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Misunderstood Minds
Stories from the Documentary:
Nathan V. Lauren Sarah Lee Adam Nathan S.
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 Sarah Lee  Sarah Lee's teachers noticed her difficulty responding to questions, even when she knew the answers.

Sarah Lee's Story


Sarah Lee Harris grew up in Harlem, NY, the youngest child in an ambitious and supportive family. From the beginning of her school career, she showed remarkable promise. Sarah Lee's teachers described her as a strong student, motivated, a natural leader, and highly verbal.

But in the fourth grade, something changed. The girl who had always been responsive began to hold back in class. The first sign of a problem was detected by Sarah Lee's history teacher, who noticed a dichotomy between her in-class reticence and difficulty and her verbal ability outside of class. Sarah Lee herself noticed that she was often tongue-tied in class; even when she knew the answer and wanted to speak up, she had difficulty expressing herself. Embarrassed by the struggle to speak in class, she withdrew.

Sarah Lee's mother requested an evaluation, and the school's resource teacher brought Sarah Lee to the office of speech and language specialist Donna Orloff. There, Sarah Lee was given a series of basic language skill tests that revealed a strong command of single words, basic language, and concrete ideas. But identifying more abstract ideas and using expressive language were harder. She had difficulty developing her vocabulary and retrieving words. For students like Sarah Lee, an expressive language deficiency often surfaces for the first time in fourth grade, when reading and language requirements shift from the concrete ideas and stories of the primary grades to more abstract ideas and representations. One way in which Sarah Lee's difficulty with expressive language manifested itself was in her problem answering questions in the classroom, particularly when the question required her to make new mental connections among abstract ideas.

A full and ongoing language immersion program was prescribed, giving Sarah Lee the extra practice that she needed in reading, cultivating a stronger vocabulary, developing abstract thinking skills, and expressing herself. Within a year, she had made significant improvements, making regular contributions in class and speaking more confidently. Sarah Lee's reading scores also showed a dramatic increase in her understanding of abstract ideas.

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