in a sentence beyond the basics. In this paper, Hadley provides a neat way to think of linguistic development at the sentence-level:

” a series of four developmental steps: words, verbs, childlike sentences, and adult sentences.”

What she also highlights is how important verbs are as a developmental stage, given the complexity of the function of verbs in a sentence:

“Verbs carry information about the number of participants in an event and the semantic roles of those participants.”

And much more in there to think about!

#ASHA #speech #language #literacy #DLD #dyslexia #learning #children #multilingualism #research

When I was a special education teacher, I also coordinated the IEPs (Individualized Education Programs) for my school, and served as the district representative at our IEP meetings, meaning that I had some part in most of the IEPs written in my building, whether I coordinated the gathering of information or facilitated the meeting with parents.

We served some children identified with speech language impairment (SLI), and I worked pretty closely with the speech-language pathologist in my school in the sense that I always ensured that IEPs were written with her review and meaningful input, and she was invited to IEP meetings for the children she worked with. We talked when we could about the children we serviced, and I solicited her advice on many occasions.

Yet I don’t know if I ever fully understood what she really did in speech-language therapy sessions. She did her thing, and I did my thing as a co-teacher in 6th, 7th, and 8th grade ELA classrooms. We were both pretty busy.

As I’ve been learning much more about reading, literacy, and language, I’ve increasingly become drawn into the research and expertise of the speech-language pathology realm (SLP) (we do love our tripartite acronyms in ed, don’t we), and discovered a wealth of knowledge that I really wish I had understood more of when I was in the classroom and coordinating the development of IEPs.

Also, as I’ve been struggling to bridge what I’ve been learning about the “science of reading” with my newer focus on the interconnections between language development and literacy development, I’ve found SLPs to be an incredibly useful resource to building that bridge.

You see, if you know all about the Simple View of Reading framework (SVR), you then know that language comprehension at large, alongside of decoding and word-level recognition, is a huge component of reading ability—the one that is there from the beginning, but then takes on an outsized importance once fluency with decoding is achieved.

The Simple View of Reading

And Speech Language Pathology is all about the subcomponents of language comprehension, from explicit training in the articulation of speech sounds, to explicit intervention to target needed language skills, such as knowledge of story grammar, making inferences, or the talk moves that are needed to have discourse about a text.

It was only recently that I became aware of the term Developmental Language Disorder (DLD), and discovered that there’s a wealth of developing knowledge about DLD that could further inform our assessment, instruction, and intervention of children who need more intensive supports in any of those subcomponents of language.

If we refer back to the SVR, we can think of three main patterns of students who are having trouble learning to read: students who have difficulty with language comprehension, students who have difficulty decoding, or students have difficulty with both:

A graphic showing the equation of Language Comprehension X Decoding = Reading Comprehension, with a struggle in LC as DLD, and a struggle in Decoding as Dyslexia.

Students may have difficulty reading due to either language comprehension, decoding, or both.

Awareness of dyslexic patterns have grown quite a bit, to the point that legislation addressing it has arisen in multiple states. But awareness of patterns of DLD remains low in comparison.

It may seem strange that I present DLD and dyslexia as defining student profiles to guide overall education assessment and instruction — but as someone who comes from a SPED stance, I’ve always seen the way we typically think of instruction in schools as backward. As a cornerstone, we should center our focus on the students who may struggle with language and literacy the most and plan forward from there, rather than as an afterthought. We would then be able to improve outcomes for many more children who may not struggle as significantly, yet who also require more explicit support or more opportunities for practice. Instead, we design schools to center students who already have academic language and literacy skills in place, and we widen inequitable outcomes.

So with that in mind, speech-language pathology is an undervalued domain that has much to offer in considering the language needs of our students and what we need to do to screen, diagnose, and intervene to address those needs. Rather than relegating speech-language pathologists to the people who do that esoteric intervention thing in the room over there 3x a week with some children, we should be elevating their expertise and knowledge and seeking to disseminate that knowledge to general education teachers, most especially in earlier grades, so that we can seek to prevent language issues from arising.

I feel fortunate to have discovered many SLPs and researchers are active on social media and other venues beyond research papers, and though I hesitate to call any out by name because I know I will be missing way too many in any listing I give, just a few to get you started in your own journey of learning on language:

  • Tiffany Hogan: check out her co-authored paper with Suzanne Adlof on the intersections of dyslexia and DLD, and she has a podcast! A great list of ones on DLD related issues here
  • Elsa Cárdenas-Hagan is a bilingual SLP who brings a structured literacy lens to supporting English learners with foundational skills in reading and writing, in ways that honor and leverage their home language. Check out her book and her website. Her paper on Cross-Language Connections for ELs is a solid resource I keep coming back to.
  • Trina Spencer: one of the co-authors of the CUBED assessments, which is now one of my go-to recommendations for a screener/diagnostic for foundational skills related to listening comprehension. If you’re wondering what SLP might be able to offer in our teaching of narratives, check out her co-authored paper on narrative interventions. Also check out her website with a ton of resources for instruction and intervention.
  • Elizabeth D. Peña and Habla Lab: understanding the intersections of bilingual and multilingualism with DLD is a critical area of need. Check out the blog (NOTE: it may not be updated anymore). I learned a lot about the concept of “dynamic assessment” from them.
  • Julie Washington: leading the charge to bring explicit attention to African American English and how the use of the vernacular relates to literacy development and instructional opportunity. Check out the article on her in The Atantic and her co-authored paper with Mark Seidenberg on teaching reading to African American children in American Educator
  • Cate Crowley: she leads the LEADERSproject at Columbia — lots of resources are on hand regarding evaluation and intervention for culturally and linguistically diverse children. I am a big fan of the freely available SLAM cards she has made available for language sampling and have been testing these out with some of my own sampling methods — but you can go right ahead and leverage the already made SLAM Guidelines for Analysis for each SLAM card
  • Lisa Archibald: Dr. Archibald goes deep into cognition and memory and their intersections with language. Whenever I've put out some questions into the Twitterverse (before Musk trashed it), she has offered guidance and food for thought.

There’s so many more SLPs out there to list here, so please view just view this as a place to get started if you're interested in these topics …

Dig in! Speech-language pathology has a lot to offer those of us who are just beginning on our journeys to understanding language and literacy.

#SLPs #speech #language #literacy #DLD #bidialectalism #multilingualism #learning #research #SVR