Archive for September, 2010

Working memory deficits

September 30, 2010

Working memory is the cognitive function responsible for retaining, manipulating and using information. We use working memory to delegate the things we encounter to the parts of our brain that can take action. Because of this, working memory is critical for staying focused on a task, blocking out distractions, and keeping us updated and aware about what’s going on around us.

In the classroom, working memory supports a wide range of learning activities, from reading to science to math. Students who struggle with working memory struggle with classroom activities and frequently fail to complete them properly because their memory can’t hold crucial information that guides their action. As a result, children may not get the benefit of successfully completing an activity, which slows their rate of learning. These children also struggle to engage with the normal pace of ongoing classroom activities because of their inability to follow multi-step directions (they forget the instructions before they complete the whole sequence of actions). Teachers may report that the child isn’t paying attention, when in fact they he or she has simply forgotten what they were supposed to do.

The Centre for Working Memory and Learning at the University of York has compiled a list of characteristics of children with poor working memory. These children typically:

  • Are well-adjusted socially
  • Are reserved in group activities, rarely volunteering answers and sometimes not answering direct questions.
  • Behave as though they have not paid attention, for example forgetting part or all of instructions or messages, or not seeing tasks through to completion
  • Frequently lose their place in complicated tasks that they may eventually abandon
  • Forget the content of messages and instructions
  • Make poor academic progress, particularly in the areas of reading and mathematics
  • Are considered by their teachers to have short attention spans and also to be easily distracted

The Centre has also compiled a useful case study of a child with poor working memory:

Nathan is a 6-year-old boy with an impairment of working memory. His non- verbal IQ is in the normal range. He is a quiet child who is well-behaved in the classroom, and is relatively popular with his peers. He has been placed in the lowest ability groups in both literacy and numeracy. His teacher feels that he often fails to listen to what she says to him, and that he is often ‘in a world of his own’.

In class, Nathan often struggles to keep up with classroom activities. For example, when the teacher wrote on the board ‘Monday 11th November’ and, underneath, ‘The Market’, which was the title of the piece of work, he lost his place in the laborious attempt to copy the words down letter by letter, writing ‘moNemarket’. It appeared that he had started to write the date, forgotten what he was doing and began writing the title instead. He also frequently fails to complete structured learning activities. In one instance, when his teacher handed Nathan his computer login cards and told him to go and work on the computer numbered 13, he failed to do this because he had forgotten the number. On another occasion, Nathan was encouraged to use a number line when counting the number of ducks shown on two cards but struggled to coordinate the act of jumping along the line with counting up to the second number. He abandoned the attempt, solving the sum instead by counting up the total number of ducks on the two cards.

Nathan also has difficulty with activities that combine storage of multiple items with other demanding mental processing. For example, when asked to identify two rhyming words in a four-line text read aloud by the teacher, Nathan was unable to match the sound structures of the pair of words, store them and then recall them when the teacher finished reading the text.

Sound like anyone you know?

Working memory deficits are a characteristic of many kids of learning difficulties, including individuals with language impairments, difficulties in reading, and some forms of attention deficit disorder (ADD or AD/HD). For example, studies have shown that 70% of children with learning difficulties in reading score very low on working memory assessments.

However, as we have previously blogged, working memory deficits are not limited to individuals with diagnosed learning difficulties. For example, one study we referenced identified students who were classified as “typically developing”, but who still struggled with reading, math and general learning due to their working memory deficits. And data in that study showed that 10% of mainstream educated kids have working memory deficits.

The good news is that like other brain processing inefficiencies, we can develop working memory skills with daily exercises for the brain that promote working memory. Just like we exercise our bodies in the gym or on the track to build physical fitness, we can build brain fitness through targeted exercises that adapt to our abilities.

A recent article by Dr. Torkel Klingberg, published in Trends in Cognitive Sciences (link is to abstract only; full article available with subscription) provides an overview of the understanding of the role of working memory, its demonstrated plasticity, and the rationale and feasibility of improving it through training. Dr. Klingberg summarizes the research that supports the importance of plasticity of working memory and the efficacy of working memory training programs on various populations with working memory deficits.

Be Amazing Learning provides solutions that build working memory and brain processing efficiency in other critical cognitive skill areas like processing rates, attention and sequencing. The programs are based on decades of research into brain plasticity, and provide effective, enduring and validated results. For more information, visit our Web site,, or call (800) 792-4809.

Children of the Code

September 29, 2010

Reading is such an incredibly complex task that it’s not notable that some students struggle with reading, but rather miraculous that any of us can read at all. The Children of the Code project calls attention to the problems that we face when our children do not learn to read:

We don’t look at reading difficulties through the lens of how to improve the ‘teaching’ of reading, instead through the lens of ‘understanding the challenges involved in learning to read’ –  from the learner’s perspective.

The Children of the Code web site teems with information about reading challenges from experts in the field, including Sally Shawitz, who has used neuro-imaging to understand the basic nature of reading and reading difficulties, and  Paula Tallal, whose foundational research into the link between oral and written language led to the development of Fast ForWord.

