Language & Literacy


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

the inner scaffold

The Acculturation of the Mind

There is a fertile topsoil we are born with in our brains, imprinted by the interplay of sights and sounds and movement of those who interact with us. This immersive communicative theater, felt first in the womb, roots itself within the immediacy of each moment, even while gesturing at distant realms yet unknown. Climbing towards this mystery with our tongues and thoughts and technology bends the world toward our needs, and allows us to project our inner selves into the past and future. We ride rivers and build highways across our brains. This is our cultural inheritance, our storied legacy of language and literacy.


I wrote a little while ago about Andrew Watson’s excellent book, “The Goldilocks Map.” I had an opportunity to attend a Learning and the Brain conference, which was what sparked Andrew’s own journey into brain research and learning to balance openness to new practice with a healthy dose of skepticism. In fact, Andrew was one of the keynote presenters at this conference – and I think his trenchant advice provided an important grounding for consideration of many of the other presentations.

I think there’s something in the nature of presenting to a general audience of educators that compels researchers to attempt to derive generalized implications of their research that can all too easily overstep the confines of their very specialized and specific domains.


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 my last post, we looked at a wonderful paper, Universals in Learning to Read Across Languages and Writing Systems, that outlines operating principles of reading and writing across languages, as well as some key variations. Continuing on this theme, I wanted to highlight another recent paper, The universal language network: A cross-linguistic investigation spanning 45 languages and 11 language families.”

The project is cool — the researchers have started a cross-linguistic database of brain scans, and their initial findings demonstrate a strong universal neural basis for language across multiple languages. Here’s the key finding that stood out to me:

In summary, we have here established that several key properties of the neural architecture of language—including its topography, lateralization to the left hemisphere, strong within network functional integration, and selectivity for linguistic processing—hold across speakers of diverse languages spanning 11 language families; and the variability we observed across languages is lower than the inter-individual variability. The language brain network therefore appears well-suited to support the broadly common features of languages, shaped by biological and cultural evolution. (Ayyash et al., 2021)

I found out about this paper from this Twitter thread from one of the researchers, Ev Fedorenko, and her thread also provides a neat summary of the project.

As this database of brain scans across languages is built out, it will be interesting to see what specific variations between languages and neural architecture may arise. For example, another recent paper, Difference Between Children and Adults in the Print-speech Coactivated Network,” examined the brain scans of native Chinese speakers and found some variations from past studies in the brains of developing readers, most likely due to the difference in writing systems in terms of the lack of grapheme-phoneme correspondence for Chinese characters, as well as how a single pronunciation can have many different meanings represented by different visual characters.

Taken together, our findings indicate that print-speech convergence is generally language-universal in adults, but it shows some language-specific features in developing readers. (He et al., 2021)

Overall, it’s fascinating to see how current research converges on the significant universality across languages in terms of how literacy develops, and exciting to see that specific differences between languages and writing systems are beginning to be studied with greater specificity.

As Perfetti and Verhoeven tidily pointed out in their paper:

The story of learning to read thus is one of universals and particulars: (i) Universals, because writing maps onto language, no matter the details of the system, creating a common challenge in learning that mapping, and because experience leads to familiarity-based identification across languages. (ii) Particulars, because it does matter for learning how different levels of language – morphemes, syllables, phonemes – are engaged; this in turn depends on the structure of the language and how its written form accommodates this structure. (Verhoeven & Perfetti, 2021)

#speech #language #literacy #universal #reading #multilingualism #orthography #brain #neuroscience #research


A drawing of a brain

As I began my great awakening to the relatively extensive body of research on reading, one of the claims of reading research proponents that I’ve picked up on and carried with me is the idea that reading is unnatural and our brains were not born to read. And this makes sense from an evolutionary perspective, given that oral language has been around for a very long time (though we don’t know, of course, exactly when it showed up), while writing systems only showed up roughly 5,000 years ago.