Tag Archives: AAC

28 Words to Boost Your Client’s Vocabulary – Maximum Bang for Buck

When developing a vocabulary set for an augmented and alternative communication (AAC) system – or indeed when deciding on what vocabulary to teach anyone – one of the most fundamental of measures you can use is frequency count; how often is a word used in a language? No-one can predict with 100% accuracy which words will be “best” for an individual, but if you’re going to take bets, you’re pretty safe to assume that words such as that, want, stop, and what are going to be used by everyone from ages 2 to 200. By the same token, you’d not be missing much if you didn’t spend too much time on words like ambidextrous, decalogue, and postilion [1].

In the field of AAC, this type of high frequency vocabulary that is used (a) across populations and (b) across situations is referred to as core vocabulary and it’s often contrasted with the phrase fringe vocabulary, which refers to words that are typically (a) low in frequency and (b) specific to isolated activities or situations. For a refresher on core and fringe – and an introduction to keyword vocabulary – check out my article entitled Small Object of Desire: The Monteverde Invincia Stylus fountain pen – and Keyword Vocabulary from two years ago.

The core/fringe distinction is now so embedded in the world of augmentative communication that it is rare to see any new app appear on the market that doesn’t use the phrase “core vocabulary” somewhere in its marketing blurb – even if it isn’t actually making good use of the core! And as core vocabulary is, by definition, common across ages, activities, situations, and pathologies, it’s not surprising that many AAC software offerings look the same, particularly with regard to the words being encoded [2].

But it’s worth taking a look at another level of frequency measurement, and that’s at the phrase level. Specifically, one area of research that seems to me to offer some value to Speech and Language pathologists and Educators working in vocabulary development is in the study of how phrasal verbs (PVs) are distributed.

PV 3

So what’s a phrasal verb? Well, simply put, it’s a phrase of two to three words that are yoked together, which include a verb and a preposition and/or adverb. Examples include, “I ran into Gretchen at the ATIA conference,” “I backed up my hard drive,” and “I came across an interesting article on phrasal verbs.” The English language is stuffed to the gills with these type of verbs, and a feature of them is that they tend to have multiple meanings.

To find out how polysemous a phrase can be, you can use the excellent WordNet online tool, a huge database of words and phrases that let you check out noun, verb, adjective, and adverb meanings. For example, would you believe that the simple phrase “give up” has 12 different meanings? Or that “put down” has 8 variations? It’s not surprising that learners of English find phrasal verbs quite challenging.

The other fascinating feature of phrasal verbs is summarized in a 2007 paper by Gardner and Davies, who point out that of you look at the 100 million word British National Corpus you find that;

…a small subset of 20 lexical verbs combines with eight adverbial particles (160 combinations) to account for more than one half of the 518,923 phrasal verb occurrences identified in the megacorpus. A more specific analysis indicates that only 25 phrasal verbs account for nearly one-third of all phrasal-verb occurrences in the British National Corpus, and 100 phrasal verbs account for more than one half of all such items. Subsequent semantic analyses show that these 100 high-frequency phrasal verb forms have potentially 559 variant meaning senses.

Read that again and see if you get the same tingle I did seeing those numbers. Over half the entire phrasal verbs found in the corpus can be accounted for by combining 20 verbs with 8 particles. In short, if you learn just 28 words, you’ve learned 50% of all the phrasal verbs you’ll need to use.

Let’s take a look at those Top 2o verbs first:

20 most frequent verbs in phrasal verbs

Table 1: Top 20 Verbs in PVs

And now the Top 8 particles:

Eight most frequently used particles in phrasal verbs

Table 2: Top 8 particles in PVs

All the verbs and prepositions as individual items are already high frequency, with the exception of perhaps the verbs point and set, which wouldn’t be on my list of “first words to teach.” However, the real bonus here is that not only do you get the benefit of teaching your client 28 high frequency words in isolation but if you then use them as phrasal verbs, your “bang for buck” is significant!

Here’s a link to a PDF of those 28 words: https://app.box.com/s/vng5hr2tctp87ufdjoyjvyv2ln8300yb

This frequency analysis of phrasal verbs by Gardner and Davies has recently been supported by and extended upon by Dilin Liu (2011) and by Mélodie Garnier and Norbert Schmitt [3] (2014). In their paper, The PHaVE List: A pedagogical list of phrasal verbs and their most frequent meaning senses, they point out that a limitation in Gardner and Davies’ analysis is that they failed to take into account the polysemy inherent in the phrases – like the 12 meanings of “give up.” In fairness to Gardner and Davies, they did, in fact, talk about the polysemous nature of PVs but didn’t offer any measure of the different frequencies with which the various meanings are used. They wrote that:

For instance, the list-high 19 senses of the PV break up … could be arranged from highest to lowest semantic frequency, thus prioritizing them for language learning. We acknowledge, however, that corpora of this nature are much easier talked about than constructed. (p.353).

Garnier and Schmitt are interested not just in identifying the frequency with which a phrasal verb occurs but also the most common senses of those PVs. They say that;

…our main purpose for creating the PHaVE List, which is to reduce the total number of meaning senses to be acquired to a manageable number based on frequency criteria.

On a pragmatic level, they want a learner not to have to learn every meaning of each PV but just focus on the most frequent, and therefore most useful meanings. Using the original list from Gardner and Davies, along with additions by Liu (2011), and including data from the Corpus of Contemporary American English (Davies, 2008), the duo created the PHaVE List; a list of the 150 most frequently used phrasal verbs, and 280 of the most frequently used meanings. So on the 12 potential meanings for “give up,” they use the following:

16. GIVE UP
Stop doing or having something; abandon (activity, belief, possession) (80.5%)
Example: She had to give up smoking when she got pregnant.

The general entry starts with a rank (in this case, 16th out of 150); the basic phrasal verb; a definition; a percentage frequency; and a specific example use. The complete list is made available as a download from the Sage journals website [4]. If you can get access to it, it is well worth the read and the download. And all the articles referenced in this article are good examples of how we can use corpus linguistics to help guide our practice of developing the vocabulary of our clients with language challenges.

References
Davies, M. (2008-). The Corpus of Contemporary American English: 425 million words, 1990-present. Available from Brigham Young University The Corpus of Contemporary America English, from Brigham Young University http://corpus.byu.edu/coca

Gardner, D., & Davies, M. (2007). Pointing Out Frequent Phrasal Verbs: A Corpus-Based Analysis. TESOL Quarterly, 41(2), 339-359.

Garnier, M., & Schmitt, N. (2014). The PHaVE List: A pedagogical list of phrasal verbs and their most frequent meaning senses. Language Teaching Research, 1-22.Published online before print http://ltr.sagepub.com/content/early/2014/12/08/1362168814559798.abstract

Liu, D. (2011). The Most Frequently Used English Phrasal Verbs in American and British English: A Multicorpus Examination. TESOL Quarterly, 45(4), 661-688.

Notes
[1] A postilion is the driver of a horse-drawn carriage, who sits posterior to the horses. The sentence “The postilion has been struck by lightning” is the basis of a wonderful little paper by the linguist David Crystal, published in 1995 in the journal Child Language Teaching & Therapy. Simply titled “Postilion Sentences,” Crystal defines a postilion sentence as “one which has little or no chance of ever being useful in real life. It could be used, obviously, because it is grammatically well-formed; but the contexts in which it would be natural to use it are either so restricted or so adult that the chances of a child encountering it, or finding it necessary to use it, are remote.” In the design of AAC systems, using pre-stored sentences may have some limited value but many “pragmatic utterances” turn out to be nothing more than postilions; unlikely to be used. This is why teaching sentences is neither language nor therapy.

Download Postilion sentences article

Enter a caption

[2] The now-common practice of using core vocabulary also makes it much harder to prove plagiarism – or as we Lancastrians would say, “nicking someone else’s ideas.” People, of course, don’t “steal” ideas – they are “inspired” by the work of others. But such inspiration inevitably leads to systems appearing almost clone-like in their structure. It’s only when you get to the fine details of how words are organized and encoded that you can separate the wheat from the chaff. And there’s a lot of chaff out there.

