Part Two: LANGUAGE, FUZZY THINKING, AND THE LANGUISHING LEFT HEMISPHERE
CHAPTER 4: Who's Teaching the Children to Talk?
Language is not only a means of generalization; it is at the same time the source of thought. When the child masters language he gains the potentiality to organize anew his perception, his memory; he masters more complex forms of reflection of objects in the external world; he gains the capacity to draw conclusions from his observations, to make deductions, the potentiality of thinking. -- ALEXANDER LURIA 
Language is not the garment but the incarnation of our thoughts. -- WILLIAM WORDSWORTH
Language is our most powerful tool for organizing experience and, indeed, for constituting our social realities. -- JEROME BRUNER 
Sitting facing the television, muttering half thoughts or reactions into black space -- this is the primary linguistic training ground for most of my students. It does not in any way adequately serve the goal of developing and strengthening verbal communication because there is no meaningful interaction. I have before me in my classroom a generation of youngsters whose world encourages linguistic passivity. I must build an awareness of the demands of clear verbal communication on the most rudimentary interpersonal levels. -- A. JANE HAMILTON,  MIDDLE SCHOOL TEACHER, HILLSBORO, NH
Language shapes culture, language shapes thinking -- and language shapes brains. The verbal bath in which a society soaks its children arranges their synapses and their intellects; it helps them learn to reason, reflect, and respond to the world. The brain is ravenous for language stimulation in early childhood but becomes increasingly resistant to change when the zero hour of puberty arrives. Severe deprivation of language during early years guarantees lasting neural changes that noticeably affect speech and understanding. More subtle forms of language deprivation do not show up in such dramatic ways, but may ultimately affect abilities to think abstractly, plan ahead and defer gratification, control attention, and perform higher-order analysis and problem-solving -- the very skills so much at issue in American schools today.
The brains of today's children are being structured in language patterns antagonistic to the values and goals of formal education. The culprit, which is now invading all levels of the socioeconomic spectrum, is diminished and degraded exposure to the forms of good, meaningful language that enable us to converse with others, with the written word, and with our own minds. The results are inevitable: declining literacy, falling test scores, faltering or circuitous oral expression, ineptitude with the written word that extends from elementary schools into the incoming ranks of professionals. Corporations run writing courses for budding executives, universities remediate basic skills, secondary schools lower standards, and elementary schools add more "learning disability" classes. Meanwhile bureaucrats and educational planners ignore the kernel problem and tout curriculum and methods devised for a previous generation. Bigger doses of "chalk and talk" are the weapons of choice against flagging attention, declines in reading comprehension, and superficial reasoning across the academic spectrum. But old methods are not working because young brains have not been shaped around language as a quintessential tool for analytic thinking.
If we want growing brains to build the foundations for traditional modes of academic excellence, we must confront the habits of our culture that are changing the quality and the quantity of our children's conversation -- both interpersonal and with the written word. Children immersed in what some linguists aptly term "primitive" language should not be criticized for failing to acquire linguistic sophistication.
Much of the blame inevitably falls on television, which is actually only one symptom of the problem. No one has defined long-term effects of stereo headphones versus conversation, of computer games or drills versus active social play, of videotapes versus books. How can children bombarded from birth by noise, frenetic schedules, and the helter-skelter caretaking of a fast-paced adult world learn to analyze, reflect, ponder? How can they use quiet inner conversations to build personal realities, sharpen and extend their visual reasoning? These qualities are embedded in brains by the experiences a society chooses for its children. What are we choosing for ours?LANGUAGE, CULTURE, BRAIN: ARTIFACT AND ARCHITECT
According to many anthropologists, society, language, brain, and the human intellect have been shinnying together up the evolutionary pole since prehistoric times. Language in fact, has been both artifact and architect of our human intellectual habits. The development of speech probably was inevitable because the human brain and vocal apparatus are uniquely suited for it. After the first words emerged, perhaps as a guttural expedient for some primitive man who wanted to summon a comrade when he was clutching a handful of tools, people discovered that talk could be useful. As they developed various uses for language, say some authorities, human evolution could have been pushed along by several notches. In turn, as language was used, the underlying brain structures may have been nudged into increased size and specialization.
