Welcome to Smith Speech-Language

  • Contemporary Topics in Communication Skills

    In Defense of Handwriting

    The teaching of handwriting has been and is being phased out of the school curriculum across the country and across the world, and I would like to stand athwart this particular form of misguided “progress” and shout, “Stop!”

    Handwriting is more than just an old-fashioned way to get our thoughts down on paper. Handwriting forces us to organize our thoughts, use hand-eye coordination and fine motor coordination to artistically “draw” our thoughts on paper. Areas of the brain are fired that are not excited by the mere pressing of a key. Stephen King says, “I write to find out what I think,” and while he probably uses a keyboard to churn out 1,000-page thrillers, he certainly started out as a hand-writer and his brain is thus pre-wired.

    In his book “The Hand,” Frank R. Wilson lucidly explains that, while we used to believe that early man got smarter and then became more dexterous, able to make tools, build, engineer, design, and then write “Hamlet,” neuroscientists now believe that we first became more dexterous, and those fine motor activities and skills sparked neural pathways that traveled up from the hand to our brains, wiring us for higher level critical thinking skills. Wilson quotes Robertson Davies, the Canadian novelist, who wrote: “…the hand speaks to the brain as surely as the brain speaks to the hand.”

    So we’re losing that early neural wiring, and I am alarmed. Children don’t play in the dirt anymore, because we don’t want them to get dirty. They don’t finger paint or play with clay or knead dough anymore, because we don’t want them to make a mess. They don’t sew or weave or crochet or knit, because who has the time to sit with them? They don’t draw anymore, because they have an iPad. And they don’t write anymore because they have a keyboard.

    Just Google “language and handwriting” or “handwriting and cognition” or “language and fine motor skills,” and you will find a wealth of information on the connection between fine motor skills and early childhood language development.

    So far, most of us, like Stephen King, have the advantage of brains that were already wired when we were children by abundant, low-tech, fine motor activities, so keyboards came as an overlay later in life. As a tool, not as our native language. I learned to touch type in 7th grade. Now we have the worst of both worlds. Children begin to hunt-and-peck almost as soon as they can hold their heads up, so they become lifelong hunt-and-peckers, never fluent handwriters, and never truly fluent typists.

    At a recent meeting of my colleagues, the obsolescence of handwriting was discussed, mostly favorably. Who needs handwriting when we have keyboarding? Who needs spelling when we have spellcheck? Who needs legs when we can drive? I note that most of the attendees at this meeting were taking copious notes. By hand.

    If you find the sentimental more persuasive than the scientific, consider this. The Morgan Library houses a precious collection of handwritten documents, from Beethoven’s vicious scrawls wiping out a section of music about which he had changed his mind, to Mozart’s error- and correction-free notations flowing apparently through his hands to paper directly from the Mind of God. There can be seen Jane Austen’s deep loops and Charlotte Bronte’s tiny, modest etchings. Will the Morgan one day house a trove of precious e-mails sent from Bono to President Obama, lovingly printed out on a Hewlett-Packard LaserJet 2100TN? How moving.

    In her article “With Pen in Hand,” Temma Ehrenfeld says that she realized at the end of her first “digitally documented romance” how much we’re giving up. She cried, she says, when she realized, “I never saw his handwriting.” Friends of hers have told her how much they cherish handwritten notes and letters from their dead parents. A printout of an e-mail will never have that emotional resonance. This is the paper they touched. These are the lines and whorls they used to express themselves, unique in all the world, a part of who they were.

    Let’s rescue cursive writing from the ash heap of education, before it's too late. Let’s wire our brains and formulate our thoughts, not in Times New Roman, but in a way that truly says, “I was here."

    Welcome Back!

    Students are settling into their classroom routines, and are swapping stories about summer camp, travel, and other adventures. Schedules are being refined and finalized, and we will begin working on our communication skills on Tuesday, September 8. Remember: anything can be a language activity! Any time we talk about our day at school, play a game with a friend, cook a meal with a family member, or read a book, we are engaged in an Act of Communication! As we grow and mature, our communication skills become more refined, as we learn to use higher level critical thinking skills. Check this page frequently throughout the year (at least once a month) for information on current research in communication skills, and for suggestions on activities for use outside the classroom. Parents who have questions or would like to meet with me to discuss their children should contact me by e-mail at mhamalainen@tenafly.k12.nj.us and I would be happy to make myself available to meet at your convenience. If you are new to Smith School: Welcome! And again, if you have already been a member of the Smith School Family: Welcome Back!

