‘r’ is the hardest letter to pronounce?

Haven’t watched this yet, but 6 seconds in, Damon, of Damon and Jo, says “r” is the hardest letter to pronounce in any language.

Is that true?

I kinda hope so, seeing as how both the Spanish ‘r’ and the French ‘r’ have been the bane  of my many years of non-fluency in both languages.

The other morning, coming off a Duolingo Spanish session, I rolled my r perfectly twiceIt just happened. A perfect Spanish r, perfectly rolled.

Then I couldn’t do it again.

EGGs and NEGGs: teachers need bad student sentences

A core principle in precision teaching — in any effective teaching — is that instruction must begin by teaching the novice to discriminate good performance from bad.

Correct from incorrect.

This principle is true of conceptual learning as well as procedural: in order to know what a concept is, the student must also know what the concept is not.

That’s where you start.

“Yes/no” knowledge comes first because we can’t know whether we’ve done something well if we don’t know what doing something well looks like. We all have an internal inspector who judges performance, and our internal inspector must be trained.

To learn the difference between correct and incorrect, students must be given examples and nonexamples. EGGs and NEGGs in precision-teaching parlance.

EGGs alone won’t do.

When it comes to teaching writing, the need for NEGGs is a problem because examples of bad student sentences are surprisingly hard to come by. I’ve spent hours scouring the web, looking for the genuine article. There’s not much out there.

Sure, your own students write bad sentences, but using students’ own work to illustrate bad sentence writing is rude. At least, it would be rude for me; I can imagine there are instructors out there who could pull it off with humor and esprit de corps.

And even if you do use your own students’ sentences to illustrate what bad sentences need like, you still need an organizing principle.

What different kinds of bad are there?

Bad student sentences in creative writing

After yet another hour this afternoon, I’ve come up with this list of “worst student sentences,” reportedly saved by a professor of creative writing:

Worst_student_sentences_-_imgur_-_10_21_png 5
The sentences on this list sound like they were written by real students to me. I’m sure they were if only because it’s quite difficult to write a bad student sentence on purpose.

I can certainly write bad sentences of my own. Everyone can.

But I don’t make the same mistakes students do, and I don’t understand their mistakes well enough to be able to imitate them.

What makes a bad sentence bad?

Another problem: this particular list doesn’t really include the type of bad student sentence we instructors see in nonfiction college writing. I’m thinking of sentences that start off fine, but then go off the rails as the word count adds up. During my first semester teaching, I took to calling these constructions train-wreck sentences, a metaphor that had no instructional value whatsoever. Very frustrating.

We need a robust, teachable collection of bad student sentences, and we need a corpus linguist to analyze them for us.

Writing instructors need a taxonomy of student error.

In the wake of today’s Google expedition, I see that there exists a field of written-language study called “error analysis, as well as a body of work on automated scoring of writing. They may have something useful to offer.

But if so, it’s going to take many more hours to ferret out.

Speaking of the Norman Conquest

Which the other Katharine just was…

Probably the most regrettable effect of the conquest was the total eclipse of the English vernacular as the language of literature, law, and administration. Superseded in official documents and other records by Latin and then increasingly in all areas by Anglo-Norman, written English hardly reappeared until the 13th century.

Encyclopedia Britannica: Norman Conquest 

And see:
Has English been dialing down the effects of the Norman Conquest?

Has English been dialing down the effects of the Norman Conquest?

The Norman Conquest involved words as well as weapons: an invading army of over 10,000 Old French vocabulary words. About 75 percent of these are still in current use. But while their endurance is impressive, a sinister question emerges: what happened to the other 25 percent?

And are still more French words on their way out?

I see a new invader, a fifth column deriving from within the pre-Norman Germanic core of English. Its M.O.? Two quintessentially English tools: verb + adverb = verb; and verb + adverb = noun. Its purpose? To banish from everyday speech (and from everyday writing, and even from more formal communications) any remaining whiff of French elitism.


  •  “blow back” for “repercussion”
  •  “dig in” for “entrench”
  • “drill down” for “analyze”
  •  “push back” for “resist”
  • “take away” for “conclusion”
  •  “walk [it] back” for “retract”/“retreat”

In other words, when I drill down into everyday English, this is my takeaway: the linguistic blow back from the Norman Conquest involves a gradual walk back from words of French origin—part of our more general push back against elitism and digging in against privilege.

