College Learning : WAYS & WHYS

Frank A. Logan

Verbal Fluency

The purpose of this chapter is to discuss the most important academic skill. . .LANGUAGE SKILLS.

You should learn:

  1. That important people DO judge by appearance, with special attention to verbal behavior.
  2. Why some people recommend studying Latin.
  3. The steps in processing verbal information, and the importance of elaborative rehearsal.
  4. How information processing becomes automatic
  5. The steps in generating verbal information, and the role of grammar.
  6. The all-important act of mental time-sharing as a learnable skill.
  7. The importance of motivation.
You should also study the following appendices:
A.  On Paraphrasing.
B.  On Grammar.

When leading educators, business executives, and government officials were asked which academic skills are the most important for success, the overwhelming consensus was:  "verbal fluency."  For this reason, I can confidently urge you to invest the effort required to develop a reasonable vocabulary and to become facile using it.  In contemporary society, verbal skills are of paramount importance.

The familiar expression, "Don't judge a book by its cover," is often applied to people as a warning that appearances can deceive us.  For example, a warm, gentle person may hide beneath a very tough looking exterior, and a very insecure person may appear to be the epitome of self-confidence.  You don't have to win beauty contests to be "pretty inside" and most of us would prefer to be judged, if at all, by the "real me" instead of the person we appear to be publicly.

Nevertheless, people in important positions DO judge others by their outward appearance.  In many cases, such as the job interview, that's all they really have to go on.  But one's clothes and physical features are not the most critical part of one's  appearance. . .it is one's verbal behavior that best reveals qualifications for admission, appointment, advancement, etc.  Can you read well enough to follow instructions?  Can you listen well enough to understand questions?  Can you write and speak well enough to express yourself clearly.  The one basic skill that stands out as being indispensable for success in every profession is verbal fluency.

Furthermore, verbal fluency (or lack of it) is virtually impossible to disguise.  A person can easily change clothes and can also do quite a bit to change one's physical appearance, but one's verbal behavior was learned gradually and it can therefore only be changed gradually.  You can recognize the speech of a well-educated person even if s/he is dressed in dirty, tattered clothes, and an uneducated person cannot fake educated speech.  A brief sample of the words you use and how you use them is an infallible guide to your general verbal fluency.

The first ingredient of verbal fluency is a reasonably large vocabulary.  I pointed out in an earlier chapter that knowledge is not verbal but that we use words to communicate knowledge.  Obviously one cannot express an idea unless s/he has a rich enough vocabulary to put that idea into words.  And even though an idea can usually be expressed in several different ways, there sometimes is only one "right" word for an occasion.  The frequency with which many people use the expression, "Y'know," is testimony to their inadequate vocabulary because they do not know a good word to express an idea and so they have to rely on their listener's imagination to try to guess what they are unable to put into words.

This is the reason that I have emphasized vocabulary in this book.  To succeed in college and in later life, you need an adequate vocabulary. But vocabulary is not all there is to being verbally fluent. . .you must put the words into meaningful sentences.  This means knowing educated grammar.

Verbal/Formal Discipline

In the decade after the Second World War, many changes occurred in American education.  One goal was to purge the system of classic dogmas auch as the Doctrine of Formal Discipline.  This long-standing belief was that general verbal fluency, including the logical organization of one's thought processes, could be enhanced by the study of Latin.  Many English words are derived from Latin, and Latin is formally precise. In contrast to the many confusing irregularities in English, Latin is logically consistent and orderly.  Studying a language that has clearly defined rules might help one recognize the complexities of English.

I do not intend to digress into a study of Latin, but I urge you to study Table 4.1 in order to see the difference between the formal precision of Latin and the irrational conventions of English.

                singular                plural
            Latin     English       Latin    English
1st person:   amo      I love      amamus    we love
2nd person:  amas    you love      amatus   you love
3rd person:  amat  he/she/it loves  amant  they love
        Table 4.1.  Conjugation of the Latin
        and English verbs meaning "to love."
In English we do not change the second-person subject word (you) when going from singular to plural.  We indicate that the subject is male, female, or neuter only in the third-person singular (he/she/it).  In that same place we also put an "s" on the verb.  In contrast, Latin always changes the verb ending, never indicates gender, and always changes from singular to plural.  Latin is formally precise and consistent; a Latin-speaking child would never make the logical mistake of saying "they loves you."  Studying Latin could help one avoid errors by calling attention to these complexities of English.

The Doctrine of Formal Discipline was never really disproved.  It dropped from favor because proponents of the doctrine could not prove that it was true and students could not see its relevance.  If the students only learn enough Latin to get a barely passing grade, it wouldn't do much good anyway.  Actually, there has been a regeneration of interest in studying Latin in the hope that it will improve verbal fluency indirectly.  My own belief is that one's time is better spent in developing fluency directly in English.