    The 91/9 Ratio in Education

    Years ago, the columnist George Will wrote a piece highlighting what he referred to as the “91/9 ratio.” By the time he reaches the age of 19, Will observed, a young person will have spent 9% of his life in school and 91% of his life… someplace else.

    The people responsible for where a student is and what he is doing during that 91% are the most important factors in his education: his parents and guardians.

    “But how can this be?” you ask. Aren’t teachers almost solely responsible for how much a child learns? No, as it turns out. You can do the math! I have.

    There are 9,992,160 total minutes in 19 years. With 180 school days every year for 13 years, and 400 minutes in every school day, there are 936,000 school minutes in 19 years (assuming perfect attendance ;-). So the ratio we are examining is that between the 9,992,160 “total minutes” in a 19-year-old’s life, and his 936,000 accumulated “school minutes.” That comes out to a ratio of 90.6 to 9.4.

    And what is a child doing during that 90.6% of the time he is not in school? Well, he should be getting good sleep, nutrition, and exercise. He should be engaging in intellectually stimulating activities like visiting museums and reading, on his own or with his parents. He may go to camp or travel abroad to learn about other languages, customs, and cultures. He should be playing sports and games, and interacting with friends, his parents, and other adults. And he should have plenty of quiet time for reflection, meditation, and to exercise his imagination and creativity. He should be practicing a musical instrument or learning to draw or build. As he gets older he may get a part-time job or participate in volunteer activities to help others. All of this education and character development happens during the 91% of his time spent outside a structured learning environment.

    And what of school? What happens during that 9% of the time? Well, teachers provide the framework for direct, differentiated instruction in a structured, measurable, prescribed curriculum. But remember that school minutes also include lunch, recess, snack, bathroom and drinking water breaks, lining up in the hallway to go to and from specials, assemblies, and fire drills!

    So it’s plain to see that it’s the parents – not the teachers – who are the primary educators of a child from infancy to adulthood. Teachers in good school districts, such as those in Tenafly, make wonderful resources and partners in the development of a child’s education and character. But it is the parents who provide the modeling and set the tone. If education is important to parents, it will be important to their children.

    Let us join together to support our children as they move from childhood to young adulthood. “Education” is not something that happens during 400 minutes on 180 days during 13 years within the walls of a local government building.

    Children are always learning. The question is: what are they learning?

    Word Retrieval...

    Word retrieval (sometimes called “word finding”) is the process by which we conjure up just exactly the right word we want to use in any given situation. All of us experience normal word retrieval difficulties or delays from time to time (“It’s on the tip of my tongue!”). For some, especially as we age, word finding difficulties can be more chronic.

    The ways in which we access words in the brain is not fully understood, but most theories describe the brain as a complex filing cabinet with a lot of drawers for storage. When we are searching for a word or a memory, we usually go to the right drawer, but sometimes we can’t find what we’re looking for either because we stored it in a different place, or because we’re looking in the wrong “drawer.”

    Try this experiment. As quickly as you can, rattle off the names of as many zoo animals as you can in 30 seconds. Keep count by making little tick marks on a piece of paper as you name them. Now, in 30 seconds, name as many words as you can that begin with the letter “P.”

    If you’re like most people, you can name far more zoo animals in the allotted time than you can words that begin with “P.” This is because the brain does not store words and concepts according to initial letter; it stores words and concepts by category, characteristics of the object, not characteristics of the word itself. In fact, while you were naming words that begin with “P” you might have noticed that you could name more words faster if you began to name them by category, such as fruit: “pear, peach, pineapple, prune,” or animals: “pig, porcupine, porpoise, penguin, possum.”

    Some  typical  manifestations  of word retrieval difficulties include what are called semantic or phonemic paraphasias. A “paraphasia” is an approximation or “guess” at a target word. Sometimes we substitute a word that is semantically close, has similar meaning, or is in the same category. For example, we might say “horse” or “camel” when the word we’re looking for is “zebra.” A phonemic paraphasia is the substitution of a word with similar sound features, such as “elevator” for “elephant” or “absorbent” for “exorbitant.”

    There are many strategies for improving word retrieval skills. For example, “circumlocution” or “talking around the word” can be an effective tool. Where do you find it? What does it look like? What do you use it for? In this way we circle the word, getting closer and closer to its place in our cerebral filing cabinets, until “Bingo!”

    No More Meltdowns!

    Jed Baker is a clinical psychologist, author, and frequent behavioral consultant to New Jersey school districts on strategies for dealing with students who have social communication disorders.