[3] If I haven’t mentioned it before, Norbert is the author of an excellent book on vocabulary research methods. Here’s the full reference: Schmitt, N. (2010). Researching vocabulary : a vocabulary research manual. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire ; New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan. It’s full of useful information and lots of web links worth exploring, and worth the $30 you’ll spend on Amazon US – or the £20.99 in the UK.

[4] Just a reminder to all members of the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists that you membership benefits includes access to a number of Sage journals online, and Language Teaching Research is one of those. In fact, you have access to over 700 (yes, count ’em!) titles, including my personal favorites Child Language Teaching and Therapy, Clinical Linguistics & Phonetics, English Today, and the riveting Scandinavian Journal of Occupational Therapy. OK, so I lied about the last one being a “favorite” 🙂

ColorBrewer: Utilizing cartography software for color coding

It seems that I am getting a reputation for being a teensy-weensy bit doryphoric [1] and that may have some truth in it insofar as I hate – with a passion – the tendency for people to use the word “utilize” rather than “use” simply because the former sounds more erudite. It’s not, in fact, erudite; it’s just plain wrong. As I’ve said in previous posts, “utilize” means “to use something in a manner for which it was not intended.” So I can “use” a paper clip to hold a set of pages together; but I can “utilize” it to scoop wax out of my ears or stab a cocktail olive in my vodka martini (shaken, not stirred).

Colorado beetle

Doryphoric

So when I titled this post with “utilizing cartography software” I really do mean that and I’m not trying to sound clever by using a four-syllable word (utilizing) over the simpler two-syllable using. No siree, I say what I mean and I mean what I say: utilize. The software in question is online at ColorBrewer: Color Advice for Cartography and its original purpose was to help map makers choose colors that provide maximum contrast. Let’s create an example. Suppose you have a map of the US and you want to use colors to show the average temperatures as three data sets; below 50F, 51F-65F, and above 65F. You can use three colors in one of three different ways:

  • (a) Sequential: Three shades of a chosen color from light to dark to indicate low to high values. e.g. Sequential color
  • (b) Diverging: Three colors that split the data equally in terms of the difference between the colors, but with the mid-range being related to a degree of difference between the extremes. Divergent color coding
  • (c) Qualitative: Three colors that split the data into three distinct groups, such as apples/oranges/bananas or trains/boats/planes – or for the statisticians out there, any nominal level data. Color coding qualitative

For a map of temperature averages, you’d choose the sequential coding so as to show the degree of change. Here’s what such a map might look like:

Three data point colors

Three data point colors

Compare this with a version whereby we chose to have six data points rather than three i.e. less that 45F; 46F-50F; 51F-55F; 56F-60F; 60F-65F; above 65F.

Six data points colors

Six data points colors

What the software does that is interesting is that it automatically generates the colors such that they are split into “chromatic chunks” that are equally different. The lowest and highest color values for each map are the same but the shades of the intermediate colors are changed. If you were to choose a set of 10 data points, the software would split those up equally.

Of course, as the number of data points increases, the perceptual difference between them decreases i.e. it becomes harder to see a difference. This is one of the limitations of any color-coding system; the more data differentials you want to show, the less useful colors become. You then have to introduce another way of differentiating – such as shapes. So if you had 20 shades of gray, it’s hard to see difference, but with 20 shades of gray and squares, triangles, rectangles and circles, you now have only 5 color points for each shape.

One of the areas where color coding is used in Speech and Language Pathology is AAC and symbols. In the system of which I am an author [2] color coding is used to mark parts of speech. But suppose you were going to invent a new AAC system and wanted to work out a color coding scheme, how might you utilize the ColorBrewer website?

If you’re going to design your system using a syntactic approach (and I highly recommend you do that because that’s how language works!) you could first identify a color set for the traditional parts of speech; VERB, NOUN, ADJECTIVE, ADVERB, PRONOUN, CONJUNCTION, PREPOSITION, and INTERJECTION [3]. This looks suspiciously like a nominal data set, which corresponds to the Qualitative coding method mentioned at (c) above. So you go to the ColorBrewer site and take a look at the panel in the top left:

ColorBrewer Panel

ColorBrewer Panel

You can set the Number of data classes to 8, the Nature of your data to qualitative, and then pick yourself a color scheme. If you chose the one in the graphic above, you see the following set recommended:

Eight color data setFor the sake of completeness, here are all the other options:

ColorDataQualSet2You can now choose one of these sets knowing that the individual colors have been generated to optimize chromatic differences.

So let’s assume we go for that very first one that starts with the green with the HTML color code #7FC97F [4]. I’m going to suggest that we then use this for the VERB group and that any graphics related to verbs will be green. Now I can move to step 2 in the process.

Verbs can actually be graded in relation to morphological inflection. There are a limited number of endings; -s, -ing, -ed, and -en. Knowing this, I can go back to the ColorBrewer site and use the sequential setting to get a selection of possible greens. This time I changed the Number of data classes to 5 and the Nature of your data to Sequential. Here’s what then see as a suggested set of equally chromatically spaced greens:


ColorDataQualPanel2

This now gives me the option to code not just verbs but verb inflections, while chromatically signaling “verbiness” by green. Here’s a symbol set for walk and write that uses the sequential – or graded – color coding:

Color-coded symbols

Color-coded symbols

If you want an exercise in AAC system design, knowing that ADJECTIVES also inflect like verbs using two inflectional suffixes, -er and -est, you can try using the ColorBrewer to create color codes [5].

There are probably many other ways to utilize the site for generating color codes. For example, you might want to create colors for Place of Articulation when using pictures for artic/phonology work, and seeing as there are a discrete number of places, it should be easy enough. Why not grab yourself a coffee and hop on over the ColorBrewer now and play. But only use it if you’re creating a map. Please!

Notes
[1] A doryphore is defined by the OED as “A person who draws attention to the minor errors made by others, esp. in a pestering manner; a pedantic gadfly.” It comes from the Greek δορυϕόρος, which means “spear carrier,” and it was originally used in the US as a name for the Colorado beetle – a notable pest. This beetle was known as “the ten-striped spearman,” hence the allusion to a spear carrier.  To then take the noun and turn it into an adjective by adding the -ic suffix meaning “to have the nature of” was a piece of cake – and a great example of using affixation to change a word’s part of speech. As always, you leave a Speech Dudes’ post far smarter than you entered it!

[2] Way back in 1993 I was invited to join the Prentke Romich Company’s R&D department as one of a team of six who were tasked with developing what became the Unity language program. The same basic program is still used in PRC devices and the language structure has been maintained such that anyone who used it in 1996 could still use it in 2014 on the latest, greatest hardware. The vocabulary also uses color coding to mark out Parts-of-Speech but not exactly like I have suggested in this article. Maybe next time…?

[3] The notion of 8 Parts-of-Speech (POS) is common in language teaching but as with many aspects of English, it’s not 100% perfect. For example, words like the, a, and an can be categorized under Adjectives or added to a class of their own called Articles or – by adding a few more – Determiners. So you might see some sources talking about 9 Parts-of-Speech, and I like to treat these as separate from adjectives if only because they seem to behave significantly differently from a “typical” adjective. Another confounding factor is that some words can skip happily between the POS and create minor havoc; light is a great example of this. The take-away from this is that sometimes, words don’t always fit into neat little slots and you need to think about where best to put them and how best to teach them.

[4] In the world of web sites, colors are handled in code by giving them a value in hexadecimal numbers – that’s numbers using base 16 rather than the familiar base 10 of regular numbers. Black is #000000 and white is #FFFFFF. When you’re working on designing web pages, it’s sometimes useful to be able to tell a programmer that you want a specific color, and if you can give them the precise hex code – such as #FF0000 for red and #0000FF for blue – then it makes their job easier and you get exactly what you need. You can also something called RGB codes to described colors, based on the way in which the colors (R)ed, (G)reen and (B)lue are mixed on a screen. Purple, for example, is (128,0,128) and yellow is (255, 255, 0). Take a look at this Color Codes page for more details and the chance to play with a color picker.