Processing Verbal Information

Obviously you already know how to learn ideas that are presented to you in verbal form.  You have been engaged in such learning for at least twelve years and you wouldn't even be in college unless you were reasonably successful.  But being able to do something does not necessarily mean that you know how you do it.  For example, you can surely say the word, "information," but do you know how you arrange your  vocal chords, lips, and tongue in order to speak the word?  Chances are you know how to do it but don't know any more about how you do it than that you just "do it."

The  way that you learn from verbal information is by engaging in rehearsal, that is, silent talking to yourself. There are two techniques of rehearsal.  One is called maintenance rehearsal because its major function is to maintain information in mind.  You do this by simply repeating it over and over again, such as you probably do with a telephone number.  You use maintenance rehearsal to memorize material, to learn it "by heart."  Although there are some other memory techniques that I shall describe in a later chapter, repeating verbal material word-for-word is the most familiar way to learn.  We call this "rote" learning and it is appropriate when you need to know something verbatim.

 The danger of rote learning is that you do not really have to understand the meaning of words in order to memorize them.  Indeed, you can learn meaningless material (e.g., "Abracadabra").  People may memorize lines without knowing their meaning (e.g., "Four score and seven years ago..."), and we have probably all learned wrong words, (e.g., "a virgin is chased," rather than chaste).  Hence, if you feel that you must memorize something in college, such as a definition or formula, be sure you understand it.  Otherwise, you may get a "pullet surprise" instead of a Pulitzer Prize.

The other type of verbal rehearsal is called elaborative rehearsal because it requires more than mere repetition.  Elaborative rehearsal is necessary if you want to understand verbal information. You can use maintenance rehearsal to learn (memorize) words, but you have to be more active in order to learn from words.  Comprehension of ideas is the principal goal of most college courses, and hence elaborative rehearsal, as described below, is the critical form of active participation.

The words one person uses to express an idea convey information to the other person.  As we have seen, it then becomes the other person's job to decode the words, figure out their meaning, and learn the idea.  This transformation of words into stored knowledge is called information processing.  The word, "process," means to change or convert something into a different form.  The digestive process converts food into useful minerals; the learning process converts words into useful knowledge.  Although learning is as natural as digestion, it may be helpful to reflect on the steps involved in the processing of verbal information. . .i.e., in "digesting" ideas.

(1)  Verbal input must first be interpreted so as to identify the words.  This is especially challenging in the case of listening because the sounds of speech appear to be an almost continuous stream of complex sounds.  This challenge is most obvious when listening to a foreign language (or a lecturer who uses a lot of words you don't know).   In the case of reading, although the words are clearly demarcated by spaces, the meaning of the words is often dependent on the context.  Hence, in reading as well as listening, deciphering the signals may require some attention.

(2)  The next step involves what is called "chunking" the information into phrases.  We do not usually think in terms of  isolated words, such Instead, we lump all of these words together into a single concept or mental image which becomes the unit for further processing.

(3)  It is then necessary to parse the chunks of information, by which we mean to determine what is the subject, the predicate, and the object of a sentence.  Substantially the same information can be conveyed in a number of different sentences.  For example, "John hit Jim with a ball," "Jim was hit with a ball by John," and "It was a ball with which John hit Jim," are different ways of saying the same thing.  Parsing means to sort out who did what to whom with what.

(4)  We use the word "coding" to refer to transforming words into their non-verbal ideas/thoughts/images/concepts.  For the preceding sentence to be meaningful, you have to know who John and Jim are, what a ball is, and what it means to be hit with one. Actually, these meanings are somewhat unique for each of us, but verbal input must be coded into the non-verbal form that represents knowledge.

(5)  Coded information usually brings to mind other information that is stored in memory and that has been somehow associated with the new information.  Continuing the preceding example, perhaps you have been hit by a ball and the sentence may remind you of that experience.  You might reflect on the type of ball involved, or where the ball hit Jim.

(6)  Finally, the new information must become integrated into your own knowledge system.  For example, your opinion of John may be influenced by this act, and your understanding of the relationship between John and Jim will be adjusted to include this new event.  More generally, new information may be compatible with your existing knowledge and simply be added to it, or the new information may NOT fit with what you already know.  When this happens, the correct solution is to change your earlier beliefs.  We sometimes do this but we are more likely to dismiss the new information as being somehow unacceptable, or we distort the new information to make it fit.

When the steps involved in processing information are enumerated as I have just done, the task appears to take on formidable dimensions.  Indeed, you may wonder how something you do so casually could be so complicated.  The reason for this apparent discrepancy is that each time you process an item of information, it gets progressively easier.  For example, when you first started learning arithmetic, the fact that 2x2=4 was probably difficult to process.  You even had to learn what multiply means.  But as you kept rehearsing that fact and integrating it with related multiplication facts, it became automatic.  This idea is showngraphically in Figure 4.1.

