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Memory and lexical apartheid

6 Apr

While the case for memorization may be clear for learning a second language, what is its role in learning English vocabulary? While it is true that we learn much of our vocabulary from context, rather than explicit instruction , it may be that many English speakers would benefit from direct instruction of English vocabulary.
This is because English is a diglossic language, in the sense that it contains two vocabularies. In a diglossic language, at least two versions of the language exist, each associated with different positions in the social hierarchy. In some cases, such as English, the language contains two vocabularies that reflect social stratification, with one acting as the language of ordinary people and common interaction and the other vocabulary being the words of prestige and power.
A number of languages are diglossic. For example, Hindi-Urdu, sometimes called Hindustani, is a diglossic languages spoken in the Indian subcontinent. The name Hindi-Urdu identifies the two dialects of the same language. Hindi and Urdu share many words and essentially the same grammar. While they have different writing systems, for everyday conversations they are effectively the same and Urdu and Hindi speakers can communicate without difficulty. However, when one wants to discuss topics outside of ordinary interactions, say education, economics, or science, the languages diverge substantially. That is because their higher vocabularies draw on different sources. The higher vocabulary for Hindi comes from the ancient liturgical language of Hinduism; Sanskrit. While Urdu’s higher vocabulary comes from Persian and Arabic.
Arabic is also a diglossic language with an everyday dialect and literary dialect. Research has found that for many Arabic speakers learning the literary dialect is, in some ways, like learning a foreign language. The Arabic of the schools and books is different from the Arabic of home and this may contribute to lower levels of academic achievement.
English also can be said to have two vocabularies both rooted in its historical development. Anglo-Saxon English was established in England by the early Germanic invaders. Latin words were introduced more slowly beginning with the Roman invasion and continuing as a consequence of the spread of Christianity. A major shift occurred with the Norman conquest of England in 1066. The Normans spoke a dialect of French that became the language of the ruling class. This meant that the British aristocracy spoke a Latinate language while the common people spoke Anglo-Saxon English, a Germanic language.
This division still persists in our vocabulary. There is an English that everyone learns to speak, this is the English of everyday interactions and its origins lie in Anglo-Saxon English. There is also an academic English, the English of science, literature, and education. This English is largely Latin and Greek in origin and includes words that were imported into English from the Norman Conquest and, later, during the Renaissance. This difference is illustrated by two great works of English, both written around the same time, the King Jame’s Bible and the works of Shakespeare.
The King James Bible was written in Anglo-Saxon English, and while it was originally published in 1611 it still largely comprehensible to most native English speakers. Indeed, it remains the preferred Bible for many Protestant churches.
Shakespeare, on the other hand, is a Renaissance author and students often find his writing difficult. Many English words borrowed from Latin and Greek are first recorded in the his plays.
Some linguists believe the Renaissance was the biggest period of vocabulary growth in the English language, primarily because of the importation of Graeco-Latinate words.
Educational arrangements in Elizabethan England served to perpetuate class distinctions in language. Schools for the poor and lower classes, when they existed at all, taught only the rudiments of reading and writing in the Anglo-Saxon English, while schools for the children of the elite taught Latin and, sometimes, Greek. Some elite schools required students to speak exclusively in Latin. In the 19th century literature we find a distinction in the use of Latinate words between high and low status characters in the novels of Jane Austen.
David Corson, professor at the University of Toronto, claimed that that English continues to contain two incompatible vocabularies, one Anglo-Saxon the other Graeco-Latinate. The Anglo-Saxon words are used for the concrete while Greek and Latin words reserved used for more abstract discourse. Graeco-Latinate words are used in higher education and specialist vocabularies
Some English speakers, generally those with better educated parents, learn the Graeco-Latinate lexicon from exposure at home. Those who come from homes where only concrete Anglo-Saxon words are used enter school with a real disadvantage. Corson  describes this disadvantage as the “lexical bar” and, even, “lexical apartheid”.
In order to function at the levels required by higher education one must be able to penetrate the Latinate vocabulary of the academy. Our failure to teach this vocabulary, dis-empowers students and locks them out of the central discourse of our culture. Corson  argues that “children’s differences in language ability, more than any other observable factor, affect their potential for success in schooling” . For example, we know that reading comprehension is closely correlated with vocabulary ability. Indeed, the correlation between vocabulary and comprehension is so high that vocabulary tests are good substitutes for comprehension tests. Psychologist Edgar Dale argued that “all education is vocabulary development”.

Cheating in online classes

2 Mar

So far, I have not taught an online course. One of the reasons I hesitate is my concern about the validity of assessment.  Or to put it more bluntly, it seems too easy to cheat. A recent article on Bright, reinforces my concerns: It’s about a company called StudyPool.

“Studypool, one of a bevy of on-demand tutoring platforms entering the ed-tech landscape in the past couple years, is being used as a vibrant marketplace for cheating and plagiarism.”





