Friday, February 26, 2010

Teaching Problems: Alphabet to Math & Science

A Common Language Learning Problem Teaching Most Anything from the Alphabet to Cellular Biology: ‘bdp’ Syndrome

Anthony V. Manzo & Ula Manzo California State University – Fullerton and

The Common Language Learning Problem

When a child pronounces b as p or d the learning problem that is exposed really is no different than when a medical school student confuses meiosis (the process of limited cell division) and mitosis (the process of complete cell division, including nucleus and cytoplasm). In point of fact, much of teaching, learning and especially academic achievement testing is related to grasping and remembering subtle differences among similar units of school learning, such as between an adjective and an adverb. Oddly, in this Internet age in which most anything can be found in a jiffy, we have lost touch with identifying the source of a persistent teaching-learning problem with a sound scientifically supported and sensible solution. The elementary school teacher who teaches both skills and subjects could improve both by greater knowledge of this problem and its solution.

The reminder offered here is not an end-to-end teaching procedure, like the Directed Reading Activity, but more like an Amplifying Instructional Ingredient (Manzo & Manzo, 2004). These are smaller devices or techniques that can be strategically blended and used within many different larger instructional methods wherever certain perplexing teaching-learning problems may arise, or an extra humph is needed to insure sound learning of one element before taking up the next.

Academic Language: Getting a Handle on the Problem

The problem addressed here is centered on Academic Language. This is more than vocabulary it is the sum of the words, phrases and references to knowledge that are frequently made in teaching on the assumption that they are knowns that will foster learning of unknowns. They are suppose to serve to assist in further learning, but can serve to further confuse it. The challenge to teachers at every level is relatively clear: We must identify ways to enable students to acquire this academic language that is woven through literature and content area teaching and learning (Unrau, 2004). This problem of being unable to establish a base of common references, or prior knowledge to advance subsequent knowledge is especially true with students from different cultural and linguistic backgrounds. Second Language Learners who have become proficient with basic decoding, and with oral, largely schoolyard, language can still be one to three years away from mastery of academic language (or book words, allusions and phrasing), and therefore from full capability to independently read to learn from conventional textbooks (Manzo, Manzo & Thomas, 2005; Brisk, 1998).

There are two realms of research in theories of learning, dating back prior to Internet accessibility that can assist in meeting this challenge. Frankly, these are pretty heady academic concepts and terms themselves, but teachers will recognize* the fact of them immediately. They are the concepts-terms Proactive and Retroactive Inhibition, and that of Frequent and Distributed Practice. Here now is a brief update on the nature of the teaching-learning problems that originally stirred this area of forgotten research, and some guidance for teachers and Secondary and College Literacy and Learning Specialists in rediscovering and applying these principles in the area of improving academic vocabulary, and the ability to independently read to learn.

Culprit: Weak Initial Learning – an Elementary Example

The problem is so large that we can begin with the letter A – for Alphabet. There have been many studies stretching back over a long period addressing the whether, what, when, how and best sequence for teaching the alphabet. Dunn-Rankin (1968) for example identified five clusters of letters that create confusions (e.g., b, d, p and o, g, h). Nonetheless, most studies tend to pass lightly over the confounding issue of how to translate their findings into instructional practice. Complicating the matter is the fact that a few specialists and many laymen, despite considerable evidence to the contrary, continue to believe that any “reversals” of certain letters and smaller words (b-p-d for one another, or was for saw) is indicative of mild to severe dyslexia. In point of fact, most textbooks dating back to the 1930’s say that “reversals”- or more accurately, “inversions”- probably are more an indication of weak, or incomplete and therefore confused learning, not neurological dysfunction (although such dysfunction may be at the heart of the weak learning).This difference has become quite weighty since if the need is viewed as “neurological” the law requires that it be addressed by LD specialists, whereas if it is weak learning, it can be addressed by the reading teacher. In either case, grasping the fact that most such problems reflect weak or early stage learning is important to appreciating the solution offered ahead.

bdp (pronounce: bidip) Syndrome is an Associative Learning Not a Conceptual Problem