Hmm… involve, origin, general, elitism, privilege… We’ve still got a few words to go.

And see:
Speaking of the Norman Conquest

ACT results: 82nd percentile to 96th

Timed practice test
6/9/2017 ACT  9/8/2017 ACT
 English  27 – 85th %  34 – 98th %  35 – 99th %
 Reading  23 – 66th %  30 – 88th %  31 – 91st %
 Comp. 1  26 (est.) – 82nd %  29 – 92nd %  31 – 96th %

National Distributions of Cumulative Percents for ACT Test Scores ACT-Tested High School Graduates from 2015, 2016 and 2017

1. The composite score includes all four sections of the ACT: English, reading, math, science. 

Also very raccoony

I think I’m going to declare National Raccoon Week here at C&K:

‘He had big eyes, and looked straight at me’: Family’s home ransacked by racoon

A couple’s family home has been ransacked by a raccoon after it crawled in through their cat-flap.

Father-of-one Marek Chapanionek, 44, was defrosting his freezer at around 11.30pm on Monday night when the woodland critter entered his house.

The animal then “terrorised” the account manager’s property, eating a Nutri-Grain bar from the handbag of wife Caroline, 47, and terrifying two-year-old cat Dotty.


“We thought he must have been someone’s pet because he seemed to know how to open doors. He was an incredibly inquisitive creature, and kept on following me.

And see:
Very raccoony

Very raccoony

Two nights ago, just past 11 pm, the dogs took off for parts unknown.

That was my fault.

Ed had taken their fence collars off because it was time for everyone to go to bed–go to bed, not light out for the territories, I thought we all agreed on thatbut then the dogs were agitating to be let out, so I let them out.

Why did I let two young, hyperactive field Labs outside after 11 pm without their fence collars?

Because autopilot. The dogs want out, I let them out.1 Presto chango. There’s no intervening thought process.

After I let the dogs out, I forgot about them (autopilot) until Ed came into the bedroom and said, “Are the dogs in their crates?”

Umm, no.

One thing led to another, and the rest of the night turned into a lost-dog-finding lollapalooza that culminated in my registering 3,300 steps on my new FitBit before dawn. Thirty-three hundred steps, two hours sleep. Good times.

Moving on to the raccoon part . . . around 2 am I was awakened by what sounded like multiple dogs screaming — screaming, shrieking, squealing — it was an unbelievable racket; at least two blocks away but still loud enough to wake me.

It had to be Luke and Lucy, who sounded freaked out of their minds, but what kind of animal were they fighting?

A coyote?

Two coyotes?

More importantly, were they winning? 

Both dogs eventually made their way home, but not without igniting a second drama when Luke showed up without Lucy. Lucy is Luke’s half-sister. She’s younger and smaller than Luke, probably small enough and young enough to lose a fight with a coyote–definitely too small to prevail against two coyotes–and she is devoted to Luke. And she wasn’t with him.

She finally turned up an hour later, sporting a minor injury to one paw but otherwise none the worse for wear, although she refused to leave the house the entire next day. Which is not like Lucy or any other member of her tribe. Field Labs live for the outside.

So yesterday I was filling Katharine in on the night’s events, and the subject of raccoons came up, probably because it had crossed my mind that Luke and Lucy might have been shrieking at a raccoon. Turns out the raccoons in Katharine’s neighborhood are an incredibly scrappy lot. They fight all the time. They used to fight just in warm weather, but now they fight year round. It’s like West Side Story, only for raccoons.

Plus they’re loud. They’re so loud Katharine had actually made a tape of a recent altercation. So naturally I Googled loud raccoon fight, and behold.

This popped up, too:

loud_raccoon_fight_-_Google_Search 3
Given the fact that raccoons spend so much time screaming and yelling and carrying on that they’ve become famous for it on the Internet, I’m thinking it had to be a raccoon Luke and Lucy were fighting, not a coyote. Raccoon, or raccoons, plural.

Anyway, this afternoon, while working with one of my students, I came across a Daily Language Review exercise that included the word “raccoon.”

