eLearning, COVID-19, And Language Difficulties
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eLearning, COVID-19, And Language Difficulties

Although eLearning has coped with the COVID-19 2020 pandemic when face-to-face teaching has been impossible, it has illuminated inequality issues. This is not only that some students lack the required technology and home support to access online materials but there are those unable to learn without ongoing help. In Britain, we run a prescriptive education system focusing on what to learn rather than how. Students who perform competently in structured, supportive classrooms have found themselves floundering as they try to manage learning with less individual guidance. This has revealed their difficulties more acutely, resulting from language deficiencies that are rarely identified.

Introduction

As a speech and language therapist, psychologist, and teacher, I have worked in health and social services, mainstream education, and latterly in universities. Studies in a typical Leicester primary school over three years showed all entries had language and cognition below age level (Sage, 2000). At the feeder secondary school, 80% of students were found to operate at a 5-6 year level on psycho-linguistic tests when aged 11-12, with the school continually in special measures. The Medical Research Council asked me to look at 300 children in this Midland area testing normally on intelligence (IQ) tests but failing in schools. This cohort all had problems with understanding and producing extended language, which component style IQ tests had not revealed.

Therefore, a transmission learning style with extended talk and texts proved problematic. Individuals can appear chatty and deal with conversation successfully when able to control the action but have difficulty with lengthy language sequences. Their dialogue ability means that teachers assume they are language proficient but the monologue style of class discourse is a problem so they depend on direct or indirect help to complete tasks. During the pandemic period, students, at all levels, have talked about missing classmates and teachers and spontaneous conversations and relationships with them. The context of formal education makes them keen to learn, holds them accountable, and motivates them to stay engaged whilst acquiring much more from observing others, sharing information, and gaining support and help when required,

Students, described above, would be viewed as having some degree of higher-level language disorder and the pandemic has highlighted issues. This is not only a problem at primary but also at the tertiary end of education, as some students say they cannot cope with webinars and wander off. One suggested, "We’ll pass courses anyway as universities don’t allow us to fail." Transmitting information in the way we might do so face-to-face does not work for online presentations, which need material broken down into smaller chunks with more time to absorb visual/graphic input. Online performances require training to be effective as they rely on auditory and visual material and exclude the haptic (touch, feeling, position in space) and non-verbal dimensions necessary for those learning best from real experience (Sage & Matteucci, 2020). This is important for people with subtle communication issues. Increasingly there are many being instructed in a language other than their mother tongue, with the nuances of this often confusing.

Thus, the pandemic highlights students finding it difficult to work under their own steam and it is important to assess communicative competencies for their relevant support. One considers the ability to introspectively analyze (terms used in the literature: inner speech/talk, self-talk, sub-vocal speech, mental verbalization, internal dialogue/monologue, or self-statement). Alongside inner-talk is external language dialogue and narrative monologues (telling/retelling, giving instructions, reporting, making an argument, etc.). However, the importance of inner-talk is not often recognized, but Vygotsky (1934/1986) suggested it was dependent on sequential narrative language and vital for prediction. If students have problems with this, they are unlikely to carry out tasks alone and need prompting for each step of the way. Articulating each step, repeating it and then reviewing and recalling the whole sequence is necessary to build mental verbalization for completing tasks independently.

Hurlbert (2011) has made inner-talk a focus for study and found that there is only an average 20% use frequency. External talk is necessary for developing internal self-statements. Is low frequency of inner-talk a result of technology as the preferred way of communicating? In countries, like Italy, Japan, and Cuba, talk is the technology of learning and you do not find silent classrooms as students constantly verbalize to develop higher levels of speaking and thinking. Group work is more common than individual so that participants constantly exchange ideas, reflect, review, and refine performances. With students four years above UK counterparts in the Dialogue, Innovation, Achievement, and Learning studies (DIAL, Sage, Rogers & Cwenar, 2002-10) one has to take their approach seriously, as communication and relationships take precedence over subject learning in policy and practice. In Italy, the Roman tradition Oratory and Rhetoric Schools is still seen today, with oral examinations important for judging performance, so reflecting their normal use in life. This is seen below (Steil 1991):

  • Listening used 60% but taught least
  • Speaking used 20% but taught next to least
  • Reading used 12% but taught next to most
  • Writing used 8% but taught most

When you look at this table one can easily see that primary language competencies get less attention than secondary ones in educational practice.

eLearning

Many issues are involved with online education but we cannot ignore the importance of it in times of a pandemic crisis. There are always solutions to fix problems. Technical difficulties can be solved through pre-recording video materials, testing content, and having a reserve plan so that teaching/learning is not hindered. Online courses must be dynamic, interesting, and interactive with the information presented in small amounts, as it is not possible to judge audience understanding as in face-to-face contacts. Time limits, reminders, and summaries of information for students keeps them alert and attentive (especially important for those with language difficulties). Efforts should be made to humanize learning so personal attention is vital for learners to easily adapt to this new environment. Social media and group forums help connect students and educators.

