Dr. Ellyn Lucas Arwood has established a reputation as an expert in how language is used for learning and how language and cognition interact, and is often referred to as a “lady before her time”.

Here Dr Arwood answers some questions about her new book, Language Function: An Introduction to Pragmatic Assessment and Intervention for Higher Order Thinking and Better Literacy.

How did this text came about?

As a speech-language pathologist in the late 1960’s, I wondered why some children could say a sentence but not ask to go to the bathroom; why some children could repeat by memory a complete commercial or word call printed text but not ask another child to play; why some children could score higher in expressive language than receptive language when the Western Psych model says that input comes before output. The structural approach to literacy that I was trained in did not make a lot of sense in practice. Teaching words, sounds, psychomotor skills, and behavior tasks provided children with progress on skills but not on thinking and learning. So, I began to read everything in any discipline that I could about how to help children understand what they read, speak from thinking ideas, and write about what they knew. I deliberately worked on a doctorate at the University of Georgia (USA) where I was allowed to enroll in courses that would give me the education in language philosophy, sociolinguistics, semantics, and pragmatics so that I could incorporate that knowledge into my practice. After doing a dissertation in speech act theory (1977) which demonstrates the importance of the listener in speaking with children severely impacted by a variety of disorders such as autism, emotional disturbance, behaviorally disordered, other health impaired, I went to work at Washington State University where I had the opportunity to teach others how to apply this knowledge.

At a presentation at the American Speech and Hearing Association, an editor came to me and ask me to start writing. Thus, I wrote my first book, Semantic and Pragmatic Disorders, in 1980. But the readership wanted more theory and I was not satisfied with my knowledge. I needed to know “why” some of what I did worked. I continued to write books, articles, and so forth to try to balance the theory with the practice; something that I personally believe is what we, as professionals, should be doing. When I accepted a job at Texas Tech University, I had the opportunity to study and do research in the area of pragmaticism while also working as a professor of speech and learning sciences. The notion of pragmaticism is that the synergy of the whole (mind, body, brain) is greater than the parts – and with that concept comes a theory of signs that allowed me to incorporate a knowledge of the level of thinking that goes with using the mind for academics, social issues, and behavioral constructs.

Throughout this entire process of building my knowledge, I never lost sight of the influence of the brain research. To me, it was obvious that the brain was the basis to all learning and that pure developmental models could not explain how a child learns to think. So, I took classes in brain research such as human brain dissection at the Kresge Institute in Louisiana and medical physiology at Louisiana State University. The brain research of the early 1990’s supported much of what I believed about the way children learn to think and use their thinking to function which added another layer to understanding how language functions. For the past 25 years, as a professor in education at the University of Portland (Oregon, USA), I have collected more data about thinking, added to my knowledge about learning, and refined the methods in practice. Now, it is time to get this knowledge into our community and schools, which are microcosms of how society functions. Thus, the rationale for this new book, Language Function.

Recent studies have shown that the majority of English speakers don’t “think in sound.” What does this mean?

Thinking is about ideas. Ideas that are in the form of mental pictures, movies, graphics, print are not in sound. These visual mental images are the foundational piece to being literate for most people. So, instead of sounds existing as the basis for better reading and writing, visual images are the basis for understanding the print, for seeing what is on the page, for writing ideas on paper, for increasing mental thoughts for better speaking, for understanding concepts of number for better math, and so forth. The majority of learners that I work with tell me about these visual mental images that they use for thinking. They do not use the sound of their own voice for learning new ideas….new ideas come from the changes in their previous visual images.

What are the implications of this for education?

The major implication is that we need to rethink what the basis of literacy is and then change literacy programs to match thinking.

I believe the most apparent challenge in education today that represents what I refer to as a “cultural-linguistic mismatch” is the fact that educators are exposed to lot of data, materials, programs, and training that says that sound is the basis to literacy. Suggesting that sound is the basis to literacy is logical since these educators live in a culture that uses English as the primary language of educating children in subjects, skills, and dispositions. English is a sound-based language where individual sounds can change the meaning. For example, in English, adding “s” to “dog” turns the word into a plural concept. So, culturally using the sounds that go with the alphabet makes sense to an adult who has acquired the sounds of English for speaking, reading, and writing, even though the educators may or may not be, personally, able to relate to using sounds for spelling to write or for reading a favorite novel. But, the data says to use sounds and the educator sees the logic and so the educator does so. However, huge numbers of children are not really successful so the educators try to modify the programs, materials, the amount of time, the number of students in the programs with fewer and fewer resources.