Googling to make sure “raccoon” has two c’s, I found this:


In the new study, the researchers presented captive raccoons with a cylinder containing a floating marshmallow that was too low to grab. Next, they showed the raccoons how dropping stones in the water would raise the marshmallow.

Two of the eight raccoons successfully repeated the behavior, dropping the stones to get the marshmallow. A third took matters into her own hands: She climbed onto the cylinder and rocked it until it tipped over, giving her access to the sweet treat.

“That was something we hadn’t predicted,” and indeed, had designed against, says study leader Lauren Stanton, a Ph.D. student at the University of Wyoming.

“It reaffirms how innovative and how creative they are in problem-solving.”

Adds Suzanne MacDonald, a psychologist at York University in Toronto, “I thought it was very raccoon-y that one of them figured out how to just tip the whole apparatus over”—much like they do with trash cans.

Very racoon-y.”

That is a fabulous descriptor!

I’m trying to think of something I can apply it to other than a raccoon.

1. Comma splice intentional.

2. News flash: Some sites spell raccoon with two c’s, some with one. I don’t know why.

And see:
Also very raccoony

Small miracles in deafness and autism

I’m overdue for an “autism diaries” update–as a few recent developments with J have reminded me. At a time when the world as a whole seems so profoundly screwed up, it’s nice to reflect on how far this one little guy (now 6 foot 5) has come.

J was born profoundly deaf–so deaf that a brainstem test revealed no auditory awareness whatsoever. As this news took shape (literally, in the flattening lines of an EEG screen), we had no idea about cochlear implants. As far as we knew, J faced a future of profound silence.

That vision was soon moderated by cochlear implant pamphlets and phone calls to the parents of implanted toddlers. But just how well an implant would work for J in particular remained disconcertingly uncertain. There was, in the late 1990s, simply not enough data for firm predictions.

Some three months after J was implanted, I played a chord on the piano while he was facing away from me, standing on a chair, engaged in what we thought was a passing hobby: turning on and off a ceiling fan. I played the chord and he promptly turned around and looked right at me.

But why, the speech therapist wondered a few months later, did he remain so oblivious to speech? Enter diagnosis #2.

J as it turned out, was not just “profoundly” deaf, but “moderately” autistic. Not only that, but “moderate,” in the context of autism, was pretty bad.  Unlike the “moderate” hearing loss we’d initially hoped for way back when, “moderate” autism (or so we were told) meant something much more debilitating: some language, minimal “splinter” skills, a lifetime of dependence.

Fast forward 19 years and, after several years of GrammarTrainer, an intense regimen of schooling (mostly in regular classes) and one-on-one tutoring by a variety of creative and talented lay people (and his parents), together with multiple-times-per-week outings all over the city and state, J is, according to two recent and thorough psychological exams, ….still moderately autistic.

But he’s also slowly making his way through college, majoring in computer science (and/or math). Though he lives at home, he independently gets himself to class every day, keeps track of assignments, exams, and schedule changes, meets with professors or TAs as needed, turns in his work, and participates in class and extra-curricular activities.

He’s even done some in-class presentations–and done OK on them. His grades aren’t perfect, and there’s nearly always a class or two that doesn’t work out the first time around and must be dropped at the last minute. But he’s managed to complete the English and Communications requirements, and has done well in two other courses you’d think would be huge struggles.

The first was linguistics. Assignments for this class included phonetic transcriptions of spoken English, and I doubted whether our profoundly deaf child could handle all the acoustic details. Would he hear the subtle air puff that accompanies the “p”-sound, but only when it occurs at the beginning of the word? Would he hear the difference between the “p” in “pat” vs. “spat”? I watched with amazement as J effortlessly completed these transcriptions, only then realizing how much of a miracle the cochlear implant really is:

spat [spæt]
pat [phæt]
potato [pəthéjtow]

The second course (still in progress) is psychology. You’d think a subject like this–with so much of its focus on emotions and social dynamics–would be particularly out of reach for a student with moderate autism. How accessible could concepts like oral fixation, or super-ego, or collective unconscious, or peer pressure, or social anxiety disorder, possible be?

As it turns out, there are two moderating factors. First, to the extent that psychology analyzes concepts that most of us have some intuitive understanding of, it makes those concepts more accessible to those who don’t. Second, a lot of psychology involves more accessible topics like neurology, cognition, and learning–some of which really resonate with J. Not surprisingly, he particularly enjoyed the chapter on cognitive illusions.