The invention of writing also changed thinking: Many scholars believe the precision required to get thought into words on paper refined mental capabilities, logical thought, and the ability of a culture to reason about its complexities.  Neil Postman, author of Amusing Ourselves to Death, argues that the substitution of immediate, pictorial material for the written word may be destroying our societal ability to reason intelligently. "In a culture dominated by print," he points out, "public discourse tends to be characterized by a coherent, orderly arrangement of facts and ideas." It is no accident that the Age of Reason coincided with the development of print. Now, however, the content of much public discourse has become "dangerous nonsense." The Gettysburg address would probably have been largely incomprehensible to an 1985 audience, he suggests, even if the President could have constructed such long, complex sentences! 
This "dangerous nonsense" is the introduction for large numbers of our young into the intellectual habits and values of adult society. It is also, for many, their primary linguistic model. From it, children get a window on adults' reasoning. "Language tells what a people thinks about itself and its destiny," maintains columnist Georgie Anne Geyer, but "television's abominable grammar has tarnished the beauty of the English language.'' Who Is Teaching Language to the Children?
Even if the linguistic quality of television were upgraded, however, the one-way nature of media talk makes it a poor teacher. Good language, like the synapses that make it possible, is gained only from interactive engagement: children need to talk as well as to hear. They need to play with words and reason with them. They need to practice talking about problems to learn to plan and organize their behavior. They need to respond to new words and stories to build a broad personal base of semantic meaning. They need personal adult guides to provide good examples of grammar -- not primarily so they will sound "intelligent," but because word order, or syntax, is the means by which they will learn to analyze ideas and reason about abstract relationships. They need to hear and speak the tiny units of language -- such as ed, ing, ment -- that convey fine-grained differences between what happened yesterday and what will happen tomorrow, between actions and things, between the shades of meaning that give clarity to mental operations.
Good conversation is a rara avis in homes today. We know that most children do not read, but as we shall see, they also get little conversational training at schools. Moreover, school experiences may come too late or be of the wrong type. Traditional sources of language exposure have ceded much of their neural real estate to television and the peer culture.
Normal human brains will construct the essentials of a language even without much input: categories of word meaning, sounds, basic grammar. Deaf children invent basic symbols and the grammar of a primitive sign language even when they are not taught to sign. The brain dictates that some language will be learned; the form of the language then determines, to some degree, the form of the brain. If the deaf continue to use a visual language, their brains become significantly different from those of hearing children.
For children in more normal language environments, a minimum of exposure during the specific time period when the brain is "sensitive" for each type of development guarantees the unfolding of basic "experience expectant" systems. Refinements of language, such as more complex grammar, vocabulary, and social usage, however, don't arrive so easily; they depend on the quality and quantity of interactions in both preschool and elementary years. The most complex neural systems, which pull together abstract language and visual reasoning, develop only if challenging encounters with reading, writing, and verbal reasoning continue during the teenage years. Failure to stimulate these systems, which enable many of mankind's greatest achievements, threatens not only personal but cultural futures.FAMILIES, SCHOOLS, AND GROWING BRAINS: THE IDEAL CONFRONTS THE REALITY
Language at Home Helps Children Create "Possible Worlds"
The person who teaches your child to talk also teaches a way of thinking. The ideas, values, and priorities of a culture are borne along on the stream of language that flows between generations.
Teaching children to speak not only helps them organize words in a sentence but also to organize their minds, advises Dr. Jerome Bruner. Bruner feels the type of symbol systems we teach children to use open "possible worlds" for them. The way we talk about the world and think about it in the "coin of that thought," he maintains, imposes a point of view and even creates a social reality. Nations differ in large part because of symbol systems. "Just as the little Frenchman becomes a consumer and user of French modes of thinking and doing, so the little American comes to reflect the ways in which knowledge is gained and reflected on in America."
Verbal interactions in the home are where it all starts. In a simple example, if your child is angry because a friend made off with a favorite toy, the words you use and those you teach the child to use will set lasting patterns of action and attitude:
"Go kick that little monster in the butt! We don't let people get away with things like that!" (Society is violent, and you must be prepared to defend physically against any who transgress on your territory. Don't stop to talk or reason; just act.)
"Let me call John's mother and settle this problem." (The world can be managed by persons in authority. Words are used for solving problems, but it is best to wait for someone else who knows more than you to do the work.)
"Let's go to John's house and you can tell him why you're upset. Hitting isn't going to do any good." (People are expected to take the responsibility for solving their own problems. Verbal negotiation is the accepted means.)