The educators today try to make the assumption that sound underlies the development of cognition work in order to help children become literate. Educators work extremely hard to make students successful in these programs but educators are constantly confronted with “unhappy” constituents–the public, the media, the test scores, their own family success or lack of success, their students’ families and so forth. The bottom-line, is that the programs, materials, and curricula that are sound-based do not match with the way the children think to learn. So, teachers work harder but don’t always receive the positive success they deserve. Older students work harder to produce the sound-based patterns for tests, homework, and so forth without the conceptual learning. Working harder but not smarter stresses everyone out – students, families, and teachers.

What is the connection between visual cognition and (anti-social) behavior?

All behavior communicates. The meaning of the behavior is interpreted by someone else. In this way, we learn the behavior of our dominant culture as a relationship between doing something and having someone else tell us what the behavior means. When others assign meaning to a behavior, the thinker has to be able to receive the message. If the person who assigns the meaning only uses spoken language that the learner does not understand, then the behavior has no meaning.

For example, if the child stands on the seat at a restaurant and the adult says, “Sit down” to a child who thinks visually, then these words mean nothing. So, the child not only stands on the seat but jumps up and down and starts making vocalizations that are loud. People sitting around the child are not able to talk with their families because the child is so loud. The child’s vocalizations are interrupting the behavior of others which is the essence of anti-social behavior; behavior that negatively affects the initiation and maintenance of healthy interpersonal relationships. Finally, the child’s family punishes the child by harsh words, a slap to the child’s behind, taking the child out and so forth. The child knows the family member(s) are not pleasant so the child cries but the child still does not know what the expected behavior “looked like”; what other people in the restaurant were thinking (their visuals of the child); how the child’s behavior made other people’s mental pictures go away and interrupted their dinner, etc. Learning to behave requires teaching in the way the child learns concepts. Visual thinking or cognition requires a visual assignment of meaning.

What strategies might you suggest specifically for those working with children on the autism spectrum?

Children with autism spectrum disorders typically use a motor (movement) access to their visual mental thoughts. So writing with visual-motor methods is great and, in fact, will help many children acquire speech production. They write to tell what they see on the page. But, all of the methods described in Language Function may be used successfully with children with autism spectrum disorders. There are many examples in the book that are from children diagnosed with ASD.

What is the bigger picture – how might literacy programs that match thinking benefit society?

The benefits are numerous; but, social competence for the majority of society would be great. In other words, having a society where the majority are able to initiate and maintain healthy relationships at work, school, and home because individuals are able to see how they fit or are successful as part of society would decrease the number who are dependent on others for survival including a decrease in incarcerated individuals; a decrease in anti-social behavior at schools and in the work place; a decrease in unethical acts of business in the marketplace and so forth.

This benefit will happen only if the majority of people are able to reach a concrete, rule governed, level of thinking that implies parallel levels of literacy. In other words, a thinker can only be ethical and moral if the thinker is able to accept the rules of others as the basis for thinking and behaving – only if “We” takes over the 3-7 year old “I” attitude in the workplace and in doing business with others. The “We” attitude means that “I do only what would also be of benefit to others as if I were in that other person’s shoes.”

Societies grow and develop just like interpersonal relationships. So, a healthy society is one where a majority of thinkers have increased their literacy and improved their thinking to function as a place for “Us;” a place where people care about other people and their needs. Most people say they “care” about others but without the literacy and thinking level increasing, the majority can only do their job at the level of regurgitating the rules, imitating tasks, and completing the prescribed task. Thinking out of the box, creatively solving a problem for a customer or helping create a solution requires higher order thinking and problem solving.

Copyright © Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2010.

One thought

  1. Temple Grandin states, ” Words are like a second language to me.” She translates spoken words into images and written words into 3 D movies with sounds. She uses sounds and sensory integration to amplify metacognition. This is similar to the many ways we teach foreign learners of English or other languages to learn ‘whole language methods ” with sight words as well as with TPR which includes sound and sight words in writing charts. We most often mix deductive and inductive strategies by reversing them and flipping them.

    Meaning, we may not specifically use Viconic Language Method but eclectically mix precepts of Piaget, Vygotsky and Bruner with flipped and hybrid methods by using constructivist activities , most often by combining TPR and direct methods. Typical students learn patterns with repetitions both inductively and deductively but them must functionally vary them for a variety of meanings and purposes via pragmatics activities like those done with ASD students.

    So our curriculum would be developed in each language of instruction based on common concepts and contexts in BOTH languages ( dual immersions ) but also combined with many forms of media, not just black and white 2 – D cartoons. Many of us use black and white cartoons for pragmatics and group share activities but not just VLM, rebus readers or Monicure Belk type books one on one with each pupil.