[5] I suppose I should toss in a disclaimer here that I’m not suggesting that creating an AAC system is “simply” a matter of collecting a lot of pictures with colored outlines and then dropping them into a piece of technology. There is much more to it than that (ask me about navigation next time you see me at a conference) so consider this article just one slice of a huge pie.

The Dudes Dissect “Closing the Gap” 2013: Day 2 – Of Speech and Sessions

Having looked at the vocabulary used in the Closing the Gap 2013 preconference sessions, it’s time to cast a lexical eye on the over 200 regular presentations that took place over two-and-a-half days. For most attendees, these are the “bread and butter” of the conference and choosing which to attend is a skill in of itself. It’s not uncommon [1] to have over ten sessions run concurrently, which means you’re only getting to attend a tenth of the conference!

So let’s take a look at the vocabulary used in the titles to all theses presentations to get a flavor of the topics on offer.

Conference Presentations: Titles

The total number of different words used in the session titles was 629 after adjusting for the top 50 words used in English [2]. As a minor deviation, kudos to all who used the word use correctly instead of the irritatingly misused utilize. Only one titled included utilizes – and it was used incorrectly; the rest got it right! For those who are unsure about use versus utilize, the simple rule is to use use and forget about utilize. The less simple rule is to remember that utilize means “to use something in a way in which it was never intended.” So, you use a pencil for drawing while you utilize it for removing wax from your ear; you use an iPad to run an application while you utilize it as a chopping board for vegetables; and you use a hammer to pound nails but utilize it to remove teeth. Diversion over.

Top 20 Most Frequent Words in Titles

Top 20 Most Frequent Words in Titles

Top 20 Most Frequent Words in Titles

No prizes for guessing that the hot topic is using iPad technology in AAC. Your best bet for a 10-word title for next year’s conference is;

How your students  use/access iPad AAC apps as assistive technology

This includes the top 10 of those top 20 words so your chances of getting accepted are high.

Conference Presentations: Content Words

The total word count for the session descriptions text is 2,532 different words (excluding the Stop List), which is a sizable number to play with. And when I say “different words,” I mean that I am basically counting any text string that is different from another as a “word.” So I count use, uses, used, and using as four words, and iPad and iPads as two. A more structured analysis would take such groups and count them as one “item” – or what we call a LEMMA. We’d then have a lemma of <USE> to represent all the different forms of use, which lets us treat use/used/uses/using as one “word” that changes its form depending on the environment in which it is sitting [3]

Top 50 Words By Frequency in Session Content

Top 50 Words By Frequency

A 2,3oo-word graphic would be rather large so I opted to illustrate the top 50 most frequently used words. As you can see, the top words seem to be the same as those in the titles, which suggests that on balance, presenters have done a good job overall in summarizing their presentation contents when creating their titles – something that is actually the strategy you should use.

Keywords in Content

Finally, let’s take a look at the keywords in the session content descriptions. Remember, the keywords are those that appear in a piece of text with a frequency much higher than you would expect in relation to the norm.

Top 10 words by Keyness score

Top 20 words by Keyness score

Top of our list here are apps with the iPad coming in at three. Fortunately this fetish for technology is tempered by the inclusion in our top 20 of words like strategies, learn, how, and skills, all critical parts of developing success in AAC that are extra to the machinery. It’s good to think that folks are remembering that how we teach the use of tools is far, far more important than obsessing over the tools themselves.

Coming next… The Dudes Dissect Closing the Gap: Day 3 – Of Content and Commerce. In which the Dudes look at the marketing blurbs of the Closing the Gap exhibitors to discover what the “hot button” words intended to make you want to buy!

Notes
[1] WordPress’s spell and grammar checker flagged the phrase “it’s not uncommon” as a double negative and told me that I should change it because, “Two negatives in a sentence cancel each other out. Sadly, this fact is not always obvious to your reader. Try rewriting your sentence to emphasize the positive.” Well, although I generally agree that you shouldn’t use no double negatives, the phrase “not uncommon” felt to me to be perfectly OK and not at all unusual. I therefore took a look at the Corpus of Contemporary American English and found that “it’s not uncommon” occurs 313 times while “it’s common” scores 392. This is as near to 50/50 as you get so I suggest to the nice people at WordPress that “it’s not uncommon” is actually quite common and thus quite acceptable – despite it being a technical double negative.

[2] For the curious among you, here are the contents of the Stop List I have been using, which is based on the top 50 most frequently used words in the British National Corpus (BNC): THE, OF, AND, TO, A, IN, THAT, IS, IT, FOR, WAS, ON, I, WITH, AS, BE, HE, YOU, AT, BY, ARE, THIS, HAVE, BUT, NOT, FROM, HAD, HIS, THEY, OR, WHICH, AN, SHE, WERE, HER, ONE, WE, THERE, ALL, BEEN, THEIR, IF, HAS, WILL, SO, NO, WOULD, WHAT, UP, CAN. This is pretty much the same as the top 50 for the Corpus of Contemporary American English, except that the latter includes the words about, do, and said instead of the BNC’s one, so, and their. Statistically, this isn’t significant so I suggest you don’t go losing any sleep over it.

[3] When you create and use lemmas, you also have to take into account that words can have multiple meanings and cross boundaries. In the example of use/used/uses/using, clearly we’re talking about a verb. But when we talk about a user and several users, we are now talking about nouns. So, we don’t have one lemma <USE> for use/used/user/users/uses/using but two lemmas <use(v)> and <use(n)> to mark this difference. It gets even more complicated when you have strings such as lights, which can be a verb in “He lights candles at Christmas” but a noun in “He turns on the lights when it’s dark.” When you do a corpus analysis of text strings, these sort of things are a bugger!

Small Object of Desire: The Monteverde Invincia Stylus fountain pen – and Keyword Vocabulary

Those who follow the Speech Dudes on Twitter (@speechdudes) may recall a mysterious tweet from December 28th, 2012, that referred to something called the Monteverde Invincia fountain pen.

Tweet from DecemberAnd those who are regular readers of this blog may vaguely recall that one of the Dudes has a passion for pens that marks him out as being either very old-fashioned, slightly quirky, or perhaps requiring of medication. But the Invincia is a pen of such style, charm, and delicious darkness that I’m guessing at least one of you out there will be ponying up the $75 just to get one of these wonderful objects of desire in your hand. Literally.

Monteverde Invincia Stylus fountain pen

Monteverde Invincia Stylus

But first, because this is, after all, a blog written by SLP’s for other SLP’s, educators, language lovers, and all moms and dads with a curious bent, let’s talk a little bit about vocabulary.

In the field of augmentative and alternative communication, where the Dudes earn their daily crusts, it’s common to talk about words as being either core or fringe. Actually, up until five years ago, it wasn’t always that common but the proliferation of apps for tablets has seen the words core and fringe become almost essential to the marketing blurb of any of these apps – whether or not it’s true. Just tossing the words out doesn’t make an app a good communication tool, nor does copying what other folks have done and dropping it into a few pages make it any better. No, app creators need to learn what the words really mean before using them as sales jargon [1].

But if you are serious about creating a word-based solution, you can use the following definitions to help you in your quest:

Core Word: A word with a high frequency-of-use value that is also what you might expect to see statistically when you compare it to a large reference corpus.

Fringe Word: A word with a low frequency-of-use value that is also what you might expect to see statistically when you compare it to a large reference corpus.

Keyword: A word that has a higher frequency-of-use than what you might statistically expect when you compare it to a large reference corpus.