"Please be quiet; this program's almost over ... " (Television problems are more important than real-life ones. Words don't seem to do much good, better try another way to get attention.)
Not all children have parents or caregivers who show them how to use words effectively, but these habits strongly influence the child's "possible worlds" when he gets to school. Dr. Gordon Wells, of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, has studied variations in the types of language training children get at home. "Everything that happens in a child's daily life is a potential subject for the sort of talk that facilitates attention, interpretation, and evaluation, but parents differ in the use they make of these opportunities," he observes. "In some homes, events are very much taken for granted, each one receiving the same sort of passing comment, whereas in other homes there is a much greater selectivity, some events being discussed in considerable detail and connections made with the wider context in which they occur." 
Social as well as thinking skills develop from children's language experiences, believes Dr. Bambi Schieffelin of the Department of Anthropology at New York University. "I think language is the thing that creates one's whole world view," she emphasizes. "I take a strong position that it's the structure of language that is important -- you can use language to create worlds as well as teach how to think." [8, 9]The Importance of Talk
Dr. Schieffelin, like many others, is concerned that children are not receiving large enough daily doses of talk either at home or at school. With increasing numbers of young children spending time in day-care or school settings, we must pay special attention to their need to talk to adults and to each other, she insists. "I just believe that kids talking and having language experiences of all kinds, in any kind of medium, is just critical. Kids have to talk, they should be encouraged constantly to talk, and older people need to participate with them, guide them, help them develop and expand their abilities."
Many parents today try hard to provide elaborate "stimulating" environments for their children, but not even designer toys substitute for good-quality conversation. Looking specifically at the behavior of the mothers in one typical study, researchers found that "frequent, responsive mother-child language interaction" was the most critical factor in raising mental ability, rather than "overall level of maternal stimulation," i.e., how well the mother physically cared for the child. 
A child's early experiences with language have powerful long-term effects on school achievement. Studies of homes of children with Down's syndrome show that parent-child interaction with language can improve the future school abilities even of children viewed as "retarded." By providing parents with training in language-rich "play lessons" beginning when each child was thirty months old, researchers in one study found that ensuing gains in the youngsters' reading comprehension lasted for at least ten years. 
Dr. Catherine Snow of Harvard University is conducting a large study to find out which characteristics of family life are particularly related to language development and -- by extension -- to school success. Some language skills, she finds, are much more valuable than others in academic terms: For example, children who can come up with good original definitions for words (as in "What does 'donkey' mean?") tend to do well on standardized achievement tests. But ability to mimic the behavior of a talk-show host interviewing an adult for four minutes showed no relationship to success on the tests.
The quality of the conversation adults have with children is extremely important, says Dr. Snow. In those precious times together at the dinner table, for example, parents who take the time to discuss topics thoughtfully, who talk about events and ideas, are helping their children become much better thinkers than those who focus more on the food or the situation at hand. Telling stories over and over, expanding on characters, events, and ideas, also helps children learn to think carefully and give good explanations.The Importance of Words Without Pictures
Any activity that helps children use their brains to separate from the "here and now," to get away from pictures and use words to manipulate ideas in their own minds, also helps them with the development of abstract thinking (e.g., "Let's guess what we will see when we go to the park this afternoon." "I wonder what your coach's decision will mean for next year's team."). Many experts believe this kind of "dis-embedded thought" is encouraged by reflective conversations about stories that have been read. Families with the time and patience to talk thoughtfully with their children about the stories they read give them a big advantage in school. Such activities are a difficult chore when parents are rushed or tired, however. Who has the energy after a day full of hassles?
Nevertheless, if parents expect their children to be good students, they had better be prepared to make an effort. If they are too tired to talk, they can at least read aloud from books that engage children's interest and attention. In a large' study in Great Britain following children from preschool into elementary school, Dr. Wells and his colleagues found that the most powerful predictor of their school achievement was the amount of time spent listening to interesting stories. Wells believes that such experiences teach children first about the way stories (and later, other things they read) are structured, as well as the types of language that may be expected in a variety of types of written text. Even more important, however, is understanding words alone as the main source of meaning. Because the words do not come with pictures attached, the child must come to grips with "the symbolic potential of language" -- its power to represent experience independent of the context of the here and now.