(hat tip to Marginal Revolution)

“I hate group projects”

29 Feb

When colleagues ask me why I don’t assign out of class group projects, I often suggest they google the phrase “I hate group projects.” Where they will find comments like this:

” I hate group projects. I’ve only had ONE group project EVER where I didn’t end up doing the majority of the work (it was my one friend). I remember a few years ago, I had to do a group project with two of my (slower) friends. We had to look up information about like ten olympic events–I think I put them in charge of finding the information for two of the events each, which gave me six to do AND the powerpoint. We only had the class time to do it. They were literally playing games on the computer the entire time and I had to do all the work, even their parts. At the end of the class, they said, “Ugh, he never gives us enough time to do these projects.” Luckily, I had managed to throw together all the information (the project was pretty bad) and I (well, “we”, but you know) managed to get a B. “

It occurred to me that there might be more material on Youtube. Was there ever:







And that’s just a small sample.

Competency based education tested in DC schools

11 Nov

An article in The Washington Post reports on a test of competency based education in the DC schools.

I think this is a good thing, there is a substantial body of evidence suggesting the value of behavioral approaches to education. Unlike other approaches that make teachers into the problem, behavioral approaches give teachers the skills they need to help children. Teacher are treated as partners, not problems:

“Inside the Washington school system the competency curriculum has drawn virtually no criticism, and it has been warmly supported by the Washington Teachers Union, whose representatives helped draw it up.”


Again facilitated communication

5 Oct

Facilitated communication, a technique that is supposed to allow communication with nonverbal people with autism, is in the news again. The best overview of this topic remains the PBS documentary Prisoners of Silence.  The empirical case against facilitated communication is overwhelming, yet belief persists.

Ohio’s charter school scandal raises questions about online education

23 Aug

Buried in this article about Ohio’s growing charter school scandal is this sentence:

“Cohen said test scores are inexplicably bad for first-year students at Ohio’s online charter schools. Those schools, which educate children on computers at home, have the worst test scores in a state that has some of the worst-performing charter schools in the nation.”

Given Governor Kasich’s presidential bid, I am surprised that the poor performance of Ohio’s charter schools has not received more attention.

“Physical experiences may enhance learning”

13 May

From a paper just published in Psychological Science:

“Three laboratory experiments involving students’ behavior and brain imaging and one randomized field experiment in a college physics class explored the importance of physical experience in science learning. We reasoned that students’ understanding of science concepts such as torque and angular momentum is aided by activation of sensorimotor brain systems that add kinetic detail and meaning to students’ thinking. We tested whether physical experience with angular momentum increases involvement of sensorimotor brain systems during students’ subsequent reasoning and whether this involvement aids their understanding. The physical experience, a brief exposure to forces associated with angular momentum, significantly improved quiz scores. Moreover, improved performance was explained by activation of sensorimotor brain regions when students later reasoned about angular momentum. This finding specifies a mechanism underlying the value of physical experience in science education and leads the way for classroom practices in which experience with the physical world is an integral part of learning.”


Critical thinking without knowledge is impossible

27 Apr

Arizona has passed a law requiring high school pass the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization civics test for graduation. Let me state, that I have no firm position on if this is a good idea. However, I can recognize a bad argument against it.

This is the argument made by Joseph Kahne in Education Weekthat schools should be teaching critical thinking instead of knowledge:

“Democracy thrives when citizens think critically and deeply about civic and political issues, when they consider the needs and priorities of others, and when they engage in informed action—not when they memorize a few facts. Let’s make high-quality civic learning a priority. Let’s not take the easy way out and pass laws in more than a dozen states that turn civic education into a game of Trivial Pursuit.”

The problem with this argument is that it is contrary to the evidence. Research on critical thinking and other higher order skills shows that deep knowledge is a necessary prerequisite.

I agree that a curriculum that only focuses on the memorization of facts is impoverished. But a curriculum that tries to teach higher order skills without the requisite knowledge is impossible.

You can take a sample citizenship test here. The questions are pretty easy and really do seem like things a citizen should know.


For more details on the importance of memory in education see the second chapter of my book.

The importance of school counselors

20 Apr

An article in the always interesting Pacific Standard makes a case for value of school counselors:

“Hiring just one additional school counselor in an average American school could have about a third of the effect of recruiting all the school’s teachers from a pool of candidates in the top 15 percent of their profession, according to a new analysis. That’s also about the effect you’d expect from lowering class sizes by adding two teachers to a school of around 500—either way, not too shabby.”

Here is the abstract from the paper:

“We exploit within-school variation in counselors and find that one additional counselor reduces student misbehavior and increases boys’ academic achievement by over one percentile point. These effects compare favorably with those of increased teacher quality and smaller class sizes.”

This work is interesting and is worth thinking about in a time when schools are cutting back on support staff. However, a few caveats are in order. First, this is correlational research and can not demonstrate cause and effect. Second, while researchers confidently claim that have controlled for confounding variables, there are reasons to doubt them, and, finally, while teachers are of course important, the claim that they are responsible for such a large variance in student scores is disputed.


For instance

12 Feb

One of the educational psychology classes I teach is designated as a writing across the curriculum course. This means that students are required to do a certain amount of writing and I must grade them on their writing, including usage and clarity.

Occasionally, I come across some error that I have never seen before. This time a student wrote “for instants,” instead of “for instance.” Not to be out done, another student, on the same assignment, wrote “for existence.” After some internet searching I found a report of an opposite error:

‘I heard a new grammar error this week: A mother telling her son to “stop this instance.”’


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