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- Buckminster Fuller

Monday, April 25, 2011

Nell Assignment

Nell Response

April 24, 2011

By Daniel Kurland

Psychology 231

Dr. ***

Nell is a movie about a young woman named Nell, who was raised in near total isolation by an elderly hermit, deep in the woods of North Carolina, in a virtual paradise. Nell lives in a cabin by a lake surrounded by miles of open space. She was discovered surviving alone in her mother’s cabin, after her mother was found to have died of natural causes. Given her delayed language and social skills, Nell was presumed by some experts to be incapable of living in society without support. She became the subject of a study, wherein it was determined that Nell’s language delays could be explained in terms of the hybrid theory of language development. According to the hybrid theory of language development, “how language is acquired depends on the circumstances.” (Berger, p. 175)

Nell’s psychological support plan (PSP) is based on the Hybrid Theory of language development. The Hybrid Theory unifies three different theories, each of which can help to explain the special circumstances under which Nell’s language delays developed:

· Theory One: language must be taught.

· Theory Two: language is self-taught, a function of brain maturation.

· Theory Three: the purpose of language is to communicate; in-short, language is a by-product of social interaction.

Both Nell’s language delays, and her striking achievements, can be explained in terms of the Hybrid Theory of language development. First, Nel’s recently deceased mother, Violet Kelty, had suffered paralysis to one side of her face due to a stroke. Consequently, Ms. Kelty had impaired speech; Nell, having never heard normal speech, consistently dropped the very same consonants that her mother had been unable to articulate. Through a painstaking analysis of tape recordings, Dr. Olsen noticed that, although Nell was consistently “dropping consonants,” she was in fact speaking a dialect of English. Second, lacking a model for Standard English, Nell created her own dialect. As a twin, Nell developed private vocabulary, eg., “Chick-a-bee” and other invented words that others mistook for gibberish. By inventing words, Nell demonstrated “self-righting” behavior. (Berger, p. 134) Third, life-long social isolation provided limited affordances to communicate and socially interact with anybody outside of her mother and, as a child, with her since deceased twin sister. Hidden from daylight, lacking a compelling social reason to communicate with anyone but her mother, a recluse, after her sister died, Nell was left to hold conversations with herself, especially after her sister died.

Dr. Lovell and Dr. Olsen, who developed the psychological profile of Nell for the Court, used a number of strategies based on the Hybrid Theory of language development that enabled them to reach Nell within her Zone of Proximal Development. First, Dr. Lovell, like an effective parent-teacher, provided lots of affordances for Nell to help her communicate with him. Dr. Lovell listened and spoke to her frequently, employing lots of gestures and emotion. Plus, he read aloud to her, using tonality, inviting engagement like a good parent-teacher. Similarly, “[t]he frequency of maternal responsiveness at 9 months” has been shown to be a predictor of language acquisition later. (Berger, p. 172) Providing lots of positive reinforcement to a language learner is precisely what learning theory recommends. Second, through language analysis, Dr. Olsen was able to unravel Nell’s vocabulary and grammar. In doing so, she was able to determine that Nell was logical. Nell’s self-taught, not explicitly taught grammar was entirely logical, which supports Chomsky’s idea of a “universal grammar.” Since language development is both experience-expectant and experience dependent, the team realized that Nell’s brain would have lacked sufficient experiences at critical stages to develop grammar sense had she not been exposed to language from infancy – Nell was not as severely stunted as some of the experts originally feared. (Berger, p.132) In short, Nell was teachable. Third, the team used language to communicate with Nell and motivate her to attain a sense of urgency. The team was unsure whether they could motivate her to learn Standard English in time to save her from being institutionalized. After Dr. Olsen began unraveling Nell’s vocabulary, the team began to recognize Nell’s biblical and other references she had learned from her mother. In one instance, realizing that her family Bible was missing, Nell complained to Dr. Lovell, “Word of Lord gone away.” By asking Dr. Lovell to read from a biblical passage, Nell taught him about her culture, about what was most important to her. Similarly, Dr. Lovell wanted to communicate to Nell that she was in grave danger of being exploited by society, but Nell’s understanding of society was extremely limited, beyond what she had learned from her mother and the Bible about “evil-doers.” Thus, he and Dr. Olsen guided Nell in a gradual introduction to modern society by taking her to town. As Hybrid Theory recommends, the team used a variety of tools to teach Nell how to speak English, the most powerful of which was raw human emotion.

Although Nell managed to avoid institutionalization by demonstrating mental competence to the Court, her unique circumstances require a comprehensive plan for continued guidance and support (Nell’s PSP). In addition to the mentoring and family structure provided by Dr. Lovell and Dr. Olsen, here are 5 specific recommendations for Nell’s continuing education under a learning plan.

  1. Speech Therapy: Nell will require intensive speech therapy to develop fine motor skills with her tongue and mouth and thus fix her word pronunciations; part of that therapy will involve placing Nell in fun situations where she is afforded opportunities to listen to and speak with young people her age.

  1. Core Curriculum of Reading, Writing, and Mathematics: Nell will need to learn about both academic and social routines of school. Since reading is a gateway skill, Nell will need to be read to several times per day. She will also need to learn the alphabet. Computer-based reading programs can offer both motivation and structure. To help build phonemic awareness, she might be encouraged to read and listen to Dr. Seuss. Writing is also a gateway skill. She should learn how to properly write letters (Handwriting Without Tears), and should be guided through various stages of learning writing (Lucy Caulkins model). Nell will need to learn about Mathematics, and will need to begin by developing number sense – an Investigations style program will provide the best opportunities to learn algebraic patterns.

  1. Vocabulary Development Routines (background knowledge). Since vocabulary is needed to help raise levels of thought, Word Study Routines based on Fountas and Pinnel plus Words Their Way.

  1. Cultural awareness: Nell needs to be exposed to music, art, and dance. She needs to go on lots of field trips to the theatre, to art galleries, museums, and live performances. She should be afforded opportunities to work with many different types of materials in a variety of venues – this will provide her motivations to engage in social interaction and communicate.

  1. Multiple-Intelligences: Given her age and lack of formal education, Nell is unlikely to fit in within a traditional school setting. She might do best in a program that affords opportunities to move and interact with the environment, such as an Outward Bound style program.


Berger, K. S. (2008). The developing person through the lifespan. New York: Worth.

Foster, J., Missel, R., Place, G. (Producers). Apted, M. (Director). (1994). Nell [Motion picture]. United States: 20th Century Fox.