Reading to learn often involves teaching, learning and having to read similar words, labels and complementary concepts, such as their, they’re and there, World War I and II, latitude and longitude. However there is a tendency for things taught in about the same period of time to overly collapse into one another and become confused so that what was learned first distorts learning what is taught next. Worse, what is taught next causes a degree of unlearning or further confusion with that which may once have been relatively well understood. The mind encountering such confusing terms tends to react as if it is hearing static on a radio that makes it difficult to distinguish what it otherwise could understand. Further, meaning and sense become lost in the static as a term may be “seen” or “heard” even when it was not written nor spoken. Technically such learning/remembering problems are known as proactive and retroactive inhibition (Han, Gallagher, and Holland. 1998; Müller & Schumann 1894) or forward and backward confusions resulting from the collapse of a conceptual distinction with each increasing lapse of time. Proactive Inhibition is a lessened ability to recall new material because of material learned previously. Retroactive Inhibition is the decreased ability to recall previously learned information, caused by the learning of new information. As one tries to recall the earlier items, they forget the latter; as the latter are tediously recalled, the earlier are forgotten. From an instructional point of view, the problem becomes unnecessarily complicated by mislabeling such confusions as “conceptual errors.” Typically when two or more new concepts are not learned well, they are re-taught alongside one another with careful attention given to the conceptual or perceptual distinctions between them. This solution can be off-the-mark and can create a further time-lapse problem that reveal why a simpler solution may work best. In good science as well as case-based diagnosis the simplest or leanest explanation for a problem must be eliminated before a more complex one is given serious consideration – this is known as the rule of parsimony­ – or, if you hear hove beats think horses not zebras.

Proper Diagnosis – i.e., Scientific and Case-based Thinking – Can Correct the Scrambling Effects of the Mind’s Yesterdays

A leaner view of this learning problem yields a quite different impression of the root problem and perhaps a better solution. The time-lapse dimension of this learning problem can begin to set in within moments of instruction. It occurs due to the tendency of the mind to combine and confuse things taught at the same time in our personal life stories. In such cases both are remembered, but the proper label for each may be hopelessly confused. More, with each effort to un-confuse the competing ideas, a student’s unfolding time-line tends to further lump and scramble them together in the bubbles of the mind’s yesterdays.

The simpler and more probable explanation for this literacy learning problem is that the initial letter, or target word, was not learned fully at a mental-perceptual, and most importantly (quick) associative learning level before the next was introduced. This idea may be more familiar as what teachers of reading do when they work toward a conditioned response that has weak readers attain automaticity; or a rapid, non-sorting out, or “non-thinking” response to a letter or word. The Amplifying Instructional Ingredient is to teach one letter or term at a time until it is learned to 100% accuracy and then to introduce the next competing letter or term in much the same way. It is best in this circumstance to make relatively little reference to the previously learned letters (or words), or to those yet to be targeted. Nonetheless, it is at this point that it becomes useful to briefly and explicitly ask students how, say b – now solidly known – is different from d­- the relatively unknown.

But, how can a teacher avoid such confusing encounters with say d, p and q or other competing terms in early reading, writing and learning? The simple answer is that we cannot, and need not. Instead of trying to avoid the competing letters, or equivalent terms, during this fragile early learning stage, simply continue to stress and provide practice in the rapid recognition of the initial letter, again, until it is learned to a 100% criterion level. As such, it now is reduced as an inhibitor – or slower down and point of confusion- in accurately and quickly saying b when seeing b. It also becomes a benchmark for learning to identify the non b’s as something else. This sets up the condition for using other word recognition and analysis strategies to learn d p and q. These typically would include: context and analogic teaching-learning, or using what is well known (b) to decipher what it not yet well known (d p q). Again, these are best taught one at a time on a strong foundation of very high accuracy with each of the previous. This is especially the case, or need for children being taught in other than their heritage language. The ideal is reached when a child can confidently look at a possibly confusing letter and say to his or her self “This is not a b (therefore) it must be something else.” Ideally, this should conjure d since it is the next most logical letter to teach. (One of the basic principles of concept learning, especially of new vocabulary words, is to recognize which items should be included and not included in a given concept.)