    Higher functioning ASD , dyslexic and even ADD/ADHD students are all mainstreamed in private high quality dual language immersion schools but the they most often have one teacher and one para – professional per twenty students. Teachers use computer labs, lap tops and specialized reading libraries in each class per student per diagnosis. Rarely do the intelligent ASD students require one on one instruction but some do require behavior contracts.

    So, my question is this: Does VLM assume that each autistic child require a one on one special education teacher trained in VLM or ( in your opinion ) should as many autistic kids as possible be mainstreamed with UDL?

    Behaviors and assessments often lead GED teachers to observational conclusions about students but we can not legally act on our better judgments to request that parents seek additional assessments. In Foreign private dual immersion schools a certified educational psychologist assesses all students in group and individual settings before they can be accepted into their schools. They are assessed in two or three languages. Therefore, we teachers KNOW and have the support of several educational psychologists as well as behavior experts. Most all kids take 7 to 10 years in dual immersions to gain fluency for most social language functions. All students graduate after 12 years and are functional in both English and Spanish. The majority take competency tests in both languages for University entrance. Few students enroll after Kinder and those who do end up with teachers like me to “catch them up.”

    As this is rarely the case in public school settings across America, I wonder how VLM fits into the ELL and ESL settings like here in CA where one or two of every ten kids is foreign born and has not learned English at home before preschool. How are teachers to practice VLM with large groups if it is not done with a combination of dircet methods and TPR? My experience is that this works especially if the class is flipped or hybrid. That allows for adequate time and repetition as well as some scale of practiced and graded response before classroom brick and mortar applications.

    So, I wanted your input as I am still learning and have taught ESL and SSL in three continents with students of all ages and educations. Many have been ivy league educated adults who report success with Berlitz but who could never achieve work goals until specialists analysed their needs for “socially functioning” at work. Teachers most often had to develop individualized instruction for corporate needs. ( Needs would vary with small groups which were planned for common needs. ) In a business setting, ESL teachers call this functional notational method. Two teachers who are bilingual work and rotate groups. It is taught in most Oxford and Cambridge TOEFL and English O level courses for foreigners across Europe and the U.K. The concepts are based primarily on Krashen and Terell. It does NOT require a structural syllabus but one in which pragmatics are broken down into “functions” and specific objectives of communication. Yet, these curriculums always begin with some structural basis as well for typical learners and more visual , auditory and sensory supports for ESL or LD students. The are largely integrated with spiraled concepts as well as applications for guided steps which must be met before on taking complex assignments or tasks in small groups or individually. Meaning concretely dividing structure and communicative language functions is rarely practical in group classes with a variety or levels and learning styles. They are not “additive” but they are guided. They are not soley based on information theory but do not reject practical technological solutions.

    So, I wanted some feedback and hoped you might answer my questions as they relate to the current English immersion public teaching crisis here in California in which classrooms. These classrooms often have one teacher and 35 students with as many as five or more students who may have LSD but yet have no formal diagnosis. What approaches might we teachers use to reach ASD or high functioning LD students who are both dyslexic and or hyperlexic in the same classrooms without TPR? How do we prevent racial profiling or tracking with true bilinguals and their counterparts who may not yet speak either language functionally?

    I truly wanted some advice and hope that after teaching VLM to ESL and ELL teachers with their students during training practicums, you and your colleagues might suggest some strategies and insights to apply for my work. I work here in CA with bilingual dual immresion enrichment k – 6 with a 20 to 40 to 1 or 2 teacher ratio.

    Most of my colleagues abroad who were successful ( and had PHD’s in English, Spanish and ESL) used Orton based methods for orthographically directed classes in K and 1 . But by second grade they began to phase it out gradually to more communicative materials. Primarily bc Spanish is phonemically and orthographically static, students who were Spanish speakers recognized common two language traits ( like with Linda Mood Bell’s Seeing Stars ) between the two languages and then were easily able to bridge the spelling and sound differences. Of course, most could “hear ” sounds and make them into meanings. But all sounds were taught like LIPS and always combined with pictures and chart words, not simply cartoons.

    I hope to hear you comments as in ESL we refer to a communicative syllabus as one which is whole language and not always put into guided steps. We differentiate instruction between formalism and structuralism ( How to account for the Odeipus variations of folklore and Greek myths?) by always using a variety of approaches to support a variety of learning preferences.

    Meaning, reading, writing, viewing, speaking, listening and thinking critically all matter and we plan lessons to integrate skills and sensory learning as much as possible, often with time management challenges.

    If there might be any books I might read, please advise, I am know taking some online classes and would perhaps in the future purse my MA in Spanish and or bilingual education. But I feel for California CLAD or RICA, it would be a great idea to try and learn more about VLM for the mainstreamed classrooms across America, and especially California, full of special learners with no formal diagnosis or interventions requested with parental advocacy.

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