Helping Children

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Language

Humans speak naturally and spontaneously. Children learn the language spoken around them. Babies start to say words about 12 months. In the second year, a child develops vocabulary of about 250 words and makes simple statements. Children use correct sentence structures by the age of three. Vocabulary increases to about 2500 words at the age of six.

The motive for speech is to influence the behavior of and share information with other humans. The desired effect of speaking to others is to modify their behavior in ways that benefit you. Speech is used to review what has happened, to plan what should happen next and to sequence events. Speech has evolved from ancient animal skills of social interaction that have been concentrated in the temporal and frontal lobes of primates. Spoken language is the key to interaction with other humans.

Babies spontaneously make non-verbal sounds that with brain maturation and practice gradually form some sounds into recognizable words. Speaking is a spontaneous feature of the brain, and all normal children will speak if they hear a language spoken; any language will do. Older infants imitate words they hear spoken and if adults engage them in conversation, will expand their vocabularies and start to make meaningful statements. Adults spontaneously speak “baby talk” to infants using high pitched, somewhat melodic and non-verbal sounds, exaggerated facial expressions and hand gestures. Babies like the entertainment and babble and coo in response. This mimetic exchange marks the beginning of human conversation. Human conversations always retain an infrastructure of nonverbal sound communication.

The coherent, syntactical aspect of language is an overlay of more precise communication. Words go with gestures Young children point with a pudgy index finger and say the name their pointer indicates. Pointing and naming remains an endearing characteristic for the rest of a human life. Babies follow the path of language evolution. Their progress is from the description of the immediate and concrete objects to making abstract statements about events. The first thing you do when you are learning a language is point and name. You invent nouns. Most words are arbitrary. A sound is connected to a thing and repeated.

There are no rules for names, but there are rules about how names relate to each other. Grammatical rules are both implicit in the brain and explicit in the syntax or grammar of each language. Words are connected to meanings by association. You still have to point and name to give new words meaning, but as you get older and more sophisticated, you can translate directly from a word in your known language to a word in the new language you are learning.

You need a small collection of typical sounds or phonemes to make a language. The sounds are stored in the temporal lobe of the left hemisphere in most right-handed people. We acquire sounds when we are young and then shut down the sound library at about age ten. If you learn a new language after that, you speak with an accent because you still use the sounds of your original language and try to fit them into words of the new language. The new language has some of its own unique sounds that you cannot produce so that your version of language sounds funny and an alert native speaker can often figure out what your original language was.

Speech is more natural and common than written language. Writing is a way of recording speech and reading is a way of returning the written record to the spoken word. Reading and writing are the newest, least natural functions of the brain and appear to depend on more widely dispersed brain activity. A reasonable argument is that auditory language is based on older brain systems that are more specialized and localized. Written language appears to borrow brain processing from many subsystems and is less specialized and localized.

Written language is superimposed on auditory language. This means that visual symbols represent sounds and written words are learned by associating the symbols with the sound of words, already known. Reading and writing should be learned phonetically. As phonetically based reading is practiced, word recognition gradually replaces phonetic decoding. Familiar words become gestalts or visual patterns that are recognized, even when the spelling is incorrect.

Languages differ in their content and construction and some appear to be easier to learn and use than others. Children who have difficulty learning to read and write are described as “dyslexic.” English is a difficult language because written words are not necessarily phonetic. There are thousands of odd spellings that resist decoding by ‘sounding out the word.” In addition, there are many worlds that sound the same but are spelt differently. American spelling has simplified some words by removing characters that have no phonetic significance; color replaces colour, for example.

There are about 40 phonemes in English, represented by thousands of letter combinations. Easier languages to learn such as Italian have fewer sounds, represented by fewer and more consistent letter combinations. Some written languages were invented with rational and consistent rules, others evolved with irregular and inconsistent grammars.

Parents need to know that learning to read and write is difficult and requires skillful teaching and sustained practice over many years. Even the most intelligent and gifted professional writers will report that good writing remains difficult to achieve even with years of practice. At least half the children who attend school will have conspicuous difficult learning the rudiments of reading and writing. They can be helped by extra tutoring and practice, but often school resources are limited and some parents lack the time, motivation and skills to provide sustained learning experiences at home. The other half of the student population will learn some writing skills but less than 1% will become fluent readers or good writers.

In the USA, the National Assessment of Educational Progress exam grades students language achievements across the country:only about one in four students in Grades 4, 8 and 12 scored at the proficient level in writing in 1998 and only one in a hundred was graded "advanced." A study of California college students found that most freshmen could not analyze arguments, synthesize information or write papers that were reasonably free of language errors. A National Commission on Writing in America's Schools and Colleges reported that teaching writing skills is always time-consuming and teachers often do not have the time or resources to do an adequate job. The commission reported that many high school teachers have 120 to 200 students: too many to assign even a weekly one-page paper per student.

In the US, the National Assessment of Adult Literacy in 2003 showed declines in English literacy. In 1992, 40 percent of college graduates scored at a proficient level, meaning that they were able to read lengthy, complex English texts and draw complicated inferences. In 2003, only 31 percent of the graduates demonstrated high-level skills; 53 percent who scored at an intermediate level and 14 percent who scored at a basic level; they could only read and understand short, commonplace prose texts.

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Cited Ref: 1 Lewan, T. Writing in Schools Is Found Both Dismal and Neglected. New York Times; April 26, 2003.2 US the National Assessment of Adult Literacy, given in 2003 by the Department of Education.