Still, it’s amazing to me to see (once I’ve laboriously worked through the textbook’s explanations with him) how quickly J grasps and generalizes concepts like operant and classical conditioning.

Just for the heck of it, I brought up this last topic in a recent exchange of text messages. I had headed out for the evening, having told J (when asked) that there would be no ceiling fans where I was going. A few hours later, he texted:

Where are you


I sent him this picture of the ceiling of my current location:

J’s response:

Are you blind?

Me, a bit confused:

Are you deaf?


I thought you said no fans

Were there fans in the picture? I’d somehow not noticed them. I looked up and scrutinized the ceiling and yes, sure enough, camouflaged among the black ceiling lights hanging from the black ceiling were some black ceiling fans.

Me (a bit sheepishly):

Well, they’re not moving

And they’re not going to move.


Ok but how many fans does the restaurant have?




All off.

And they will stay off.

I then decided it was my turn:

Now answer my question:

Are fans

a. An unconditioned response
b. A conditioned response
c. An unconditioned stimulus.
d. A conditioned stimulus.


J (a short moment later):



Conditional on what?


I don’t remember.

It was years ago

It sure was.

Worldly knowledge, dyslexia, J— and L— B., and Cliff Clavin

Katharine mentioned earlier that we’ve been thinking about worldly knowledge and dreamy children.

The idea that there exists a category of knowledge (worldly knowledge?) that’s important to success on ACT/SAT reading but can’t be acquired through a rich, knowledge-based curriculum had never crossed my mind.

That said, our conversations reminded me of a story a friend told me some years back.

His wife, he said, was profoundly dyslexic. She was so dyslexic that she read nothing at all–at least, nothing beyond what she absolutely had to read for work. She’d gone to college, and had been able to get through her textbooks, but reading had never become anything more than a chore, and she never, ever read “for pleasure.”

The result, he said, was that she “didn’t know anything.”

Meaning: she didn’t know anything anyone talked about at parties or over dinner. She didn’t get the references.

My own head is so stuffed full of useless knowledge (I have a soft spot for Cliff Clavin, kindred soul), that I had trouble even imagining what my friend was talking about. So I kept asking for examples.

Finally he said his wife had never heard of J— and L—– B—–.1

Now that got my attention. At the time, the entire world was talking about J&L-B–literally the entire world, if you believe Wikipedia, which I do–yet my friend’s wife did not know who they were.

She didn’t know because she didn’t read—-anything. No newspapers, no women’s magazines (which still existed then). If she was standing in the check-out lane at the supermarket, she didn’t pick up the Enquirer and speed-read the stories so she wouldn’t have to pay for it; she didn’t even scan the headlines. She didn’t read.

“Doesn’t she watch TV?” I said. “Doesn’t she hear these things on TV?”

She did watch TV, my friend said, as much as anyone else watches TV, but she still didn’t know anything. It was amazing how little information a person actually picks up from TV.

I’ve been thinking about that ever since.

Do we really absorb next to nothing from casual television watching?

Compared to casual National Enquirer skimming at the grocery store?

And if so, would that have changed with the advent of multiple cable news channels and “infotainment”?

Here’s my question: is there a kind of “junk reading” that we think of as a waste of time but that actually serves a purpose — and might come in handy on college entrance exams to boot?

1. I’m using initials instead of names because there’s no reason these two need to see themselves on our blog or anyone else’s. I know next to nothing about the “right to be forgotten,” but I’m probably in favor. So: initials.

Duolingo is very fun

Doug S recommended trying Duolingo, and I love it.

I don’t know whether it’s the best or the most efficient way to learn a foreign language. John McWhorter likes Glossika, which I assume means he likes Glossika better than Duolingo. It’s possible Duolingo involves too much translating from English to French and back again. I don’t know.

I wish I knew the literature on L2 learning.

In any event, I feel as if I’ve finally found an incontrovertible, absolute argument for the Wonders of Education Technology, a subject on which I have heretofore cast a No Vote: using a language app, you can hear what the words you’re learning sound like.