Experiences with pictures attached, even when they involve looking at picture books and learning new words, are not as valuable, says Wells, because the child needs to learn "sooner, rather than later" to go beyond just naming things that can be seen. He concludes:
For this, the experience of stories is probably the ideal preparation .... Gradually, they will lead them to reflect on their experience and, in so doing, to discover the power that language has, through its symbolic potential, to create and explore alternative possible worlds with their own inner coherence and logic. Stories may thus lead to the imaginative, hypothetical stance that is required in a wide range of intellectual activities and for problem-solving of all kinds. . . [emphasis added]. 
What is actually happening in today's homes? Teachers of young children are worried that children aren't being read to enough at home today. They say many of their charges now come to school unfamiliar with the narrative staples of our literature: folk and fairy tales, "classic" children's stories, even nursery rhymes. Deficits are showing up especially among middle and upper-middle class children from "the type of families" where these stories were, until quite recently, standard fare. The librarian in one suburban school told me, "It's amazing to me that they come to kindergarten and first grade having no experience with nursery rhymes. It used to be they were all familiar with them and many could recite along with you; now hardly any are familiar. Is there such a thing as 'cultural illiteracy' for five-year-olds?"
Why are nursery rhymes so important? Not only do they get children "hooked" on listening to language, but they also teach valuable skills. "It's the patterns, the rhythms," she explains, "the way language is put together so pleasantly. Patterns are the most important for early reading -- and even for math. Putting letters together in patterns, learning that everything in the world goes together in patterns -- that's so important for the little ones."
"I have to start from scratch with most of these kids," said a kindergarten teacher in another school. I'm supposed to teach rhyming words in the reading readiness program, but half these kids don't know what a rhyme is. And a lot seem to be missing that internal sense of rhythm."
Reading specialists tell us children's ability to discriminate and create rhyming words, as well as their sense of rhythm, are closely related to early reading ability. A child who has absorbed over and over -- through the ears, not the eyes -- such common word parts as "fun, sun, run" or "fiddle, diddle, middle" as well as the melody of their language is statistically destined to have an easier time learning to read.Language Coaches
Ideally, children have one-on-one language coaches built into their lives from birth, when interactions between parent and infant lay the groundwork for nonverbal communication skills. Some parents mistakenly believe the first year is not important for language stimulation, yet during these months basic synapses of the language system are constructed by such "simple" means as non talking games (pat-a-cake, peekaboo) between infant and caretaker. Turn-taking, even without words, is an important first lesson. During early months the brain also takes in its lasting repertoire of sounds for speaking and listening to the nuances of its native language.
Parents seem to have built-in knowledge of how to act as "language coach" while the child's abilities develop. Studies show that mothers instinctively shape and expand their child's language, tailoring their own responses precisely to each child's developmental need. They seem to know just how to pull the youngster's language up a notch by using forms in their own speech that are just one degree above the child's current level. Simply exposing children to adult language does not automatically make the learning "take," because youngsters can't repeat speech patterns that are much more complicated than those they are already using (another reason, incidentally, why most TV -- even Sesame Street -- is a flop as a language model). 
A burning current question asks whether other adults can also do this job. The few studies available suggest that fathers, too, may be quite skilled at tailoring language to a child.  Other adults and even older children can also be effective, but only if they have the skill to move on to more complex vocabulary and grammar when children are ready. When parents hire caretakers with different language patterns from their own, they should not be surprised if their child's development is affected.
Overall, being a parent may confer a special advantage. One recent study compared children's interactions with parents and with other well-intentioned adults who were not parents. Parents did a much better job of guiding the children's language, even if the children weren't their own.  Perhaps the secret is to be in close enough touch with a growing mind to become sensitized to what is happening inside it.
Development of brain systems beyond the most fundamental layers of language depend on the availability of the right kind of stimulation at the proper time. Anyone who has ever watched a small child pester an adult to get a certain kind of answer, realizes that children will try to elicit the right kind of conversation if adults are interested and available. This ideal scenario is increasingly missing, however, even in homes where parents expect to see their child on top of the academic heap. At this writing, the majority of babies born in the United States are placed in full-time day care within a year, commonly within two or three months, so their mothers can return to work.  American preschoolers spend a great deal of time watching television -- missing both personal interaction and language content tailored to each child's developmental schedule. We don't know how many children are being encouraged to be quiet by overburdened caretakers, by parents who are pressed for time, or by hired baby-sitters who have poor mastery of English and would rather watch the soaps.