You’ll notice that I have purposely defined these as statistical phenomena and not as actual words that may be referred to as “useful,” “necessary,” “essential,” “uncommon,” or any other such subjectively nuanced adjectives. You’ve hopefully also picked up on the notion that there needs to be a “reference corpus” of some sort. The best reference corpus I suggest is one I like to call “the English language” because that is the thing that we all need to use in order to communicate with one another. So using the Corpus of Contemporary American or the British National Corpus is fair game. And when it comes to core vocabulary, you’ll find that even if you look at the small vocabulary lists that have been collected in the AAC field from different age group across different situations, you’ll find the same words are common to all [2].

If you’re already working in AAC, you may not be familiar with the use of the term keyword but it’s taken from the world of Corpus Linguistics and I find it a very useful concept to apply. For example, in the world of education, when folks talk about “core words” in relation to Core Communication Standards, they are really talking about keywords; the word vertex is a “core word” in math but is a keyword from an AAC perspective.

Keywords are words which are significantly more frequent in a sample of text than would be expected, given their frequency in a large general reference corpus. (Stubbs, 2010) [3]

So, let’s go back to my encomium [4] on the Monteverde Invicia Stylus pen and see what we can learn about core words, fringe words, and keywords.

The first thing is that the world of pens and paper has specialized vocabulary – or more specifically uses some words in specialized ways. This would be keyword vocabulary within the domain of “Fine Writing.” Thus, the word nib is statistically a fringe word when compared to a general vocabulary but becomes a keyword within the context of discussing fountain pens. In essence, keywords are typically domain-specific items and a sub-set of fringe.

To give you a feel for what keywords you might find, I did a quick(ish) analysis based on a 10,000 word corpus created from a popular blog about fountain pens and their use. Using WordSmith 6 software, I created a word list based on the text from the blog, then used the KeyWord facility to determine the top 2o keywords in the sample i.e. those words that were being used statistically more than you might expect when compared with a standard reference (and in this case, my standard reference is the British National Corpus).

The following “league table” illustrated keyword vocabulary in the domain of Fine Writing.

Keywords "Fine Writing"

Keywords “Fine Writing”

The words fountain and pen appear separately but when you look at the concordance data, the two actually appear typically as fountain pen, so I wouldn’t regard fountain itself a keyword – the keyword is the compound noun, fountain pen.  If I’d taken a few more minutes, I could have put the singular and plural forms together so we wouldn’t see separate entries for pen(s), ink(s), cartridge(s), converter(s), and color(s).

Knowing about such keyword vocabulary is, in fact, very useful. My enthusiasm for my new pen can be explained to you much more succinctly if I can use the keywords. For example, I recommend that if you want one of these pens, you are better off with the medium-sized nib because that will spread the ink out to facilitate clearly writing. Furthermore, since one of the great features of the pen is that it includes both a cartridge and a converter, knowing the words cartridge and converter is helpful! If I then explain that a converter is a small barrel that you can use to suck up ink from an ink bottle, you now know that by buying different inks you can choose which ink colors you’d like to have.

Vocabulary lesson aside, the pen is indeed a stylish addition to anyone’s fashion accessories. Its brushed metal, matt-black finish and fine ribbing give it a distinctive appearance with a hi-tech accent. Its darkness is reinforced by having a shiny black stainless-steel nib, which makes it look like the sort of pen Darth Vader might have used to sign the order authorizing the construction of the Death Star (“You don’t know the power of the Dark Side!”) or that Batman has somewhere on his utility belt (“Quick Robin, use the BatPen!”)

Pen showing internal converter

Pen showing internal converter

It writes smoothly and has the merest hint of a squeak as it glides across paper, which is not a bad thing in the world of fountain pens. It’s classed as a heavy pen (1.4 oz. or 4.0 grams) and so has a much more solid feel than some cheap, plastic ballpoint.

Monteverde Invincia Stylus fountain pen nib

Even the nib is black!

To boost its hi-tech credentials even more, the cap is tipped with conductive rubber so it can be used with a capacitive touchscreen; in short, you can write on your favorite tablet device! I’ve tested it with the Galaxy Tab 7″ display, the 10″ display model (my favorite), the iPad 3 ,  a Motorola Droid 3, Microsoft Surface, and all have worked just fine.

Conductive rubber tip

Conductive rubber tip

There is a white version of the pen available but that doesn’t appeal to me. It’s the blackness that makes it sharp! And with a retail price of $95, it may sound steep to those who are new to the world of fountain pens. But you can get it from Amazon for $75, and other Internet sources are quoting $65, so there are deals to be had.

Long term, there are lots of different inks to choose from. Monteverde offer a range of inks but you should check out Glenn’s Pens where there is a good article on Fountain Pen Ink along with a dizzying array of brands and color options [5]. Another great resource is The Goulet Pen Company, where you’ll also find videos related to pens and paper.

Oh, and it you do buy the pen, drop us a note – then we know who we won’t be able to impress by whipping out our Invicia’s!

Notes
[1] And while we’re at it, there is a special place in the nine circles of Hell (possibly the 8th) reserved for anyone who claims their app is “intuitive,” “ground-breaking,” or, heaven forbid, “game changing.” If it takes me fifteen minutes and four or five keystrokes to find a word like already, and if there is no way for me to actually find it other than hitting key after key after key until  I stumble across it, you have NO right to talk about “intuitive,” “ground breaking,” or “game changing” – unless the “change” in question is to set AAC back 10 years by providing sub-par sops that do nothing more than provide a 10-minute solution that then requires hours and hours of fiddling to add all the stuff that was missing in the first place.

Just sayin’…

[2] If you want a list of a many vocabulary sources, there’s one available via this Dude Link! Link to list of vocabulary articles

[3] Stubbs, M. (2010). Three concepts of keywords. In M. Bondi and M. Scott (Eds.) Keyness in Texts: Studies in Corpus Linguistics. John Benjamins Publishing: Philadelphia. Available via this Dude Link Link to article on keywords

[4] Here’s one of those wonderful words that deserves to be taken out of the box now and again, dusted down, polished up, and tossed into a sentence just to brighten up an otherwise lexically turgid day. The OED defines encomium as “a high-flown expression of praise.” It come, via Latin, from the Greek enkomion (ἐγκώμιον) and ultimately eulogia (εὐλογία) or “eulogy,” which means “praise.” And yes, the logia element does mean “speaking” and is the same root as logos meaning “word.” Only the Dudes would bring you Classical Greek and make it interesting!

[5] My favorite ink at the moment is made by Diamine and called “Syrah,” a splendid dark-red that looks particularly fetching against the ivory paper of my Quo Vadis Havana journal. I use it in my Cross Torero Bourdeaux Croc, which is a broad-nibbed red colored pen that lives in my travel bag.

Cross Torero Croc red fountain pen

The Dudes Do ASHA 2012: Day 4 11/17/12

It was the last day of ASHA and I had the special honor of closing the AAC strand for the convention. In short, I was last on the list of AAC presenters. In a curious twist of fate, my colleague from Germany opened the AAC strand at the first session of Thursday so between us we’d bracketed the field!

ASHA at Georgia World Conference Center

ASHA at GWCC

A less charitable viewpoint might be that I had to present after lunch on the last day, when many folks were leaving to catch planes home or taking the opportunity to spend one last day in the wonderful city of Atlanta. So the fact that folks turned up, including one of my #slpeeps from the Twitterverse was quite a relief. [2]

The topic was on how to use the data generated by an AAC device to plan therapy sessions. A number of AAC technologies have the facility to track data but few people seem to use it. The purpose of the presentation was to show folks that there is immense value in using such logging in order to help clients improve their communication skills.

Basically, automated data logging tracks events over time; you can see what someone is saying and when they are saying it. And with just these two pieces of information, you can provide a much better service to your clients. [1] You can gather information about;

  • Vocabulary – the words your client uses
  • Morphology – the way your client uses morphemes to indicate tense, number, intensity etc.
  • Syntax – how your client uses words in a systemic way along with other words
  • Function – how is your client’s language used (questions, imperatives, requests etc.)