Plus the supposed convenience of education apps actually is convenient where Duolingo is concerned, and in a way that matters. I’ve never managed to stick with a MOOC, or watch more than one lecture from The Great Courses (which actually are great, as far as I can tell), but I’ve found it easy to return to Duolingo 25 days in a row. Duolingo is so compelling that it was one of my few daily habits that did not crash during the blackout.

Speaking of which, C. just talked to his co-teacher in Mt. Vernon … her electricity is off, and her brother, who works for Con Ed, says it will be days before it’s back on.


She has two young children.

Meanwhile, the lights just flickered off, then flickered back on.

The suspense is killing me.

And see:
The Westchester bomb cyclone and the achievement gap 

Off-topic: review of “The H-Factor of Personality”

As promised, below is a slightly edited Goodreads review I wrote of The H Factor of Personality: Why Some People Are Manipulative, Self-Entitled, Materialistic, and Exploitive–And Why It Matters for Everyone by Kibeom Lee and Michael C. Ashton.

The book was especially meaningful to me because prior to reading it I had spent 10 years wrangling with my school district–wrangling as a parent and, as a resident, engaging in political efforts to improve it. The review’s references to hiring decisions all have to do with district hiring.

Reading The H Factor, I realized that a core belief I held about human nature was completely wrong.


The H Factor adds a 6th personality dimension, “Honesty and humility,” to the traditional  “Big 5“:

  • Emotionality (E): emotional, oversensitive, sentimental, fearful, anxious, vulnerable versus brave, tough, independent, self-assured, stable
  • Extraversion (X): outgoing, lively, extraverted, sociable, talkative, cheerful, active versus shy, passive, withdrawn, introverted, quiet, reserved
  • Agreeableness (A): patient, tolerant, peaceful, mild, agreeable, lenient, gentle versus ill-tempered, quarrelsome, stubborn, choleric
  • Conscientiousness (C): organized, disciplined, diligent, careful, thorough, precise versus sloppy, negligent, reckless, lazy, irresponsible, absent-minded
  • Openness to Experience (O): intellectual, creative, unconventional, innovative, ironic versus shallow, unimaginative, conventional


The first 6 chapters of The H Factor are a revelation. Fantastically helpful.

The most useful points for me:

Honesty and humility (the “H” factor) track together in numerous languages and cultures: the figure of “Honest Abe is a reality everywhere. By the same token, dishonesty and arrogance also track together, which means that when you’re dealing with arrogant people you’re on reasonably safe ground assuming they are dishonest as well. I didn’t know that.

– It’s quite difficult to gauge another person’s level of honesty and humility, even after you’ve known him or her for some time, and this is especially true in the work place. This finding, in particular, explains some of the hiring fiascos I’ve witnessed over the past several years.

– High-H people – those high in honesty and humility – prefer each other’s company, and the same goes for Low-H people. Dishonest, arrogant people like to befriend, marry, and work with other dishonest, arrogant people. (This also explains the hiring fiascos I’ve witnessed over the past several years.)

– People high (or low) in “Openness to Experience” prefer each other’s company.

– The other 4 personality factors seem to mix together randomly and happily, as do the high’s and low’s of each dimension taken individually. E.g.: high-Emotionality can marry low-Emotionality, and high-Agreeable can marry low-Agreeable, but High-H can’t marry Low-H, nor is High-O happy with Low-O.

The chapter that explains what ‘low-H‘ looks like in combination with the other five personality factors is especially illuminating. As it turns out, a person can be dishonest, arrogant, and agreeable. A warm personality and warm words do not imply honesty and modesty.

That’s one mistake I won’t be making again.

If you spend much time dealing with people beyond your family and friends, Chapter 4 alone is worth the price of the book.

One caveat, and the reason for 4 stars instead of 5: the two chapters on politics and religion are weak, and conservatives in particular should steer clear of the former. Everyone else should, too.

The authors report that, in the U.S., liberals and conservatives have the same level of honesty and humility, but then devote many pages to “Right Wing Authoritarianism” and “Social Dominance Orientation,” neither of which is compatible with honesty and humility. Nor, to my knowledge, has either construct been validated by factor analysis of the everyday language people use to describe personality.