Are schools taking over the job? A resounding NO is, unfortunately, the answer. In many day-care centers and classrooms, teachers have too many children to see to and may even lack the interest or the skills to participate with them. Neglect of verbal interaction during the apex of the brain's sensitive period for language acquisition is a serious issue, but many so-called "reliable" programs overlook the priority of interactive talk. In one typical study, researchers observed the everyday interactions of children and their teachers in two well-regarded child care centers in the United States. They found:
The children spent most of their time in teacher-directed large-group activities, and ... most of their language behavior was receptive, such as listening to and following teachers' directions. Although teachers provided adequate oral language models, they were not active listeners, did not encourage curiosity about language, and did not spontaneously expand on children's vocabulary or concepts. 
In other settings the situation is even worse. Basic concerns for physical needs and safety predominate; even teacher talk is minimized. In some centers children watch video for substantial portions of the day.
For older children, too, schools neglect specific measures to make up for gaps in language development before it's too late. "We have to teach them the three R's and all the other stuff that gets neglected at home -- from sex education to how to climb trees. Don't tell me we also have to teach them how to talk!" complained one school administrator.
"As a society, are we neglecting our children's language development?" I asked Dr. Schieffelin, who has compared language development in many cultures with that in the United States.
"That's what it looks like," she replied. "But I don't want to blame caretakers. Many mothers have to work. The problem is that there has to be some institutional support; someone has to help out, and that's not happening."
Dr. Schieffelin believes that we should rearrange our societal priorities to get children interacting with language. She says schools and day-care centers should encourage children to talk with peers as well as with adults. But classes are often too big. How, she asks, can teachers be expected to encourage language interaction when they must control overly large groups of children in classrooms -- by keeping them quiet?
"We need to look at this ideology of silence; why is it that silence is seen as being in control and talk is seen as being out of control? Children can't be passive learners! I really think they need a lot of opportunity to experiment, talk to each other in ways that are not necessarily appropriate to adults -- word play, sound play, role play -- but teachers have so many kids in the room they can't tolerate the noise level." 
Passive "listening" does not build either language or effective listening skills. Our children today spend a great deal of time "listening" (to the TV, to the teacher), but they need to listen better, not just listen more. Real listening is an active mental process that serves understanding and memory. Classrooms where children are passively "listening" to teachers who do most of the talking are a dangerous anachronism. Studies of elementary and secondary school classrooms, where up to 80% of conversation is "teacher talk," even in primary grades, support Dr. Schieffelin's concern. When I visited a number of schools to record samples of children using language in the classrooms, I had trouble finding anything but isolated phrases or short answers to teachers' questions. Much of the "talk" was a one-way street, as the teacher presented material, gave directions, or asked factual questions requiring only brief answers. Only in rare classrooms were children encouraged to formulate complete sentences, expand on answers, or use more complex grammar. Even more rarely were children encouraged to talk to each other, ask each other questions -- or even, in fact, to ask questions at all!
Children with insufficient language skills have difficulty requesting information or analyzing problems because they can't formulate appropriate questions. They register overall confusion ("I don't understand"), but lack the verbal tools to analyze the problem; they often remain silent because they can't get their curiosity into words. Their learning suffers accordingly, particularly in subjects such as math and science, where asking the right question is often as important as getting the right answer. In order to analyze problems and evaluate alternatives, children need active practice asking and attempting to answer their own questions. Too much "teacher talk" gets in the way of such higher-level reasoning because it prevents children from doing their own thinking! Observing in British primary schools, linguist Gordon Wells was struck by
the very high proportion of teacher utterances that are questions, and of these what a very small proportion are questions to which the teachers do not already know the answer. Even when the form of the question seems to invite a variety of answers, there is often only one that is really acceptable to the teacher, and it is not uncommon to see children gazing at the teacher's face in an effort to guess what is in her mind, down to the precise word. 
In another era, when children's out-of-school environments provided richer language experiences, schools could, and did, assume that most children would arrive in the elementary or junior high school classroom with verbal skills adequate for their educational purposes. Now, a growing number of educational journals advise teachers not to assume skills of listening, verbal expression, verbal inquiry, and analysis. Children who come from homes where English is not the primary language particularly need special attention, special teaching techniques, and special sensitivity, but all students need an interactive language environment. Reality, however, trails good advice by at least ten years, and many, if not most, classrooms have too many children and insufficient support. Moreover, many also have such rigid "objectives" that even well-intentioned teachers may be forced to push pedagogy at the expense of curiosity.