To facilitate this, you can use the QUAD Profile, a paper-based checklist that provides guidelines on what to look for. Developed in 2005 as a quick and dirty evaluation tool, the QUAD is simple enough that you don’t have to be a specialist in AAC to use it [3]. You can click on the graphic below to download a copy.

Download the QUAD Profile

QUAD Profile

You can also take user-generated text data and analyze it using either Concordance or WordSmith, two pieces of software that you can input large amounts of text and then measure word frequencies, type/token ratios, or find keywords – those words in a sample that occur more frequently than you would expect by chance. I’ve covered both these – and discussed core versus fringe versus keywords in The Dudes Do ISAAC 2012: Day 4 – Of Corpora and Concordances, so take a look there for more details.

What I failed to spend any time talking about was the excellent BYU Corpora created by Mark Davies at Brigham Young University. If you’re wanting to find out how a particular word is used in contemporary American English – or slightly less contemporary British English – you can do no worse than using these corpora than the Corpus of Contemporary American English, or COCA [4]. As an example, I previously talked about the difference between “taking a bath/shower” and “having a bath/shower,” arguing that in British English you’d teach “having” whereas in American English you’d focus on “taking.” The key point is that you can use the COCA to quantify this difference. And quantifying is a step towards evidence-based practice.

Here’s another example of where using the COCA can help you decide on which words to teach: which should you teach first – look or see? Well, if you want to focus on bigger semantic bang-for-buck, you should go for see, which is used in speech twice as often as look. Or how about need and want? It turns out that want is three times more likely to be used than need, so want is much more useful.

Another thing the COCA does is to show how words are used in context. This turns out to be very valuable knowledge to have when teaching language because you can’t just teach a word in isolation. For example, if we go back to the example of the word look, the COCA shows that is very frequently appears immediately before a preposition. Here are specifics:

the word look with prepositions

“look” and PREP

So if you are going to teach look, think about look at followed by look for as contextual phrases because that’s how the word is used in real life! Here’s a link to download my slides and notes as a PDF handout.

DOWNLOAD: Using AAC device-generated client data to develop therapy sessions

By 2:30, I was done. My target was to be in my room at 3:00 with my shoes off, feet up, and a coffee in my hand. And this turned out to be a success!

At 5:00, I left for an early dinner with friend at the Sweet Georgia’s Juke Joint at 200 Peachtree Street. Being in the South, I plumped for fried chicken with collard greens, a peach cobbler for dessert, and a delicious Millionaires Mojito. To make the night breeze along, we were entertained by Nat George and the Nat George Players, a band so smooth you could spread ’em on toast.

The video doesn’t really do the band justice but that’s all the more reason for you to put a trip to see them on your list of “Things to do in Atlanta” on you next trip out.

Another memorable night, and yet another example of why I guess I could spend much more time exploring the city. But tomorrow it’s back home. Ah well. C’est la vie.

Downtown Atlanta

Downtown Atlanta

Notes
[1] At this point, you might wonder why I don’t leap into the discussion about privacy, security, and ethics. Well, that’s because if I need to do that, I’d rather spend an entire post on it. But the short answer is that in all the years I’ve worked with clients who have data logging capabilities I have yet to have ONE tell me that I can’t see their data. After I have a short conversation about why I want to track their data and what I intend to do with it, they’ve been happy to allow me to have access. It’s important to have this discussion prior to turning on monitoring, and critical to explain the value, but once you do that, there’s no problem. Informed consent is a wonderful thing.

[2] OK, so it was @MeganPanatier – Thanks for stopping by and for tweeting some of my comments during the presentation!

[3] Cross, R.T. (2010). Developing Evidence-Based Clinical Resources, in Embedding Evidence-Based Practice in Speech and Language Therapy: International Examples (eds H. Roddam and J. Skeat), John Wiley & Sons, Ltd., Chichester, UK.

[4] The site  includes the Corpus of Contemporary American English (450 million words), the British National Corpus (100 million words), the Corpus of Historical American (400 million words), the Time Magazine corpus (100 million words) and the new Corpus of American Soap Operas (100 million words), which I have yet to test run!

The Dudes Do ISAAC 2012: Day 5 – Of Language and Linguists

I’ve been an SLP for almost 30 years but my first degree is  in Psychology and Linguistics. I fully intended to become a Psychologist [1] but strayed from the path and ended up in Speech Therapy. Needless to say, my fascination with our profession has always been viewed through a linguistics lens and regular readers will already have detected that. In fact, one of the luminaries of AAC, Sarah Blackstone, for many years believed I was a linguist and not an SLP, and I have been introduced as a linguist at more than one conference.

This is probably why I still like to hang out with real linguists, who are much smarter than I and from whom I continue to learn lots of new stuff. So it’s no surprise that I went along to Wednesday afternooon session entitled Natural Language processing and AAC: Current advances at the interface between technology and communication.

Natural Language Processing

NLP

 The presenters were more like a panel, bringing different perspectives on how the application of NLP could help the development of AAC [2]. NLP is a cross-over field of linguistics, artificial intelligence, and computer science that deals with analyzing, understanding and generating the languages that humans use naturally in order to interface with computers in both written and spoken contexts using natural human languages instead of computer languages. The main professional body that exemplifies the scope of NLP is the Association of Computational Linguistics, which publishes the journal, Computational Linguistics, on a quarterly basis. With the latest edition including articles with titles such as A Context-Theoretic Framework for Compositionality in Distributional Semantics, and Learning Entailment Relations by Global Graph Structure Optimization, it’s not a field that SLPs are falling over themselves to join. It’s also not a journal I read regularly but then there are so many journals out there it’s impossible to keep track.

SLPAT logo

The folks were also there to promote awareness of a new special interest group called the SIG for Speech and Language Processing in Assistive Technologies, or SLPAT for short. And yes, if you misread it as “splat,” you’re OK because its members also affectionately call it “splat” as well [3].

For those who wonder what Natural Language Processing might offer to AAC, it’s worth bearing in mind that NLP is already being used in a number of areas that we use daily. If you’ve ever used a web-based translation system to read foreign text, then you’ve made use of NLP. If you’ve ever used a speech recognition system such as Dragon NaturallySpeaking or Microsoft Sync in your car, then you’ve benefited from NLP. And if you’ve scanned a document and had a piece of software convert it to text, you’re seeing NLP in action.

In relation to AAC, a number of research initiatives are already underway. Jeff Higginbotham from the University of New York at Buffalo is working on a “just-in-time” message system that will work with AAC devices to provide web-sourced topic-based content using internet (and intranet) natural language processing techniques. Annalu Waller from the University of Dundee is working on prediction-based phonemic AAC systems  (the PhonicStick®) where NLP algorithms are used to determine which sounds are most likely to follow others. Karl Wiegard and Rupal Patel have been investigating non-syntactic word prediction to create systems that can correct user-generated utterences that have flawed syntax. And at the Health and Science University in Portland, Oregon, Melanie Fried-Oken and her colleagues are working with brain-controlled interfaces and spelling systems, the operation of which can be optimized by using special NLP-based software to improve accuracy and speed of selection.

All of these are currently still in the research phase so you needn’t be asking how much you’ll need to buy one, but it’s research like this that will ultimately lead to products, even if 90% of university projects simply end up as articles in journals or a paper that ends with the immortal lines “much more research is needed.”

And if you’re looking for questions, quite a few turned up at the session, most coming from Melanie Fried-Oken who, as a clinician, really wants to see some practical, hands-on solutions. Here are some – of several –  that interested me;

  • Can NLP help us design systems that can adapt to the actual language used by an individual with an AAC device, and maybe even reconfigure the device as a result of this?
  • Can NLP help in the tracking of the vocabulary, representation, and navigation elements of an AAC system?
  • Can NLP help design systems that identify and end-user’s language level?

