My sunflower

I shed a little tear for my boy yesterday…

We spent the weekend alone together. After a tiring first week of school, On Saturday I took him to our capital city, Edinburgh as a treat.

We spent 12.5 hours in, on or admiring transport. Riding on the city tram, trains (a particular type he had been longing for), buses, and watching aeroplanes. I planned our route and sequence of stops, and then he devised a better one.

I tested him at the main station. It’s big, it's busy. 20 platforms handling 21 million passengers per year. I bought the ticket and worked out what time we would be catching a train. Armed with the information about the next stop and the time, I challenged him to go and read the departure boards, work out which train it was, get the platform number, then find the platform and take us there. He succeeded perfectly.

Then we went to a Chinese restaurant he specially requested - where he ate fries 🍟 and onion rings! It was a buffet, so I had not much choice but to leave him alone at our table while I got my food.

Towards the end of the meal the lady on the next table leaned over and told me what a delight to see a child so beautifully behaved. We're often told that.

And here's what I've realised: the more I allow him to spread his wings and grow, the more beautiful he becomes. He is my sunflower, reaching for the sky. 🌻

edan.jpg

Despite an epic Saturday, on Sunday he wanted to see trains 🚂 again at the local station; we ended up staying several hours. He read all the information boards, decided which trains to see, found the platforms. We went over the bridge and under the underpass. We went up the stairs and down in the lift (elevator). He predicted the engine types, and as the trains came passing through the station he read the name plates to me and decided if he'd seen them before. "Sir John Franklin", "City of Manchester", "Treaty of Union" and so on and so on.

He told passers-by all about them, whether they wanted to know or not! He observed all the safety rules, even though his boundless enthusiasm was constantly threatening to break into uncontrollable excitement.

And that's when it hit me. My little boy is only four; he is locked into his passion for trains, but he just keeps amazing me. A tear rolled down my cheek.

I was confused, I didn't really know what emotion I was feeling.
He is my startling, fragile little whirlwind. 💜

My wife pinpointed it later for me: just an overwhelming sense of protection, not just for now, but probably for all that is to come.

Maybe this is why some kids can read long complicated words and trip up on short easy ones

A study of word confusability and similarity for whole-word readers

This article doesn't claim to be a valid scientific study, none-the-less it was interesting to do, and, essentially, perform as a thought experiment. 

One of the things I have noticed with my own son and lots of comments from other parents of early readers, gifted and potentially hyperlexic children, is that such children astonishingly read (recognise) long complex words (such as "galaxy" and "knowledge") with ease, yet sometimes (perhaps even often) get tripped up on short "simple" words, such as "one" and "many". The question is, what is the explanation for this, as it seems to defy logic?

I happen to have a background in the field of speech recognition (in computers) and there are factors of that field which boil down to the problem of recognising and distinguishing words from each other. So, I was eventually moved to perform some kind of analysis investigating this. I don't know if this is original or even valid research, but it was fun to do. 

How do early readers, read?

The first thing to be aware of is two broad types of reading (and reading-teaching) methods: phonics and "whole word" (or whole language). Phonics concerns the systematic pronunciation of the component sounds of a word to reach the whole. Whole-word does what is says on the tin: the reader either memorises or deduces the whole word in one step. (As adults we tend to read like this). 

My anecdotal conversations suggest that early readers are one or the other: some early readers display/develop/self-teach a phonic approach, and the remainder, it's the whole world. (In the case of my own son, it's "whole word"). In my anecdotal evidence, the most startling early readers are "whole word" because even at age 3 or 4, obscure words of 8, 10, 12 or more letters can be decoded instantly. 

Since whole-word readers essentially memorise and recognise entire words, it begs the question: given that they handle complex words with ease, why do they sometimes get tripped up on short words?

It's possible to come up with lots of theories involving visual processing disorders, dyslexic conditions, motivation (laziness) and so on. However, I theorised about a more empirical factor: if children appear to recognise short words less-well, is it simply because short words are less memorable/more confusable?  

(Confusability, in various forms, is a factor we have to deal with on a regular basis in speech recognition, which prompted my thinking.) 

Mr. Levenshtein, meet Dr. Fry.

Before we get to the analysis, I need to introduce two things. The first is the Fry Sight Word list. I don't seem to be able to find out much about Dr. Fry directly on the internet, but many educational websites cite the fact he created a list of the most popular and common English words in literature, originally in the 50's but since updated. 

If these are the most common words that a child is going to see, then it seemed to make sense to evaluate what levels of "confusability" exists among them. 

Top 50 Fry Sight words

Top 50 Fry Sight words

Next we meet Mr. Levenshtein; or at least his algorithm, which provides a way to calculate the number of single character edits to transform one word into another. To put that another way, it gives a measure of word similarity - small Levenshtein distances between words means they are more textually similar than those with large distances.  

We should note that Levenshtein distance only tells us about textual character difference (structure), which is certainly useful when computers are comparing words. It doesn't necessarily tell us how similar words are through the eyes of a child (e.g. geometry), but it's a good starting point. 