Meanwhile, the main factoid Ashton and Lee offer re: religion is that religious people are slightly higher in Agreeableness and Honesty/humility than everyone else, a difference they suggest can be chalked up to “softhearted” people hoping everyone gets to see each other again in heaven. Yes, that would certainly account for millennia of religious belief. (And what about Buddhists?)

The problem is that Lee and Ashton are experts in personality, with little exposure to political philosophy, theology, history, or even social psychology (so it appears). Their musings on politics and religion read like filler.

And see:
Broward County and the H factor 

The Westchester bomb cyclone and the achievement gap

I’m about to make an observation that’s not remotely original, but this weekend’s experience was a revelation for me nevertheless, so I’m posting.

We’ve just emerged from the Great Tarrytown Blackout: two days without heat or running water in the wake of our second “bomb cyclone” of the winter.

Sidebar: It’s a good thing I like learning new words, because new-word enthusiasm mitigates the pain I feel having to learn new words about the weather. I don’t want to learn new words about the weather. Ever. And why are there new words about the weather to learn anyway? Seriously, I’m mystified. How can I have lived this long and not know all the words a normal human being who is not a meteorologist needs to know about the W-E-A-T-H-E-R? Why couldn’t I go to my grave never having encountered the phrase “polar vortex”? My parents did, and their parents before them. Ditto for bomb cyclone, a term I had never in my life laid eyes on until almost exactly two months ago, and now here it is again. Plus I got suckered on this month’s bomb cyclone because the first one was a hyped-up bust (BarStool posted a hilarious rant on the ridiculousness of January’s bombogenesis,” yet another weather word I didn’t need in my life), so I assumed the second one would be, too, and I wasn’t prepared. Wasn’t prepared as in: wet laundry mildewing in the washing machine, Subaru imprisoned behind its electric door in the garage, rooms too cold to begin with so the temp didn’t have far to fall before hitting the 50s, no idea which-hotels-where take large, hyperactive dogs, etc., etc.

Anyway: two days without heat, light, or running water.

Our back story is that during Hurricane Sandy we lived without heat and light for nine days. We stayed in our house nearly the entire time, till we finally moved in lock, stock, and barrel with my friend Debbie. I still remember vividly the joy of making coffee in her beautiful kitchen with its beautiful Nespresso machine—the first one I’d ever seen; her parents had carried it back from Italy—running on its beautiful electricity and illuminated by her beautiful electric lights. (Thomas Edison! A great American!)

By the end of the Hurricane Sandy blackout, the temperature inside our house was down to the 40s, and I was suffering a mild depression. Mild depression was the good news; others in the neighborhood were clearly experiencing some cognitive impairment. Specifically, they were developing paranoia. Paranoia about Con Edison and its whereabouts, which is not going to land anyone inside the DSM-5, but still.

That experience may sound strange, but there it is. A very short period of sustained dark and cold will alter ‘cognitive status.’ I know, because I lived it.

Point is, I think our entire household probably has some mini-PTSD on the subject of power outages. I say that because, prior to Sandy, power outages felt like adventures.

That was then. This go-round all three of us—C., Ed, and I (Jimmy & Andrew’s home had electricity)—fell apart. Our collective mood darkened, we felt severely stressed, and we had no ability to focus. Whatsoever. Ed had a huge amount to get done over the weekend and did nothing at all; C. had papers to grade and an IEP to write and did none of that; I, in what I thought was a concession to reality, didn’t even try to do anything productive but instead assigned myself the task of going through old magazines & tossing them, and I couldn’t manage even that.

It was pretty shocking, especially given the fact that it’s not as if we’ve been living on the Island of Peace and Quiet for lo these many years. I’ve always been able to work in the middle of commotion; in fact, I like a certain amount of disruption and surprise.

That’s why I have two large, young hyperactive dogs.


Sunday afternoon, with the electricity back on and the (cold) water sporadically spurting out of the faucets once again, C. said he was thinking about his students.

We had been disrupted for just two days, and our ability to focus had crashed. We weren’t sick, we weren’t hurt, we weren’t even tired. We were disrupted.

And our concentration was shot.

Most of C’s students are poor, and quite a few of them—by no means all, but quite a few—lead chronically disrupted lives.

How does a child leading a chronically disrupted life focus in school?

And how much of the achievement gap is down to chronic disruption alone?

I bet it’s a lot.