These resonate because they are the very same questions my collegues and I have been asking for a couple of years now, and have been slowly working towards. In the field of AAC in general, the notion of automatic data logging is not new and has been available for some time on a number of AAC devices. The fun bit is deciding where next to go with this, and how best to leverage the current data collection methodologies. As soon as there’s something to present to the world, we’ll be happy to share!

Meanwhile, for those interested in finding out more on SIG SLPAT, or even if you want to join, you can go to their web site at www.slpat.org and read about the aims of the group [4]. There’s a special edition of the Computer Speech and Language journal out before the end of the year that will be about NLP and Assistive Technology, and the next SIG-SLPAT conference will be in 2013 in France – somewhere. There will be a call for papers later in the year so get your NLP thinking caps on and dust off that passport…

Notes
[1] Just a few weeks before I left for University, a friend of my sister was talking to my local newsagent about my moving and asked what I was going to study. Apparently she told him I was studying to be a psychopath. I sometimes wonder how un-wrong she may have been…

[2] The presenters were Kathy McCoy, University of Delaware; Annalu Waller and Alan McGregor, University of Dundee; and Melanie Fried-Oken and Brian Rourk, Oregon Health & Science University. I apologise if I missed someone.

[3] It’s pretty well impossible not to read SLPAT as “splat,” in the same way that fashion store French Connection: UK used the acronym FCUK on all their advertising, knowing full well that folks word read it otherwise! The company voluntarily stopped using the acronym in 2005, but not before stores such as Bloomingdales refused to handle FCUK branded items.

[4] I did see what would happen if I made an error and typed “splat.org” instead of “slpat.org” and found myself at a rather boring “parking site” with links to paintball activities. More fascinating was the “splat.com,” which took me to the home of the Sizzling Platter restaurant group, whose products include Little Caesars Pizza, Red Robin Gourmet Burgers, Dunkin’ Donuts, and Sizzler Steak House.

The Dudes Do ISAAC 2012: Day 4 – Of Corpora and Concordances

Pittsburgh from Station Square

Pittsburgh from Station Square

Marketing applies as much to conference presentations as it does to selling beans. Or coffee. Or bagels[1]. Picking a good title is more important than the presentation itself. Really, it is. Which explains why my “first-thing-in-the-morning” session was not exactly standing room only. The presentation title was the technically accurate but marketingly disasterous Using Concordance Software and online Corpora in AAC. A much better title would have been Using Velcro and a Free iPad for New Simple Gamechanging Therapy. You see, this has all the buzz words that people scan for when reading a conference program. Free is always a winner; iPad is currently sexy; new suggests you will be surprised and maybe first to do something in your part of the world; Velcro® is something ALL therapists relate to; and game-changer is an over-used, over-hyped, almost meaningless vogue word that can be applied to anything in order to make it sound impressive. People who use the word “game-changer” should be hung, drawn, quartered, and made to read a thesaurus.

But I did, fortunately, hear from a number of folks who told me they wanted to come to the presentation but it clashed with another. It clashed, in fact, with several! So given a finite number of potential attendees divided by the number of sessions, as concurrency goes up, individual session attendence goes down. Therefore for those who were unable to attend, I can at least give you a brief summary of what I was talking about. And for those folks who couldn’t make it to ISAAC 2012 in the first place, I’m also including this link to my PowerPoint files and Resources List via the Dudes’ Dropbox account.

The first thing I covered was the difference between core, fringe, and keyword vocabulary. In AAC, the use of core and fringe is now fairly common but we need to make another distinction for something called keyword vocabulary. Here’s how these three words can be defined:

Core word: A word that has a high frequency of use value that is statistically expected when compared to a large reference corpus.
Fringe word: A word that has a low frequency of use value that is statistically expected when compared to a large reference corpus.
Keyword: A word that has a higher frequency of use which is significantly more frequent than expected when compared to a large reference corpus.

Notice that these definitions do not include any notion of “importance.” A common mistake is for people to say things like, “but Tommy loves Transformers so ‘Optimus Prime’ is an important core word for him.” No, “Optimus Prime” is a keyword for him. It may seem like a trivial distinction but it is useful.  Sure, it may be an “important” word for him” but that still does not make it core. Thus, when people talk about a “personal core” for an individual, they are really talking about a person’s keyword set. It is much better to use this because talking about a “personal core” seems to me to be confusing and changes the definition of core.

The notion of keywords has been taken straight from the field of Corpus Linguistics:

Keywords are words which are significantly more frequent in a sample of text than would be expected, given their frequency in a large general reference corpus. (Stubbs, 2010) [2]

Corpus Linguistics uses large data samples, or corpora, to look for patterns in language. The larger the samples are, the more reflective the data is of “real world” language use. One of the largest online sets of such corpora is those developed and maintained by Mark Davies at Brigham Young University in Utah. The Corpus of Contemporary American English [3] is based on a sample of 425 million words, and can provide frequency data of individual items, as well as contextual information on how these are typically used. This type of data can be useful for the AAC practitioner in determiner which words to include in a system and to answer questions about how a word may be used (e.g. is the work light used more as a noun than a verb?)

Another tool used by corpus linguists is concordance software. Such software allows investigators to input text and create output in the form of frequency lists, key word lists, and key words in context. The AAC practitioner can use client-generated data and run it through concordance software to build personal vocabulary lists. It’s also possible to compare a client’s data with other samples, which can also be very instructive for a clinician who wants to see how an individual’s use of language matches with a “standard.”

Concordance software

Concordance

Concordance is a flexible text analysis program which lets you gain better insight into e-texts and analyze language objectively and in depth. It lets you count words, make word lists, word frequency lists, and indexes.

You can select and sort words in many ways, search for phrases, do proximity searches, sample words, and do regular expression searches. You can also see statistics on your text, including word types, tokens, and percentages, type/token ratios, character and sentence counts and a word length chart.

Wordsmith concordance softwareWordSmith is a popular word-analysis software that includes features to generate word lists, frequency lists, usage lists, and keyword lists.

It also has the option to download the British National Corpus word frequency list to use as a large comparative data set. This is a great tool for investigating keywords among small data sets.

Now, a number of commercial devices have this data-logging feature included as an option, providing a record of events over time. With the client’s consent, being able to track such usage can be invaluable in helping clinicians and educators see exactly what the client is currently capable of doing and, by extension, create teaching plans that will develop their ability to use the device. But if you are prepared to clean the raw data from an AAC device up a little, you can drop it into a concordance software and works some magic. You can see how a client’s use of vocabulary matches what you might expect; you can discover a clients keyword vocabulary by filtering out core words; and you can look at how client’s use vocabulary in context e.g. where do they use the word light and how is it being used.

In summary, what I’m suggesting is that using (a) large online corpora and (b) concordance software can enhance the way on which we develop and expand AAC systems, and that both of these are based on actual usage of language and not some hypothetical construct of what we think is happening with vocabulary.

Enough of the academic stuff; I just want to alert you to an unmissable experience at Tonic Bar & Grill on the corner at 971 Liberty Avenue, just outside the David L. Lawrence Convention Center. Those of a nervous gastronomic disposition may want to stop reading now – as may folks who are on any diet other than the “Let’s See How Fat I Can Get Before My Arteries Explode” diet.

At any time of day, you should prop yourself up at the bar, order one of their small selection of draught beers, and place an order for Poutine Fries [4]. This is a heavenly bowl of hot potato fries, smoothered in slippery, creamy cheese, and topped with a generous helping of tender braised short ribs. You can choose to experience this ambrosial feast either by eating it or having a cardiologist smear it directly on to your arteries: we recommend the former. How we managed to eat just one bowl is still a mystery to us but our hearts will undoubtedly thank us.

Poutine fries

Poutine Fries

Notes
[1] As it was an early presentation, I skipped breakfast, which meant that by the time I’d finished I was hungry. So a shout out to the good folks at Bruegger’s Bagels on Grant Street in downtown Pittsburgh who supplied me with their Breakfast Bagel, a mouth-watering treat of egg, cheese, and bacon on a crusty whole-wheat bagel. I’m pretty sure it’s not the healthiest of starts to the day but it sure is one of the tastiest.