Other Examples of bdp -Proactive/Retroactive Inhibition- Syndrome

Other examples of bdp Syndrome in our world include the confusions in a course in reading that often occur around such terms as: syntax and semantics; heterogeneous and homogeneous; critical thinking and critical literacy; and, reconstructive and constructive thinking. The best solution at this level of learning is nearly identical to that of primary school: deeply teach/ learn one term, usually by a combination of conceptual-associational-subjective approaches until that term is over-learned to 100% clarity before taking on the second term. This will occur quite naturally, however, merely by limiting one’s focus to only one of the terms since it is inescapable that the two terms often will be used in the same passage. Focusing on something implicitly means leaving other things at least slightly out of focus.

There also are many other terms in adult life that become confused despite the fact that they are learned at different times and are conceptually and semantically quite different. These include terms such as: prostate and prostrate. Most adults know well the prostate gland by name nonetheless learning prostrate leads to proactive confusion (unlearning) of the first word due to learning a new word. The solution here is to rely on context when reading, but also – and this requires some effort – use both words with sufficient frequency yourself so that the difference between them becomes both conceptualized and conditioned in your own psyche. Confusions of this type tend to require some self-teaching, the fundamental reason for most all teaching. It also helps to have a mnemonic of sorts to help with just one of the two terms. For example, teach yourself, and/or your students something like a rhythmic phrase that can trigger the correct sound/spelling…in this case it might be a piece of biblical scripture (otherwise not a great choice in a non-religious setting) – “Here I lie, prostrate before thee, Oh Lord.” Or, “He has a swollen prostate” – although this is a bit too adult for younger children. Nonetheless, there are other better examples that you will encounter once you start to think about the static created by similarities.

Examples of other frequently confused words that are frequently, and sometimes by necessity, taught together include:

centrifugal (outward force) and centripetal (inward gravitational force) – most every non-physicist has these two confused

Sine/ cosine

Crystallized and Fluid Intelligence

Field dependent/ field independent styles of learning

Digraphs and diphthongs

The attributes of the right and left hemispheres of the brain

The dynamics and battles and names associated with the Revolutionary and the Civil Wars

Complementary and complimentary

Discreet and Discrete

Affect and Effect.

Than and then.

Proactive and Retroactive Inhibition or bdp Syndrome is Self- Evident

To the above list we could add the confusions that will occur from learning about Proactive Inhibition and Retroactive Inhibition at about the same time. One way to remember these is that the b- facing right or forward stands for Proactive inhibition, the d- facing left or backward stands for Retroactive inhibition, and the p­ – spun around stands for Persistent and Generalized Confusion of most everything with a similar look. Or, what Müller and Schumann’s (1894) called “associative inhibition” as an umbrella term for both proactive and retroactive inhibition.

So, to restate, proactive inhibition occurs when something learned to a relatively meager level in the past creates static in getting a clear grip on what is being taught. Retroactive Inhibition occurs when something being newly learned, like the clarinet, confuses or causes you to unlearn what you previously knew (though not very well), like playing the flute. Or, is it the other way around? Well it makes little difference because the simple solution to either, and or related and persistent confusions are essentially the same: over-learn one to automaticity before going on to the other. There is, as mentioned above, one other theory of learning that we can now apply to the professional challenge of teaching academic language and reading to learn.

The Principle of Frequent & Distributed Practice

The other principle of learning that applies to this teaching-learning challenge is that of frequent & distributed practice­-or frequent spaced practice sessions on each new learning/factual/skill objective. The effects of the timing of practice on learning and retention have a long history. The positive effects of “spaced” rather than “massed” practice were recognized as early as 1885 when the German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus published his seminal work on memory. Ebbinghaus’s findings have been repeatedly confirmed and extended. Strong positive effects of spaced practice have been found in a wide variety of contexts (Caple, 1996). Frequent and Distributed practice is another way of saying: 3 times a day for say 10 minutes each time versus Mass practice of once a day for 40 minutes. Notice that the efficiency and effectiveness in doing this actually saves about 10 minutes, while increasing learning outcomes to a very significant degree.