               Hi : .                                 (Connect
                  :  .                                 the dots.)
     Processing   :    .
                  :       .
       Effort     :           .                   "Automatic"
                  :                 .              /
                  :                         .     /
                  :                                    .          .
                                Amount of Practice
                          Figure 4.1.   The amount of mental effort,
                     or attentional capacity, required to process an
                     item of information (e.g., 2 x 2 = 4) decreases
                     with practice.

Note carefully that, in this context, the word "automatic" does NOT mean an innate reflex, as it did with attention.  Information processing becomes automatic when it is so well learned that it no longer requires your conscious attention.  It is like riding a bicycle. At first, you had to pay close attention to keeping your balance, steering, and pushing on the pedals; with practice, all those things became "second nature."  This ability to process any familiar information automatically enables you to allocate all of your cognitive capacity to the new information.

Generating Verbal Information

Processing verbal information into your knowledge system is the input side of verbal fluency.  The output side is generating verbal information from your knowledge system.  Fluency is partly the ability to understand what you read or hear, and it is partly the ability to express your understanding in writing or speaking.   Although in general, the better you are in processing verbal information, the better you are in generating verbal information, they are not quite two sides of the same coin.

The steps required to generate verbal information are the same as processing verbal information except in reverse order.  That is to say, you start with the idea, code it into words, and ultimately you organize the words into meaningful sentences.  But just as most people can't even spell their name backwards very fast (can you?), most people can't generate sentences about complex ideas nearly as rapidly as they can read them. In both cases, sufficient practice with the backward order leads to fast, automatic performance.  However, recall that you learn what you practice.  Thus, if you have practiced generating ungrammatical sentences, that is the kind of sentence you have learned to make.

Mental Time-sharing

The chances are that at least one teacher has asked for your undivided attention.  Although this seems like a reasonable request, it is not really a very good strategy.  At least insofar as undivided attention means focusing exclusively on the words being heard (or read), the evidence indicates that very little is learned.  The most familiar evidence is the skilled typist who obviously attends to each word of a manuscript but later remembers almost nothing about the content.  In the laboratory, people have engaged in a shadowing task.  This requires them to listen through earphones to a lecture and try to repeat it word-for-word.  Although most people can do this task quite well, they learn very little of the lecture.  This last evidence is especially relevant because many students diligently listen or read on a word-for-word basis only to find that they don't understand very much.

To learn while you are listening to a class lecture or reading a textbook, you need to process the information concomitantly with listening or reading. And because only one thing at a time can be at the center of your attention, you need to divide attention between the words themselves and processing their meaning.  This is called mental time-sharing ...switching your attention back and forth between two (or more) on-going tasks.

Mental time sharing is pervasive in everyday life.  You frequently carry on a conversation while walking, you probably listen to the radio while driving a car, and you may even sing in the shower. However, there is a limit to how rapidly a person can process information.  You get confused if several people are talking to you simultaneously, or for that matter, if one person speaks too fast for you to follow what s/he is saying.  You can carry on a conversation while driving a car unless the traffic is very heavy but you can't carry on a conversation while writing a theme or balancing a checkbook. The fact that we have a limited capacity for processing information constrains our ability to time-share several mental tasks.

Nevertheless, I believe that mental time-sharing is a îlearnableï skill, one that can be improved with practice.  By analogy, you might think of mental time-sharing as "juggling ideas."  Now the reason you probably cannot juggle two or more balls is that you have never taken the time to learn how to do it.  If you watch carefully, you will observe that a juggler only catches and tosses one ball at a time; the trick is to keep track of where the balls are, and to shift attention rapidly from one ball to the next.  So too, the trick of mental time-sharing is to focus on one idea while keeping the other idea close to consciousness so that you can shift back to it rapidly.  Although you have inadvertently developed some skill at doing this, deliberate practice at various tasks such as alternately counting and saying the alphabet will not only improve your skill in this particular task but also your general mental time-sharing ability.

Mental time-sharing is the secret to effective reading and listening.  Do not just repeat the material word-for-word unless you need to memorize it. If you need to understand the material, you have to process the words while you are reading or listening so that the ideas will be meaningful to you.