Personal communication is key when texts, messaging apps, video calls, etc., prove difficult, as research indicates there is much miscommunication when non-verbal input is reduced (Sage, 2020). Deliver content with an applied task following so students can practice and hone abilities and encourage their feedback on these experiences. Learning support sets of 6-8 students are more suitable for such exchanges as some find a 30+ group intimidating in an online forum, although others may prefer it to face-to-face experiences.

The quality of courses should be improved continually and designed to be creative, interactive, relevant, student-centered, and group-based. Educators must produce effective online instructions which facilitate feedback from learners and encourage them to question and expand course content. Institutions should focus on teaching issues and emphasize collaborative, project, and case-based learning. Their challenge is not only finding new technology and using it but also reimagining their approach and helping students and staff wanting guidance on digital literacy. This is particularly important for students showing problems with language who find the online mode more perplexing.

Equality: High-Level Language Disorder (HLLD)

People come across terms like articulation, stammering, voice disturbances, and linguistic components like sentence structure, vocabulary, and grammar. These are common problems of individuals seeking help from communication specialists. However, language can be affected outside of the ability to produce a sentence with correct structure, vocabulary, articulation, and voice dynamics. Subtle communicative components, known as higher-order/level language or executive function, can be impaired and more difficult to detect than distinctive limited grammar or defective speech sounds and voice quality. These individuals often score well on basic language (vocabulary) and visual reasoning intelligence tests (like Raven’s Progressive Matrices) but struggle with verbal thinking, in-depth explanations, and storytelling. High-level language includes:

Sequencing

Sequencing impairment affects the ability to organize and complete tasks and also impacts telling/writing a narrative coherently or giving step-by-step instructions correctly. This might present as difficulty in recounting an event without confusion. It also manifests as a problem designating project steps to another person. These subtle skills are all underpinned by the ability to correctly sequence within connected language activities. Typically difficulties in telling the time in early development are wrongly interpreted as being "dull."

 Cause And Effect

Cause and effect is the ability to determine the reason for a particular outcome. Without this ability, an individual struggles to understand why something has happened as they are unable to apprehend how an action leads to a certain outcome. If you did not understand why a sudden impact can cause a cup to break, you could not appreciate how knocking it off a table might mean buying a new one.

Inference And Predicting

This is the ability to use clues provided through verbal or visual contexts in order to infer further information and make a prediction based on it. Someone gives an instruction to another: "Turn the headlights on." From this, we deduce that the person is driving, as headlights are typically found on a vehicle. We also infer low lighting and vision, which is why the instruction was given. We can predict if lights were not on, an accident might occur. Although the information is not explicit, connections must be made to make sense of what is happening if no further facts are given.

Figurative Language

This refers to non-literal language, including idioms, metaphors, and similes, which do not directly convey a concrete meaning and are abstract in nature. This can make understanding jokes and humor difficult. It makes reading material more of a problem to understand.

These difficulties arise in the amygdala area of the brain. This part of the limbic system is located below brain lobes and consists of the hippocampus, hypothalamus, and amygdala. The amygdala and hippocampus together ensure memory processing. The amygdala encodes emotion and the hippocampus deals with event detailspeople, things, situations and where they take place. We are more likely to remember something if having a feeling or an emotion for it. Narrative processing/production and capacity to respond appropriately to significant visual or auditory stimuli are disrupted with problems in this area.

The amygdala, therefore, is primary for perception and expression of social and emotional nuances and largely responsible for expression and comprehension of spoken and then written language. Portions of the auditory neocortex—extending from the anterior and medial temporal lobe and beyond the insula to include the superior temporal lobe and the inferior parietal lobule—are partly an evolutionary derivative of the amygdala. It is argued that the primary, secondary, and auditory association areas, including Wernicke's visual area, have evolved from the amygdala and are extensively interconnected with these nuclei via the inferior portions of the arcuate fasciculus as well as the claustrum.