Diagnostic-Prescriptive Teaching & the Strategic Use of Associative Learning

In general there is a tendency in American education to emphasize higher mental functions, or conceptual distinctions, in order to teach youngsters to be more reflective thinkers. This is a real strength in our educational system, and one that a democratic society must strongly support. However, a strength used inflexibly is a weakness. When things taught together are confused, or when taught apart but are similar in structure or meaning, there should be a more strategic approach that involves a degree of what has been called “rote” learning, though when used strategically is more appropriately known as associative learning. Importantly, we all seem to have about the same capacity for learning in this way, as opposed to higher cognitive functions that appear to be less evenly divided. This may be the reason that much of the rest of the world (think China, India, Japan) relies on associative or rote practice learning. There is considerable irony in this fact. Much of the rest of the world is divided into haves and have nots. In this environment the haves expect, more require that their children be schooled to competence irrespective of their measured “intelligence.” Despite our admonitions to the contrary Americans tend to be much more obsessed with IQ tests and what they are supposed to tell us about who can learn and who cannot. Nonetheless, we clearly are making a significant step forward in modern instruction as we progress in developing the science of diagnostic-prescriptive teaching (cf. Collins and Cheek, 1993; Manzo, Manzo & Albee 2004),or deciding which teaching method is best for whom and under what circumstances, rather than merely is method A better on average than method B.

The field of Literacy and Learning, and most especially Content Area Literacy is better equipped than most all others for making such distinctions: our diagnostic systems are well developed, and our leadership in methodology, especially in the last 35 years, is unparalleled. The bdp Syndrome, while by no means a simple concept, seems to be offer a sound and simple example of a diagnostic-prescriptive hook-up. Most anyone who teaches would benefit by knowing of this fundamental problem and solution, particularly elementary school teachers, and especially teachers in developing nations who are responsible for knowing how to teach most everything from the alphabet to math and science.


Brisk, M.E. (1998) Bilingual Education: From Compensatory to Quality Schooling Mawaah, NJ: Lawrence ErlBaum Associates, Publishers.

Caple, C. (1996). The effects of spaced practice and spaced review on recall and retention using computer assisted instruction. Ann Arbor, MI: UMI

Collins, M. D., & Cheek, E. H. (1993). Diagnostic-prescriptive reading instruction: A guide for classroom teachers (4th ed.) Madison, WI: WCB Brown and Benchmark Publishers.

Dunn-Rankin, P. (1968). The similarity of lower-case letters in the English alphabet. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 7, 990-995.

Ebbinghaus, H. (1885/1964). Memory: A contribution to experimental psychology. New York: Dover.

Han, J.S., M. Gallagher, and P. Holland. 1998. Hippocampal lesions enhance configural learning by reducing proactive interference. Hippocampus 8: 138-146

Manzo, A.V., & Manzo, U. (2004) Amplifying Instructional Ingredients: Educational Chefs Share Tricks of the Trade, (Učitelští “šéfkuchaři” vyzrazují své triky) Thinking Classrooms, 5, 3, 2004, pp 34-40.

Manzo, A., Manzo, U., & Albee, J. J. (2004) Reading Assessment for Diagnostic-Prescriptive Teaching of Reading. Thomson/Wadsworth. Belmont: California

Manzo, A., Manzo, U. & Thomas, M. (2005) Content Area Literacy: Strategic Teaching for Strategic Learning. Wiley/Jossey-Bass. New York: New York

Müller, G. E., & Schumann, F. (1894). Experimentelle Beiträge zur Untersuchungen des Gedächtnisses [Experimental contributions on the investigation of memory]. Zeitschrift fur Psychologie und Physiologie der Sinnesorgane, 6(2), 81-190, 257-339.

Unrau, N. (2004) Content Area Reading and Writing. Pearson/Merrill. Upper saddle River: New Jersey

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