[2] Stubbs, M. (2010). Three concepts of keywords. In M. Bondi and M. Scott (Eds.) Keyness in Texts: Studies in Corpus Linguistics. John Benjamins Publishing: Philadelphia.

[3] Davies, M. (2008-) The Corpus of Contemporary American English: 425 million words, 1990-present. Available online at http://corpus.byu.edu/coca/.

[4] As our Canadian friend will know, Poutine Fries originated in Quebec and therefore represent a form of biological warfare against America, the intent being to bring the country to its knees by making everyone too fat to get up off of them. Rest assured that on their next trip to Montreal, the Dudes will make sure they take advantage of sampling the local Poutine Fries and would encourage anyone taking a trip to Canada to do the same!

The Dudes Do ISAAC 2012: Day 1. Of Puck and Patois

Shame on you, Wolfgang Puck. Shame, shame, shame! Were you drunk when you allowed the company that supplies coffee to the William Penn hotel in Pittsburgh to use you name on their product? Did you even taste this piss-poor slop before you signed the check? Like most of us, I’ve seen enough TV cooking shows to know that there’s no surer way to get booted out of Hell’s Kitchen than to admit to Chef Ramsey that you didn’t taste your food before serving it to the customer. I suppose this rule only applies to amateurs and hopefuls. Once you become a celebrity chef, you’re allowed to serve a dog turd so long as it has a fancy garnish, a clever name, and warm vomit drizzled around the edges of the plate. [1]

Wolfgang Puck coffee

Puck’s Signatue Swill

The Wolfgang Puck “Signature Blend” has about as much in common with coffee as King Herod had with childcare. The only reason I could come up with for brewing a cup of this brown, acrid sludge was to use as a dye to cover up minor scuffs on my shoes – although I’d still worry a little about what it might do to the leather.

I can accept that hotel coffee is not there to provide satisfaction but merely to offer a quick, although weak, shot of caffeine to tide you over until you can find some real stuff. However, there’s a point at which is is so bad that you can provide more customer satisfaction by not providing it all all.

The Puck coffee has the laughingly ironic tagline of “live, love, eat,” which I suggest, in the interest of truth in advertising, should be amended to “live, love, eat, then hunt down Wolfgang and force him to drink a bucket of his signature blend.” It really is that bad.

So it was fortunate indeed that the hotel had laid on a few pots of Starbucks coffee for the preconference session I was part of [2]. After a couple of cups and some orange juice, I was hopped up and ready to go by 8:00 a.m., not my choice of starting time for a Saturday morning session but I can’t always have my way.

The title was How Core Vocabulary Works In Five Languages, the specific languages being English, French, German, Spanish, and Mandarin. We slipped in a mention of Japanese but seeing as this is a work-in-progress, there wasn’t much to talk about other than that it’s a project.

Core vocabulary is made up of words that can be used across ages, clinical categories, topics, and situations. For example, that, want, mine, and in pop in a number of research studies that include data collected from toddlers [3] and pre-schoolers [4] to elderly women [5] and Australian fast-food diners [6]. From the non-AAC world, large scale corpora studies also show a high frequency predominance of a relatively small number of common words [7, 8, 9]. More interesting is the fact that the same words are represented with relatively similar frequency across all languages.

The main thrust of the day was to say that given we can identify core, high-frequency words in a language, these are the ones we need to focus upon as a major component of an AAC system: in short, teaching you and want is better than teaching hamster and umbrella. As I’ve said before – and will probably keep saying – this doesn’t mean hamster and umbrella are not important but that based solely on the objective data about word frequencies, there is more “bang for buck” to be had from you and want than hamster and umbrella. Words such as the latter two are not core words but fringe – words which are low in general frequency, appear in limited situations, and in specific populations. In a couple of days I’ll be posting a report on my next presentation which suggests we need a three-way classification; core words, key words, and fringe words.

Anyway, the take-away for the day was that focusing on teaching a high-frequency core of around 350 words is a much more productive intervention that a random set of 350 words that include a lot of low-frequency nouns.

Tomorrow is Sunday and a day of rest for the Dudes.

Perhaps…

Notes
[1] Essence du Chien with a remoulade d’emesis.

[2] Yes, I have ended a sentence in a preposition but this less formal than “…the preconference session of which I was a part.” Like splitting infinitives or starting sentences with prepositions, sometimes breaking style rules is fine, especially in the colloquial world of blogging. Of course, this doesn’t mean that the Dudes won’t take a swipe at other folks who continue to consistently flout the rules.

[3] Banajee, M., DiCarlo, C. and Stricklin, C. (2003). Core Vocabulary Determination for Toddlers. Augmentative and Alternative Communication, 19, 2, 67-73.

[4] Marvin, C.A., Beukelman, D.R. and Bilyeu, D. (1994). Vocabulary use patterns in preschool children: effects of context and time sampling. Augmentative and Alternative Communication, 10, 224-236.

[5] Stuart, S., Vanderhoof, D. and Beukelman, D.R. (1993). Topics and vocabulary use patterns of elderly women. Augmentative and Alternative Communication, 9, 95-110.

[6] Balandin, S., & Iacono, T. (1999). Crews, Wusses, and Whoppas: Core and Fringe Vocabulary in Australian Meal-Break Conversations in the Workplace. Augmentative and Alternative Communication, 15, 95-109.

[7] The Lancaster-Oslo-Bergen Corpus (LOB): Hofland, S. and Johannson, K. (1984). Word frequencies in British and American English. The Norwegian Computer Centre for the Humanities: Longman.

[8] The British National Corpus (BNC): Leech, G., Rayson, P. and Wilson, A. (2001). Word Frequencies in Written and Spoken English: based on the British National Corpus. Longman: London.

[9] The Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA): Davies, M. (2008-) The Corpus of Contemporary American English: 425 million words, 1990-present. Available online at http://corpus.byu.edu/coca/.

Stop with the “Little Words” grab-bag in AAC

I have a proverbial bee in my bonnet today related to the sloppy way that some folks seem to think that designing an AAC system is just a matter of (a) collecting a list of words, (b) adding a set of pictures, and (c) sticking them on pages. This is errant nonsense, positively dangerous, and, after over 30 years of living in a world where AAC systems have been in operation, a sad indictment of how little we appear to have learned. Is that strong enough for yah?

An angry bee

Angry Bee

The number of popular press articles that have erupted in the past year or so about how the iPad can be magically used to provide “voices for the voiceless” is staggering. What’s more staggering is that you’d think nothing had ever been done prior to the iPad – as if Steve Jobs (all praise unto His name) invented AAC. Why, one article was positively gushing about how a doctor (it’s always a “doctor”) had invented a new program where he had a page of pictures that – gasp! – spoke recorded messages when you hit a key. Awesome! Who’d have thunk it? [1]

Those of us who’ve been in the field most of that 30 years have typically adopted the perspective of “well, this is raising the awareness of AAC to levels unknown” and “a rising tide raises all boats.” But are we so sure? Do we really think folks are getting some “better deal” because of the 100+ apps that are now available as “AAC solutions” – all of which claim to be The Answer, often supported by little more than some flashy words culled from linguistics and speech science, such as “core,” “morpheme,” “word,” “cognitive,” and, my favorite, “intuitive. Toss in lots of exclamation points [2], a YouTube video of some poor kiddo having their face thrust into an iPad, and bingo… AAC in a box! I hear the product “experts” at Best Buy and the Apple stores are now recommending AAC solutions based on their years of experience in the field. [3]

Which brings me to the topic of linguistic grab-bags as an excuse for avoiding thinking about teaching language.

There are several AAC offerings out there that use a folder/page/list labeled “Little Words.” This turns out to be shorthand for “I don’t really know where to put them so let’s toss ’em all in one bag.”