In consequence, when the neocortical auditory areas are impaired, the amygdala is sometimes disconnected and can no longer extract or impart nuances to incoming or outgoing sounds and sights. Although the left and right amygdala are functionally lateralized, with the R larger than the L, both contribute to perception and expression of language, assisting in maintaining the functional integrity of the neocortical auditory areas in the R and L temporal lobe. It is through these interconnections that languages are hierarchically organized at the level of the temporal neocortex.

Presenting Symptoms (10+ present indicate HLLD diagnosis) 

  • Presents as bright, intelligent, and chatty but has difficulty with extended speaking, reading, writing and spelling at expected levels
  • High IQ but may not achieve well academically; tests well in component oral assessments, like word vocabulary, but not in spoken/written narratives
  • Is not behind enough for ongoing class assistance but gains support and help from peers
  • Lacks self-esteem; hides weaknesses with ingenious strategies; easily frustrated and emotional
  • Labeled lazy, careless, immature, not trying or a behavior problem
  • Often talented in art, drama, music, sports, cookery, mechanics, sales, business, designing, building or engineering as visual and haptic* abilities are strong
  • Often daydreams, loses track of time, and easily gets lost
  • Difficulty sustaining attention; appears hyperactive or a daydreamer
  • Learns best from hands-on experience, demonstrations, experimentation, observation, visual aids

*Haptic: subsystem of non-language communication through physical contact: touch, feeling, movement, and proprioception. This is our most basic sensory pathway and the first to develop and last to be lost due to disease/injury. It is the easiest learning pathway but less used than the auditory and visual modalities in education.

Vision, Reading, And Spelling

  • Complains of dizziness, head or stomach aches while reading
  • Confused by letters, numbers, words, sequences, or verbal explanations
  • Reading or writing shows repetitions, additions, transpositions, omissions, substitutions, and reversals in letters, numbers and/or words
  • Complains of feeling/seeing non-existent movement while reading or writing
  • Difficulty with vision, yet eye assessments do not reveal a problem
  • Keen-sighted and observant, or lacks depth perception and peripheral vision
  • Reads and rereads with limited comprehension
  • Spells phonetically and inconsistently

Hearing And Speaking

  • Easily distracted by sounds and movements
  • Difficulty putting thoughts into words; speaks haltingly; leaves sentences incomplete; stutters under stress; mispronounces long words, or transposes phrases, words, and syllables when speaking

Writing And Motor Skills

  • Trouble with writing or copying; unusual grip; handwriting varies or is illegible
  • Clumsy, uncoordinated, poor at ball or team sports; difficulties with fine and/or gross motor skills and tasks; prone to motion-sickness
  • Can be ambidextrous and often confuses left/right, over/under

Mathematics And Time Management

  • Difficulty telling and managing time, learning sequenced information or tasks
  • Computing depends on finger counting and other tricks; knows answers but difficulty in transcribing
  • Can count, but difficulty counting objects and dealing with money
  • Can do arithmetic, but not word problems; cannot grasp algebra/higher maths

Cognition And Memory

  • Excellent long-term memory for experiences, locations and faces
  • Poor memory for sequences, facts and information not experienced.
  • Thinks primarily with images/feeling, not sounds/words (little inner-talk)

Personality, Behaviour, Health, And Development

  • Disorderly or compulsively orderly
  • Can be class clown, trouble-maker or too quiet
  • Unusually early/late developmental stages (talking, crawling, walking)
  • Prone to ear infections; sensitive to foods, additives, and chemical products
  • Can be a deep or light sleeper; bedwetting beyond appropriate age
  • Unusually high/low pain tolerance
  • Strong justice sense; sensitive; strives for perfection
  • Mistakes and symptoms increase with confusion, pressure, stress, or poor health

Not all symptoms are seen in a diagnosis of HLLD, but 10+ of these would suggest it. Generally, there is no concern until starting school when reading and writing are prioritized with severe problems often labeled as dyslexia* and taking precedence over subtle language issues. Communication specialists take a more holistic view and see symptoms in the linguistic-cognitive domain with problems of integrating left (verbal) and right (visual) brain activities. Management is based on L and R brain integration tasks and development of narrative language and thinking.

When given learning strategies fitting a creative, visual, active style, progress is normally excellent. Those with HLLD often have higher than average intellectual ability and develop exceptional creative talents with many historical geniuses showing these problems. At school, college, or workplace, adjustments are necessary for maximum performance. Sadly, these issues are often not identified accurately and people continue to have life-long problems from incorrect management and bullying behavior from others.