As a society, we are inviting intellectual mediocrity if we neglect the quality of the language experience of our young. Linguistic passivity for large numbers of children of any age is a recipe for limitation, not only in their individual development but in the cut of our cultural fabric of thought.WHAT'S HAPPENING TO KIDS' LANGUAGE?
Teachers today are variably puzzled, concerned, discouraged, and outraged by declines in native-English-speaking students' ability to use language coherently and analytically. Many are not aware that this problem also accounts for "fuzzy thinking." As I visit classrooms, I see ample reason for concern.
"Well, It's Like ... You Know ... "
In a suburban classroom eight fifth graders sit around a table reading silently from a textbook. Their teacher holds a manual from which he will read questions about the story. As the children finish reading, they look up expectantly.
"Who can tell me what Rebecca's problem was and how she tried to solve it?" asks the teacher. Hands shoot up. "Okay, Hank, give it a try."
"Well, it was like her friend Sam was uh -- you know -- uh -- like there, er, trapped -- uh -- under a tree, you know, one that fell down, and Rebecca tried to use a thing -- you know -- a branch to, like, er . . ." Arms waving, Hank pantomimes a prying motion.
"Pry?" suggests the teacher.
"Yeah, to like pry the tree off him."
"Good, Hank. Susan, will you explain how well Rebecca's plan worked?"
"I'm not really sure," ventures Susan. "I sort of lost it after Rebecca yelled. Like who were those other people that came? I couldn't figure out whether this was before or after she ran into town."
Later, in the faculty room, the teacher appeals for help. "How can I teach these kids to express themselves better? They talk a lot but they have such trouble expressing their ideas clearly. I think it affects what they understand. We used to be able to use harder books in fifth grade, but now even when they can 'read' all the words, they can't seem to put it together. And you should see their writing!" He rolls his eyes. "Yet in so many ways these kids are really smart. Do you think I should be teaching them differently?"
Recently I observed a class of ninth graders in a private school discussing the book Animal Farm. The students were lively and interested, they clearly had some important ideas they wanted to express, and many did a wonderful job of it. But it was sometimes painful to hear others try. One snippet of dialogue that I jotted down occurred as a girl tried to describe the behavior of a tyrant:
"You know how he's like . . . ," she began. Then, abandoning that line of thought, she started again, "When he tried to ... you know" -- gesturing vigorously -- "he did it."
As the conversation progressed, the teacher tried to get the students to compare themes in the book with issues in their own society. She posed the question of what people should do if someone starts acting like a tyrant.
"Oh, yeah," cried one student. "That was on Magnum last night."
"Couldn't you tell them ...," volunteered another, "I forget what it's called -- couldn't you just tell them that they should get out?"
I do not wish to imply that these excerpts characterize all class discussions or that many, many students do not think clearly and express themselves well. Obviously, we cannot expect perfection from ten- and fourteen-year-olds. My concerns, and those expressed by many veteran teachers who have written and spoken to me, are more centered on the suspicion that more and more students are unable to use language -- oral or written -- with the types of precision that might reasonably be expected at any given age or supposed "ability level." This development goes hand in hand with an overwhelming barrage of reports about declining listening skills.What the Teachers Say
Students have always needed help understanding and expressing themselves -- otherwise they wouldn't be students. And some teachers have always complained. Nevertheless, an increasing number of teachers feel that declining verbal skills are partially responsible for their not being able to achieve the kind of standards in class discussions, reading, and writing that they once took for granted -- with the same type of students. They repeatedly express a core of concerns:
• declining listening skills: inability to maintain attention, to understand, and remember material presented orally
• decreased ability to get facts and ideas into coherent, orderly form in speaking and writing
• tendency to communicate with gestures along with, or instead of, words
• declining vocabulary knowledge above fourth-grade level
• proliferation of "fillers" instead of substantive words ("You know, like, the thing, well, like the thing he did for his, you know, project . . .")
• difficulty hearing differences between sounds in words and getting them in order; this shows up in difficulty pronouncing and reading "long" words and in spelling
• faltering comprehension of more difficult reading material
• trouble understanding longer sentences, embedded clauses, more advanced grammatical structures in upper grades
• difficulty switching from colloquial language to written form
Not surprisingly, different concerns surface at different grade levels. Preschoolers are reported to have more trouble sitting still and listening to stories or short discussion than did children of previous decades, but they are often seen as having larger vocabularies ("Especially for clinical terms concerned with sex, reproduction, and disease," wryly commented one teacher) and a broader store of general information. Many little children appear to be "advanced" because they have adopted a veneer of sophistication from television.