    In his 2008 book "No More Meltdowns," Dr. Baker offers a 4-step model for parents and teachers on effectively addressing the "escalating negative emotional reactions" that impede the academic and social development of some children (and adults).

    Step 1 is to manage our own emotions by adjusting our expectations.  Dr. Baker makes references to the "Welcome to Holland" essay of Emily Perl Kingsley.  Raising a child is like planning a visit to Italy, and then being diverted to Holland at the last minute.  The experience is very different from the one you dreamed about and planned for, but if you spend your time wishing you were in Italy, you'll miss all of the wonders Holland has to offer.  In Step 1 parents and educators are given advice on how to manage their own frustration, how to motivate and build confidence in our children, and when to avoid power struggles.

    Step 2 describes effective strategies for de-escalating a meltdown in progress, such as distractions targeting the interests and passions of the child, humor, and validation of feelings so that the child feels understood.  Ultimately, distractions should be phased out in favor of self-calming strategies the child can learn about in quieter moments for use when necessary.

    The goal is to get past Step 2 -- de-escalating a meltdown in progress -- and on to Step 3: identifying the triggers for repeat problems so that they can be better anticipated, avoided, and managed.  In this section, Dr. Baker discusses the Functional Behavior Assessment used to target the ABCs of behavior: Antecedent, Behavior, Consequence.  Simply put, these stages constitute the "before, during, and after" of a meltdown.

    In Step 4, Dr. Baker outlines the process of creating a Prevention Plan for the future.  Such a plan might include changing the identified triggers, teaching skills for dealing with triggers, reward or loss systems, and biological and physical strategies.

    The second half of the book features detailed descriptions of plans for dealing with the four types of meltdown situations: Demands (difficult or unpleasant tasks), Waiting (postponing gratification), Threats to Self-Image (e.g., losing a game, making mistakes, being teased), and Unmet Wishes for Attention (e.g., jealousy, loneliness).

    In closing, Dr. Baker urges adults who live and work with challenging children to hold onto hope:

    "As always, the map is not the same as the territory.  However, my experience tells me that those who do not give up will find their way."


    If "learning" is defined as the generation of enduring internal representations of information, then "memory" might be defined as the retention of that learning over time.

    While the process and nature of memory are very complex, there are basically two temporal forms of memory: short-term (also called working memory) and long-term.  Short-term memory is temporary in nature, so there is limited capacity in the brain dedicated to its storage.  Short-term memory must be acted upon (rehearsed, processed, written) in order to move it to long-term storage or it will erode rapidly, in anywhere from 30 seconds to a few minutes.

    The two primary types of long-term memory are “procedural” (or “implicit”) and “declarative” (or “explicit”).

    Procedural memory is the domain of unconscious skills such as tying shoes and riding a bicycle.  Most procedural memory starts off as a conscious, cognitive process, becoming an unconscious “natural” process following practice and repetition (e.g., playing the violin, driving a car).

    Declarative memory is the domain of our memory for acquired facts and knowledge.  There are two types of declarative memory: episodic and semantic.  Episodic refers to our memories of personal experiences such as a vacation to Disneyworld.  Semantic memory refers to acquired knowledge such as the multiplication tables and the names of the seven continents.

    In his memoir “Moonwalking with Einstein,” Joshua Foer describes his journey with other “mental athletes” to the finals of the U.S. Memory Championship.  Along the way he encounters fascinating characters and acquires many tricks of the trade, such as “The Memory Palace.”

    The Memory Palace is a technique employing visualization in a mental landscape constructed by the learner.  If a student has constructed an imaginary memory palace consisting of a front door, a living room, a dining room, kitchen, bedroom, bathroom, and attic, this environment can be populated with concepts for memorization.  The more vivid the imagery, the more likely it is that the concepts will be retained in memory.

    For example, the front door could be made of ice (Antarctica) leading to a living room where a tribal elder is playing drums (Africa).  In the dining room, a family is sitting down to Chinese food (Asia), while another family in the kitchen is seated at a Parisian café in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower (Europe).  Upstairs, in the bedroom, the headboard is shaped like a Mayan temple (South America), while a kangaroo jumps up and down in the bathroom (Australia).  In the attic is a huge American flag (North America).  And there you have it: the seven continents!

    Of course, memory is idiosyncratic, so strategies that work for one person may not work as well for another.  The memory palace, for example, is a technique most successfully used by visual learners.  Other learners may benefit from different mnemonics tailored to their specific learning styles.

 Mary Kay Hamalainen



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Mary Kay Hamalainen

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