Review

eLearning has accelerated in education as a result of the pandemic and we are all reflecting on how to use it more effectively with special attention for those not so well suited to the predominately auditory and visual input.

Use eLearning To Stand Out

3D worlds and video presenters capture interest, making eLearning stand out from PowerPoint presentations and are processed more easily. Surprise the learner and they will happily learn.

Use Video

An image paints a thousand words but a video with moving images produces many more by introducing some haptic input. Therefore, the use of video conveys more than an inserted still picture.

Use Relevant Design

Multimedia should reflect learning goals. If the course is about language development, choose a video showing the main stages in a real person. Ensure multimedia does not distract from the learning message.

Use Humor

Humor helps to get a point across. An amusing presentation will keep attention to make the lesson memorable if the subject is dull. If unsure it will work, then avoid humor.

Use Interaction

Interaction breaks up the information and helps share views and assist understanding. Some learners find it frustrating when interactions spoil the information flow and these can be hard to use on mobile devices. As a rule, use interactions when contextually necessary.

Use A Higher Level

Forget eLearning expectations and set them at a higher level. eLearning should resemble a documentary film. It uses sets, has video actors, and is based in a 3D world. The language should be intelligent, simple in structure, and amusing where appropriate. Study TV documentaries to consider how they get over the message. You are presenting a story so make it stick!

Use Audience Knowledge

Audiences today are very diverse and a person’s first language dictates how they think and interpret, so learning in another one requires great concentration and more time for information processing. Research shows that communication and language are problem areas in plural societies (Sage, 2020) so assume that any audience will have listeners and viewers with additional needs. Make sure that there is no information overload, short sentences are used with good pausing between them with important ideas having suitable word stress. Some will find it difficult to integrate visual with auditory input, so ensure the main messages separate these two mediums. Present the visual (picture/film/graphics) and make the explanation afterward.

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) says that UK education is well supplied with technology but staff are not trained sufficiently to deliver it effectively. The Director suggests Britain has made the slowest educational progress of the 37 OECD nations because memorization remains the dominant learning strategy in a narrow, exam driven culture (Schleicher, 2020). He reports that education today is not about teaching people something, but helping them develop a compass to integrate personal, practical, and academic competencies. Education must rebalance to develop a more holistic, world approach for coping with life, fixing on real not abstract issues.

The OECD Educational Working Paper (Bertling, 2020) reports 25% of schools and colleges will never return to former teaching ways following the 2020 pandemic, with 50% preparing for a future of blended learning. There is an urgent need for ongoing professional development that monitors new teaching activities, using practitioner recording models to review evidence amongst colleagues. Since 60% of students worldwide do not reach the required educational standards (Luckin, 2020), it is vital to review policies and practices at a time when education has been disrupted by pandemic lockdowns. The speedy introduction of eLearning has thrown up communication and language-based issues. These have previously received minimal attention in traditional teaching models. Communication matters. Let us try and make it matter more so that fewer people struggle with eLearning!

 Note: Dyslexia is merely a descriptive term meaning difficulty with reading

 References: 

  • Bertling, J. (2020) Global Crises Models: OECD Education Working Paper 232. Paris: OECD Pub.
  • Hurlburt, R., Heavey, C. & Kelsey, J. (2013) Towards a Phenomenology of Inner Speech.
  • Consciousness & Cognition, 22, p. 1477-94.
  • Luckin, R. (2020) I, Teacher: AI and School Transformation. Spotlight. London: Newstateman
  • Sage, R. (2020) Speechless. London: Legend Press Group
  • Sage, R. & Mattueccci, R.(2020) How World Events are Changing Education. In Press.
  • Sage, R., Rogers, J. & Cwenar, S. (2002-10) Dialogue, Innovation, Achievement & Learning Studies, 1, 2, 3. Preparing the 21st Century Citizen. University of Leicester & The National Corporation of Universities, Japan. Leicester: Pub. University of Leicester
  • Steil, A. (1991) quoted in ‘Overlooked Dimensions In Language Acquisition’ (C. Feyten) The Modern Language Journal, Vol. 75 (2) p. 173-80
  • Schleicher, A. (2020) Preparing the Next Generation for their Future. Spotlight. London: Newstatesman
  • Vygotsky, L (1934/1986) Thought and Language. Cambridge: MIT
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