In primary grades, most language demands can be handled by the brain's basic systems, which usually develop with any amount of normal input. Thus, although attention problems are always mentioned, language problems may not be specifically identified until about fourth grade, when the higher-level aspects -- those that depend more on enriched experience -- are called on. At this point, the neural legacy of contemporary culture creates an increasing mismatch between students' language abilities and schools' expectations. Problems with language understanding and usage become increasingly evident as children move into grades that have traditionally demanded higher-level thinking and organizational skills, comprehension of harder books, and increased amounts of writing. Reading test scores start to plummet.
As students move into middle school, teachers express greater concern about listening skills, vocabulary knowledge, reading comprehension, and the ability to use language to express ideas effectively. Unless students read a lot on their own, their vocabulary growth slows down somewhere near the fourth-grade level -- approximately the level of media language. Many schools try to remedy the deficit by making kids memorize vocabulary lists, but students rapidly forget words they rarely read, hear, or use in normal conversation. With harder reading selections, comprehension problems also arise as children find the unfamiliar forests of more complicated texts (e.g., essays, poetry, literature with involved plots, plays) very bewildering places indeed.
In high school, language difficulties continue to show up in subtle problems with: planning, sequencing, and organizing ideas; classifying; grasping the fine distinctions between concepts; reasoning about cause and effect (if A, then B; because X, then Y); understanding relationships of ideas in their reading; reasoning in math and science; expressing ideas accurately and directly; reflecting internally on their own thinking, and even managing their own behavior.
Several university professors have recently told me they cannot believe the difficulties students nowadays have with analytic thinking. For example, a well-known psychology teacher at a major university in Florida said, "It's a source of amazement to me how many students can't link ideas together; they can't follow one idea logically with another. I have older adult students and younger undergraduates in my classes, and it's the younger ones I'm having more trouble with. I really think it's because they have such poor verbal skills. If you don't have a good grasp of the language, you have no tools to think with. You haven't formed the appropriate categories verbally to combine ideas. Language changes the way your brain sets up the categories it works with. For these students the whole thought process just isn't there; the linkages between ideas that language provides are missing."
Wide variations in abilities to use language as a tool for thinking are a natural part of the human condition. There will always be students -- even bright and talented ones -- whose brains do not bend easily around analytic and logical uses of language. Children differ genetically in their aptitude for language learning, and it is clearly absurd to expect equal facility from everyone with any particular set of mental tools. The concern I hear expressed over and over is not that a few students are faltering, but that many are. These observations show a startlingly similar pattern at every level of the socioeconomic scale, with some of the most dramatic changes in children's language abilities reported by teachers at the country's most selective private schools.Voices From Abroad
Is the problem unique to the United States? Apparently not, although it appears to be much worse here. One infant school teacher from Coventry, England, said, "We thought it wouldn't happen in England, but it is happening here, too. Children's language skills are suffering along with their ability to stop and think. The speed of life, what they're getting from T.V. -- that lovely, typically British thing of standing and staring, reflecting, is being eroded."
"It's beginning -- something we were trying to avoid for many a year," lamented a Dublin Montessori consultant. "Children are not speaking properly because they're not hearing words pronounced slowly. T.V. is too fast. Spelling is declining because they don't hear the sounds. If you hear two teenagers speaking, they can understand each other but we can't understand them. It's like a pidgin English -- a shortened version of the real words. Teachers have to slow down far more than they ever did before. We're dealing with a different type of child. Children who are institutionalized from day one don't have the same rich language environment as those at home with only one or two adults."
Said a college professor from London, "It's very scary. I see it in the students at the college -- they don't seem to be able to translate their thoughts from head to paper. We didn't used to see this, and it seems to be getting worse."
Educators in France have similar issues on their minds. The principal of a middle school (college) in southwestern France, said of his students, "Their capacities for listening have declined. Proper language use is poorly known; they don't understand the nuances of language. They write and spell very badly, and their grammar -- it's horrible! They have smaller vocabularies and they chatter instead of reflecting before they talk. It takes them five or six sentences to say what they mean. One finds it even in the best students, deficits in attention and expression. I tell the teachers, we have to accept these children where they are; with all the distractions -- music, television -- society has changed."