There is no particular rationale for these little words other than they are, well… little! And by “little” I mean have few letters. And by “few” I mean somewhere between one and five. So this effectively means we have a collection of words defined as “words with five letters or less.” That’s it. Where is the linguistic coherence here? Are we teaching language or not? If we ARE teaching language – and I’d like to think we are – then putting if, in, is, and it together as “little words” is so tragically far from useful as to be almost negligent.

If we’re OK with also having at, by, of, and be as little words, why not toss in ax, we and me? And once you allow a three-letter word to be classed as a “little word,” your box gets full to overflowing. I’ve seen the and that in the “little word” box, so I see no logical reason why bat, mat, bug, rug, bit, pit, sit, shy, cry ad nauseam shouldn’t be included.

Ah, someone might want to say, but we wouldn’t include bat, mat, bug, rug, and pit because they are THINGS and we can put those in a different folder/list/box. The good news is that now you’re starting to think linguistically, and I’m going to agree with you. But why only do half the job? Why not apply that thinking to your entire vocabulary set?

You see, if you only do half the job, you end up with your “little words” box containing all the words that you couldn’t fit somewhere else. It becomes the Island of Misfit words, a sad collection of poor little lexical orphans with nowhere else to go. [4]

The reality is that little words typically do have somewhere else to go. The trick is to decide where they go and to reflect that within the system you’re designing. In my original list, if can shack up with other conjunctions; in plays nice with other prepositions, is is a verb, and it can cuddle up comfortably with its close friends, the pronouns.

There is no need for “little words.” There is no need for “grab bags.” What there is is a need for rationale, intelligent, informed thinking based on what we know about language and what we’ve learned over the past 40+ years of AAC.

And shame on us if we don’t shout this out loudly for fear of being labelled reactionary, old-fashioned, out-of-touch, or plain wrong. If you’re claiming to have a “good” AAC app and you have a “little words” package, my question is simple…

Why?

Notes
[1] For the hard-of-thinking, let’s get one thing cleared up right now: My beef is not with the development of solutions for technology, whatever that technology may be. I’m all for it. Why, I have more technology in my room than Lindsay Lohan has rehab appointments. My beef is with poor, misleading, and “tossed-together-because-it-seems-easy” solutions. There are a some very good solutions to a range of speech and language problems out there – and that includes non-AAC offerings – but frankly, there’s more junk than substance. Catch me at a conference, buy me a drink, and I’ll name names and give you specifics, but I ain’t gonna get into an online slanging match with individuals. But you know who you are!

[2] I’m willing to bet that there is an inverse relationship between the number of exclamation points used in an article and its veracity (that’s “truthiness” for the Stephen Colbert fans.) When you see anything that includes such typography and words as “New!!” “Faster!!!!” or “Game Changing!!!!!” take a deep breath and move on. “Sober marketing” is an oxymoron and if something smell like a 3:00 a.m. infommercial, it probably is.

[3] If you’re skeptical of this claim, try this: go to your local Best Buy, grab a random blue-jacketed employee, and ask them to show you an iPad. Then ask them if it could be used with someone with a “speech problem” or even “autism.” See what happens.

[4] At this point, I have visions of a cartoon version of An Officer and a Gentleman with the Richard Gere character played by the word of, sobbing uncontrollably in front of a drill sergeant crying, “Don’t you do it! Don’t! You… I got nowhere else to go! I got nowhere else to g… I got nothin’ else.”

The Dudes Do ATIA Orlando 2012: Day 3. Of Data and Describbling

The great thing about starting a day on a bad note is that usually, it can only get better. This morning’s “bad note” was to make a pot of coffee using the water from the faucet in the hotel room. Big mistake. Huge. I’m pretty convinced that all hotels have special filters installed that turn perfectly acceptable water into something that tastes as if it’s just dripped off an industrial sludge compactor, and to which is added a selection of chemical cleaners that are banned by the United Nations. Call me cynical, but the fact that they also strategically place bottles of water right next to the faucet  and charge more than a cost of gas. Seriously, $5.00 for 1/2 gallon of water. This also explains why the “water-powered car” has yet to be invented – it’d be too expensive to run!

Bad coffee face

Must... try... to... swallow...

After at least two mouthfuls of the warm, brown liquid that was clinging hopefully to the side of my cup, I decided to use it to descale the sink and poured it down the drain. There! Better now.

The day did, indeed, improve because I’d managed to schedule more sessions than meetings, so I had the pleasure of sitting back to listen to presenters and describbling notes in my notebook.

Describble is a real word, even though my spell checker disagrees. Honestly. It’s in the Oxford English Dictionary, and that, for me, is a working definition of “real” as far as words are concerned. [1] It is, however, not a particularly popular or well-used item. In fact, it is credited as being a nonce word. And for those for whom nonce is new, it means “a word apparently used only ‘for the nonce’, i.e. on one specific occasion or in one specific text or writer’s works.” [2]

Geeky as I may sometimes seem to be (although technically I’m more of a nerd than a geek) I still find that my favorite piece of technology for a conference is a pen and a notebook. I can still write faster than I can type or swype, and there’s also something vaguely satisfying about seeing brown ink dry quickly on cream paper, watching the light momentarily flash off of the wet blaze as you describble quickly across the parchment.

Notebook and pen

Low-tech "tablet" or "notebook"

And I describbled a lot at the presentation by Deborah Witkowski entitled Data Collection in AAC: Gathering Performance and Outcomes Evidence. Debbie talked about the difference between standardized evaluations and profiles/inventories, and how it makes sense to be eclectic in your choices. In AAC, she stressed that “measurement” is not just counting words but looking at access, vocabulary, syntax, semantics, and pragmatics. She also encouraged people to do two basic things before implementing any therapeutic intervention; (a) take a baseline measure and (b) determine you measure of success. This may seem obvious but once of the current issues with the iApp approach to AAC is that there is little to no data being collected. The “baseline” is typically “we downloaded this app” and the measure of success is “Bob is now communicating” but with NO specification as to what “communicating” is; and I have seen YouTube videos where folks push the iPad against the child’s hand and say “Look, he said it!”[3]

Debbie provided her slides as a PDF so we have them available for you at the Speech Dudes Box account:

Witokowski 2012 Data Collection in AAC

Today was an 8:00 to 5:00 day, which is not different from a normal day, but somehow at a conference, by the end of several sessions, you feel a little drained. Sitting down and listening seems like an easy thing to do but oddly it uses energy. Well, something must be using up energy because by the time I was back at my room around 5:45 p.m. I was pretty much ready for a nap. Or maybe I’m just old.

…but not too old. By 7:00 p.m. I was revitalized and ready to eat, although not ready to take a long trip somewhere. So, we went to the hotel’s Tropicale restaurant for a delicious Shrimp Bisque, followed by a Seafood Pasta, generously loaded with chunks of salmon, swordfish, scallops, and crab claws, all washed down with ice-cold, lime stuffed Coronas. On the way back, we called in at our friends’ villa and spent the rest to the evening chatting, laughing, and helping to clear the refrigerator of beer.

I’d forgotten all about the morning coffee.

Notes
[1] I’m also one of those who recommends the Urban Dictionary as a source for current slang and entertainment, but a word’s presence in the UD doesn’t classify it yet as a “real” word for me – more of a “hopeful monster” ready for being tested against lexical natural selection.

[2] It’s also been used more recently (since the 1970’s) to mean a sexual pervert, particularly a child molester. It may derive from the earlier nance or nancy, a word to describe a homosexual male, which in turn comes from 19th century slang for buttocks. Once again, the Dudes have access to facts you didn’t even know you wanted to know!

[3] There’s a whole minefield of issues out there with regard to “over-the-counter” AAC, where parents skip any evaluation of their child and use YouTube, iTunes, and “the nice man at Best Buy” to decide what app is best. One step toward improving the situation is to determine measures of performance, preferably built into apps. Of course, many app “designers” won’t want this because measurement not only shows success but also failure. The importance attached to success makes us loath to see failure as a critical measure; and knowing something is NOT working is as valuable as knowing it is.