Analysis

Analysis Summary

Analysis Summary

To perform the analysis, I took a set of "sample words"  and calculated the Levenshtein distance against between each of those words and every word in the "Fry Sight List".
I compared the sample words against the full Fry list (1000 words) and also against the top 150, and plotted the distribution of Levenshtein distances obtained. 

What this effectively tells us is "how similar is the target word to the most common words in the language". We might postulate that the more similar a word is to others, the more likely it could be confused - i.e. the less likely to stand out as unique. Or conversely, a greater cognitive load required to uniquely recognise it.

I plotted the results for "one" "many" "who" (all identified as "trip up" words), plus "galaxy" and "knowledge" (indentfied as easily-recalled words). 

To interpret the chart, the height of each bar tells you by what amount the target word differed from how much of the Fry's list. So, for example, a 50% at marker 3 means the word differed by 3 single-character transformations against 50% of the Fry list. 

Compared against 1000 top words, we see that "one" "many" and "who" are clustered around the 3,4 and 5 mark for Levenshtein distance. Indeed, this level of "similarity" captures up to 80% of the top 1000 words. In contrast, "galaxy" is typically different by around 6 - 7 letters, and "knowledge" even more different around 8 - 9 mark.

The effect is even more pronounced when comparing the sample words against the top 150 Fry words. (Again, many websites reference the claim that just 100 words make up almost half of all written material).  Indeed it's likely a child doesn't compare the word they are reading against their whole vocabulary, but will prune their recognition against a vocabulary that's filtered down to a smaller, similar set. Or to put it another way, they will most consciously compare a four letter words against the 3, 4 and 5 letter words in their vocabulary, and not the 8, 9, 10 letter words, which will be discarded subconsciously. 

In this case the profile of the sample words is more pronounced - the short words compare against the top 150 mainly in the 2,3,4 range (anything in 1 and 2 is certainly highly confusable). And the long, complex words now stand out as being significantly different - and thus, we presume easier to recognise uniquely within the given vocabulary.

Summary

There are of course weaknesses to this analysis:

1) it doesn't consider word geometry or font, which may make some words look more similar than others irrespective of Levenshtein distance, which considers the text only

2) The Fry Sight list is really only a arbitrary representation of the vocabulary an early reader might know. To some extent, by definition, this list is insufficient, because the words that early readers surprise their parents, carers and observers by knowing, are the long irregular words.

3) It would be useful to perform the analysis against a bigger vocabulary but of words the same length as the sample word - this might better match the process a child follows when recognising the word (pruning out the obviously non-similar words)

Notwithstanding, the comparison of sample words against the Fry Sight Word list shows statistically significant disparity in similarity between the shorter words than the longer words. At 1000 words long, the Fry Sight list offers statistical significance to the comparison.  

The result is not really surprising. As we might expect, there are more short words in the vocabulary, therefore more possibility of similarity and confusion. 

 

 

What's Daddy doing with that Big Orange Thing

A poem to celebrate the fascination of a toddler, before it disappears...

I want to know what's happening!

I want to know what's happening!

So there was I, cutting the grass.
And there was he, slapping the glass.
He was slightly forlorn as I paced the lawn,
Following me close with each pass

He wanted to see the machine 
Making grass look so short and so green.
Delighted to see the big bin
Where dad chucked the grass cuttings in.

On the window he slapped,
Applauded and clapped,
With a very wide grin 
He couldn't keep in.

I've never felt quite so adored 
Doing jobs where I'm usually bored.
Feelings of great fascination;
A young boy's complete admiration.

I'll enjoy this, it won't last forever;
One day daddy won't seem so clever.
So I'll take all I possibly can
Of the innocent love of wee man

On the birth of baby Edan (4th Feb 2013)

2013 Edan Feb-0041-ex-LR.jpg

Well - what a day. Is it dram-o-clock yet?

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The most important thing is to thank everyone that has sent their good wishes by almost every means possible barring winged beast. I've struggled to keep up at times, and as a bare minimum at least have tried to "like" facebook messages, if not reply more fully. If somehow in the collage of today's events I have missed a direct thank you, please consider yourself now thanked.

I never quite realised how surreal that transition from in-utero to ex-utero would be - it feels like such a pivotal moment, rather than merely a continuation of the predicted time-line. Well, it did to me. The day was not without its anxiety and Helen can only be commended for her wilful endurance.

My final words are for baby Edan after his first 12 hours amongst the "muggles" - it is, after all, a strange, and sometimes frightening, old world. But that's the hand he has been dealt, and perhaps he may have to play his role in it for 100 years, give or take. So here goes, straight from the heart:

first snuggles

first snuggles

At last you are here wee man. What a journey it has been; what emotions we have ridden along the way. We could not be happier. You are our beautiful miracle child and we will love you always. 

Be unique

Love and be loved

Dance and laugh like tomorrow depended on it

And never forget that we are your rock - on that rock your world is built. Xxxx