As we concluded our interview, my French host remarked, "I have a daughter who is considered a good student now, but twenty years ago -- she would not have been so good."The Legacy of "McLanguage"
Observers tend to blame the schools for lack of training in the fine points of language and grammar. London columnist Brian Dunning, in a recent article entitled "Doesn't Anybody Here Talk English Any More?" decried a new generation in Britain "which runs a finger under words of more than one syllable," and students who, when shown a noun or a verb, will "blink like rabbits confronted with Wittgenstein." 
Unfortunately, when children come to school with a deficient base for higher-order language and reasoning skills, schools cannot simply "cure" the problem by waving a magic grammar or spelling book! One nationally noted learning specialist has some strong feelings about the real causes of the current problem.
"I call the trend in kids' talk today 'McLanguage,''' declares Priscilla Vail, author of Clear and Lively Writing  and Smart Kids with School Problems.  "It's verbal fast food made up of inflection, gesture, and condensation." Vail's consultations on bright children's learning problems in both public and private schools have convinced her that societal changes are overwhelming the schools with students who need remedial language training. Most learning disabilities are related to underlying language problems, yet increasing numbers of youngsters are permitted to be "linguistically malnourished," she says. The most basic problem is they don't learn to listen analytically.
"For one thing," Vail explains, "children can't spell because they are unaccustomed to separating out sounds and putting them in order -- their listening experience has ill-prepared them to listen for fine differences in sounds or in meaning."
Good spelling, of course, also comes from seeing words in print (i. e., lots of reading). Research shows that a major factor contributing to both poor reading and poor spelling, however, is not lack of visual skill, but rather poor critical listening abilities. One typical study that compared good and poor readers showed that differences in a skill called "phonological awareness" was highly related to reading ability in both elementary school children and adults. "Phonological awareness" is the ability not only to hear the sounds in words but also to analyze their order. For example, the child is asked to: "Say 'smile' without the s"; move different-colored blocks to show the order of sounds in words (e.g., b-a-t, t-a-b); listen to a word and tell whether it is long like "bicycle" or short like "bike." Good readers (and good spellers, as well) are strikingly better at this type of listening than are poor readers, even when both groups have similar IQ scores.  Because these skills are accomplished in a special part of the left hemisphere of most people's brains, some researchers speculate that this complex of skills is related to inherited differences in brain structure, but studies have clearly shown that early exposure and practice also have a great deal to do with the way these areas develop. Today's children are exposed to lots of sound, but that is exactly what concerns Vail. "I am particularly worried about the kids who conform to the listening patterns of pop music," she says. "Their brains are being trained to listen uncritically to lyrics that are limited to repetitive syllables or short phrases that hardly sound like English. The beat overrides the melody, and there is no beginning, no middle, and no end. That is a poor training ground for understanding language!"
Interestingly enough, the parts of the brain that respond to this sort of musical immersion are in the right hemisphere, opposite from the areas that make people good at "phonological awareness." When we see young children encase their minds in stereo headphones, we should wonder what synapses are being strengthened -- and at what cost?
Vail agrees, too, that children fail to develop skills they will need in school because conversation is suffering in homes. A veteran working mother of four, now a grandmother, she sympathizes with weary adults, but at the same time she worries about their children. "When you're tired, the last thing you want to do is have a long conversation with someone who's not on your level," she sighs. "Many children today, even in the 'best' homes, never hear rich, elaborated sentences. And when parents do talk with their kids, they do it with short sentences and a lot of gestures. These parents may have good language skills, but this is a culture of immediate gratification. We want instant information through eyes as well as ears, but academic learning requires the thoughtful mediation of language and the delay of working through print. We're giving kids competing messages when we raise them without any models of slow, thoughtful language and then expect them to listen to the teacher and understand what they read."Whatever Happened to Storytelling?
Many children today are also missing out on a rich "oral tradition," in English or another language, that can enhance written language or stand by itself in a culture where writing is not generally used to communicate ideas. Although writing -- and the kind of talking and thinking that go along with it -- promotes the development of school-like ways of reasoning, the arts of storytelling, oral history, and conversation have their own special niche in developing reflective thought, memory, and attention. We will see in later chapters what an absence of good listening experiences may be doing, not only to attention spans, but to reading comprehension for today's students. For now, let us move on to explore some of the specific ways in which different forms of language usage may affect the modes of thinking -- and the brains -- that children take to school with them.