"Were there a power, the gift to 'gee' us, to see ourselves as others see us."  This quote from Robert Burns expresses an impossible wish;  even the face looking back at you in a mirror is reversed from what others see.  Your voice sounds different to you because it gets to your ears partly through the bones of your head.  Nevertheless, it is important to try to envisage the way we appear to others because they tend to evaluate us largely by appearance. Although physical features are important, the most critical feature of your appearance is verbal behavior.  The fluency with which you use language is an almost fool-proof clue to your educational level. The classic way to improve verbal fluency was to study Latin because it was believed that "formal discipline" would transfer to English.  Although that doctrine has never been disproved, it is probably more efficient to work directly on English.  My hypothesis is that all of the verbal skills---listening, reading, thinking, writing, speaking---are inter-related so that effort spent improving one tends to improve them all.

Because world knowledge is non-verbal, college learning is not as much learning words as it is learning from words.  That is to say, the words used in a college course represent thoughts or ideas,  and your job is to learn those thoughts or ideas from the words spoken in lecture or written in the text.  Words convey information, but you have to "process" the words in order to understand the information.

Processing verbal information is analogous to "digesting" words.  Instead of merely mimicking the words verbatim (maintenance rehearsal), you need to interpret the signals as meaningful units (words), chunk the words into larger units (phrases, clauses), parse the chunks into parts of speech (e.g., subject, predicate), code verbal information into nonverbal ideas and then associate_the new ideas with old ideas that are already in memory.  Elaborative rehearsal requires dividing attention between receiving and processing the information. This ability to time-share one's limited attentional capacity is learnable.

If the new information contains familiar ideas, these are processed automatically and hence  require very little of your limited processing capacity.  This is the reason why, in general, the more you already know, the easier it is to learn.  The exception to this rule is when the new information is incongruous with your existing  knowledge.  In that case, it is not only more difficult to learn, but you may distort the new information so as to make it fit better with your old knowledge.

Processing verbal information is the input side of verbal fluency.  The output side (speaking and writing) is equally important.  Your mind would be a black hole if it could only absorb knowledge and not express it.  To be sure that you have really processed an idea, rather than simply memorized it, professors usually want you to "put it in your own words."  To evaluate your skill at paraphrasing ideas, you should do the exercises in Appendix E.

In putting ideas into your own words, you will be judged not only by what you say but also by the way you say it.  Educated people pay attention to their own grammar and hence will notice yours.  You should review the points on grammar made in Appendix F. Learning to recognize and avoid grammatical errors is an important aspect of verbal fluency.

On One Role of Motivation

A person may know very well what s/he should do  and  may  also know how to do it reasonably well, and yet still not do it.   As one example, this chapter has tried to focus your attention on the great importance of verbal fluency.   The ramification, of course, is that you should devote a substantial amount  of time and effort in trying to improve all aspects of your verbal skills.  But something else is needed actually to get you to study and to practice.  That something else is motivation.

Motivation refers to one's need or desire for something. Hunger and thirst are very primitive sources of motivation,  but  people in our society are more often  motivated  by fear of social disapproval or desire for wealth and status.  Although I believe that people are motivated to learn just for the sake of learning,  most students are also motivated to receive grades that lead to a degree  and  perhaps admission to graduate or professional school.   Whatever its source, including pressure from parents and peers, motivation is the impetus that converts good intentions into action.

We can depict this view of motivation in an equation

                Performance (R) = Habit (H)  x  Motivation (M)

where "habit" is one's knowledge or "know-how."   When Thomas Edison was asked why he was successful in inventing so many things, he said that "Invention is 1 part inspiration and 99 parts perspiration."  I think that Edison understated the importance of  good habits,  but a good compromise formula for success would be

                             R = H M10

This formula says that both habit and motivation are necessary;  you may be motivated to improve your verbal skills,  but you can't do it if you don't know what to do.   And, of course,  the better that you know how to do  something,  the less time and effort, and  hence the less  motivation that may be required  to accomplish  the same goal. However,  a  little  bit of knowledge can go  a long way if you have enough motivation.

In principle, I could motivate you to practice verbal skills. I might attach a couple of wires to your body so that I could give you an electric shock any time you said, "Y'know."   With that set-up, I am sure you would work on your vocabulary so that you could  express  yourself better.  But in our society, you have to motivate yourself.

The chances are that your parents have tried to bribe you from  time to time in an effort  to motivate you  to do your best,  but in the last analysis, you have to shock yourself into trying hard.

This chapter concerned some
S T E P S  to
    S U C C E S S  in
        C O L L E G E
                  Verbal Fluency    :
                              vs    :
                               :    Verbatim shadowing,
                               :       Memorizing
           3. . . Selective    :
                  Attention    :
                         vs    Limited vocabulary,
                          :       "street" grammar
     2. . .   Personal    :
            Pragmatism    Wandering mind,
                    vs       competing mental habits
1. . .               :
Right Attitude:      Pre-occupation with personal problems,
  Commitment +          ignorance, and impulsive action
  Optimism +
               vs                                 P I T F A L L Sï
                Doing aimless/hopeless time

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