Language & Literacy


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.

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.”


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.


Ontogenesis model

A recent paper caught my eye, Ontogenesis Model of the L2 Lexical Representation, and despite the immediate mind glazing effect of the word “ontogenesis,” I found the model well worth digging into and sharing here—and it may bear relevance to conversations on orthographic mapping.

How we learn words and all their phonological, morphological, orthographic, and semantic characteristics is a fascinating topic of research—most especially in the areas of written word recognition and in the learning of a new language.


In our last post in a series exploring the question, “What is (un)natural about learning to read and write?,” we looked at a paper from 1980 by Phillip Gough and Michael Hillinger, Learning to Read: An Unnatural Act, that provided a counter to Ken and Yetta Goodman’s argument that learning to read is natural, and provided us with a useful analogy: learning to read an alphabetic writing system is a form of cryptanalysis. Using this analogy, Gough and Hillinger drew out a fine-grained distinction between a code and a cipher that allowed them to make some precise observations about the difficulty of breaking the alphabetic cipher that have held up quite well over the years.


Sharing a fun paper to geek out on with my fellow language nerds, How children learn to communicate discriminatively by Michael Ramscar. In this paper, the author makes an argument that the contrasting forces of “discriminability” and “regularity” both serve to make language something we pick up pretty much naturally, even if we don’t know all the words in the language.

“…the existence of regular and irregular forms represents a trade-off that balances the opposing communicative pressures of discriminability and learnability in the evolution of communicative codes. From this perspective, the existence of frequent, well-discriminated irregular forms serves to make important communicative contrasts more discriminable and thus also more learnable. By contrast, because regularity entails less discriminability, learners’ representations of lexico-morphological neighbourhoods will tend to be more generic, which causes the forms of large numbers of less frequent items to be learned implicitly, compensating for the incompleteness of individual experience.”

The language of this paper is, as you can see, a bit opaque, so much of this went just a bit over my head, but I found the arguments fascinating given the debates that happen about how to teach the “irregular” spelling of so many words in the English language. Here, the author seems to suggest (I may be over-extrapolating as I often tend to do, but this is what got me geeking out on it) that in fact there is some level of constructive tension between language forms that show up again and again, and the language forms that are more infrequent, but thus inherently gain more of our attention. This relates to the theory of “statistical learning” with which we not only learn language, but also when we map a language to its written form.

The author later provides what I thought was a very concrete thought experiment that demonstrates this principle when he moved from morphology to names:

Imagine that 33% of males are called John, and only 1% Cornelius. In this scenario, learning someone is named Cornelius is more informative than learning their name is John (Corneliuses are better discriminated by their names than Johns). On the other hand, Johns will be easier to remember (guessing ‘John’ will be correct 1/3 of the time). Further, although the memory advantage of John relies on its frequency, the memorability of Cornelius also benefits from this: Cornelius is easier to remember if the system contains fewer names (also, as discussed earlier, if John is easier to say than Cornelius, this will reduce the average effort of name articulation).

What is also interesting about the author’s argument in this paper connecting information theory to language learning is that these assertions are empirically testable:

“Whether these mathematical points about sampling and learning actually apply to human learners are empirical questions. This account makes clear predictions in regard to them: if learners are exposed to sets of geometrically distributed forms, they should acquire models of their probabilities that better approximate one another than when learning from other distributions. Conversely, if learning from geometric distributions does not produce convergence, it would suggest the probabilistic account of communication described here (indeed, any probabilistic account of communication) is false.”

There’s a lot more in the paper to nerd out on–I found the section on verbs especially interesting, for example, given that it connects to some other tidbits on the power and challenge of verbs I’ve come across before:

I’ll leave the rest to you!

#verbs #regularity #irregularity #learning #language #statisticallearning #probability #discriminability #informationtheory #form

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.


In the attempt to close the chapter on my Schools as Ecosystems blog and move into more thinking and writing on language and literacy, I posted two very long posts, on the influence of acoustics and greenery on learning, respectively, which once were slated to be part of a book that I just couldn’t scrounge the time together to complete. One of the chapters-to-be was on the importance of air quality in learning — and damn, how timely it would have been if I could have pulled that all together pre-COVID-19?!

While I most likely won’t ever write that book, I’d still like to highlight the critical importance of air quality in schools and learning, which has become all the more apparent during a time of a respiratory virus, but which is important at all times. And since I don’t have the time to write it all up in full, I’ll post links to the threads that I had laying about in a document instead, and let you, dear reader, complete the thoughts:

The Health Impacts of Air Pollution

Roth and his team looked at students taking exams on different days – and also measured how much pollution was in the air on those given days. All other variables remained the same: The exams were taken by students of similar levels of education, in the same place, but over multiple days.

He found that the variation in average results were staggeringly different. The most polluted days correlated with the worst test scores. On days where the air quality was cleanest, students performed better.

To determine the long-term effects, Roth followed up to see what impact this had eight to 10 years later. Those who performed worst on the most polluted days were more likely to end up in a lower-ranked university and were also earning less, because the exam in question was so important for future education. —HOW AIR POLLUTION IS DOING MORE THAN KILLING US” BY MELISSA HOGENBOOM IN BBC FUTURE

The Impact of Indoor Air Quality on Learning

When the level of fresh air in the classrooms was increased, the students performed up to seven per cent better than when they were working on the tests in their usual indoor climates. The study also revealed that the students did not themselves notice that they were not quite as astute in the poorer climate. —“BAD AIR QUALITY MAKES CHILDREN PERFORM WORSE IN SCHOOLS” BY JONAS SALOMONSEN IN SCIENCENORDIC

Southern California’s air agency, the South Coast Air Quality Management District, earmarked settlements from polluting companies and other funds to cover the cost of such filtration at about 80 schools near freeways or other pollution sources. Nothing’s preventing other states from following the same model. “The technology is well established, the installation is straightforward and the maintenance is simple,” said district spokesman Sam Atwood, who doesn’t recall officials from other states getting in touch to learn from his agency’s experience. —“THE INVISIBLE HAZARD AFFLICTING THOUSANDS OF SCHOOLS” BY JAMIE SMITH HOPKINS FOR THE CENTER FOR PUBLIC INTEGRITY

The Relationship of Air Pollution to COVID-19

#ecosystems #schools #learning #airquality #pollution #environment #health


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

“Compared to most of the interventions aimed at relieving stress (e.g. emotional skill building, anger management, positive behavior programs), placing trees and shrubs on the school ground is a modest, low-cost intervention that is likely to have long-lasting effects on generations of students.”

—Li & Sullivan, 2016

When Joe walks around his neighborhood, he is surrounded by sepia-toned brick buildings. When he goes to bed at night, he sleeps, fitfully, to the vehicular chorus of the Grand Concourse, a symphony of sirens, revving motors, car alarms, and bass blasting from souped up subwoofers. His access to nature is primarily derived from TV shows and a small city park a few blocks away, scattered with trash-strewn weeds. Joe (not any of my former students’ real name) is a 5th grader living in a dense urban area of the Bronx.