At Be Amazing Learning, we are committed to offering individualized, validated solutions for students who are struggling with reading. We are intrigued with depth and breadth of interviews on the Children of the Code site from experts in the fields of neuroscience, cognitive psychology, linguistics, instructional design, literacy, and teaching. If you have an interest in reading difficulties you should take a look at this great site.

Building reading fluency with repeated reading

September 28, 2010

From the Report of the National Reading Panel: Teaching Children to Read:

Fluent readers are able to read orally with speed, accuracy, and proper expression. Fluency is one of several critical factors necessary for reading comprehension. Despite its importance as a component of skilled reading, fluency is often neglected in the classroom. This is unfortunate. If text is read in a laborious and inefficient manner, it will be difficult for the child to remember what has been read and to relate the ideas expressed in the text to his or her background knowledge. Recent research on the efficacy of certain approaches to teaching fluency has led to increased recognition of its importance in the classroom and to changes in instructional practices.

So how do we move students from decoding to reading fluency?

One excellent for developing reading fluency is called repeated reading. Repeated reading allows a student to get practice with expression, speed, and accuracy. Repeated reading allows the student to become comfortable by reading the same text more than once, while synthesizing all of the components of reading fluency.

Be Amazing Learning offers programs to help students practice reading fluency at home in a systematic way. Reading Assistant, from Scientific Learning, uses the strategy of repeated reading to help children and teens become fluent readers.

With Reading Assistant, students preview text and read it silently. Then they listen to a model reading of the text.  Voice recognition software records their multiple readings of the text, calculating rate and words correct per minute. Along the way, students answer guided reading questions that check for passage comprehension. Reading Assistant even helps when the student is unfamiliar with vocabulary.

Be Amazing Learning offers Reading Assistant, typically in concert with the Fast ForWord programs, which build foundational cognitive and language skills and promote brain processing efficiency. Our comprehensive approach can help students gain reading fluency and maximize their potential.

For more information, visit our Web site at or call (800) 792-4809

The “Good Enough” Baby

September 27, 2010

We have to be able to laugh at ourselves once in a while, right?  Comedian Andy Borwitz shares parenting advice in the New Yorker:

As new parents, we hold ourselves to impossibly high standards. We settle for second or third best when we buy a house or a car, and, when it comes to choosing a spouse, ninth best will often do. And yet, for some reason, we throw this time-tested principle out the window when we have a baby. We try to be “perfect” parents and raise the “perfect” baby, even if that means taking care of the baby “all the time.”

Borwitz says while “raising a perfect baby is impossible, raising a ‘good enough baby’ is surprisingly easy”, then proceeds with his “Good Enough Baby Checklist”, which includes “Is my baby clean enough” and “Is my baby well fed enough.” The most amusing to us was “Is my baby stimulated enough?”:

During the past few decades, early-development “experts” have stressed the importance of so-called “enrichment activities”: reading to babies, singing to them, even talking to them. We are now finding that these activities, in addition to being excruciating for the parent, may actually be harmful to the baby, lengthening her attention span to the point where she will be unable to enjoy most popular entertainment. Fortunately, there’s a simple way to reverse this damage, using a system I call FIT (Facebook, iPhone, TV). By exposing your baby to these three things for as many hours as possible, you’ll insure that she’ll be well equipped for a lifetime of pointless multitasking. Quick test: Put your hands in front of your eyes and play peekaboo with your baby. If she ignores you and picks up your phone, reward her with her favorite app.

This is all pretty important stuff says Borwitz: “When you have a baby, you are bringing a human being into this world, and you are responsible for that human being for the next five or six years.”

Chunking language

September 26, 2010

Any article that begins with a reference to They Might Be Giants (or, as they are called in our house, “Maybe They’re Giants”) is going to catch our attention. NY Times language writer Ben Zimmer cites his son’s mastery of TMBG lyrics when he tackles fixed phrases in a recent articleMake yourself at home. He points out that:

Ritualized moments of everyday communication — greeting someone, answering a telephone call, wishing someone a happy birthday — are full of these canned phrases that we learn to perform with rote precision at an early age. Words work as social lubricants in such situations, and a language learner like Blake is primarily getting a handle on the pragmatics of set phrases in English, or how they create concrete effects in real-life interactions. The abstract rules of sentence structure are secondary.

Recent research into language acquisition is focusing on these fixed phrases or  “lexical chunks” – meaningful strings of words that we memorize:

Chunks may consist of fixed idioms or conventional speech routines, but they can also simply be combinations of words that appear together frequently, in patterns that are known as “collocations.”

Not everyone is sold on chunking for learning language. Zimmer cites the research of lexical-chunking critic Michael Swan:

Though he acknowledges, as he told me in an e-mail, that “high-priority chunks need to be taught,” he worries that “the ‘new toy’ effect can mean that formulaic expressions get more attention than they deserve, and other aspects of language — ordinary vocabulary, grammar, pronunciation and skills — get sidelined.” … Formulaic language is all well and good when talking about the familiar and the recurrent, he argues, but it is inadequate for dealing with novel ideas and situations, where the more open-ended aspects of language are paramount.

Technology in the classroom

September 25, 2010

Last week’s NY Times Magazine was dedicated to the interface between technology and education. As purveyors of computer-assisted learning, we were naturally intrigued.

The Times’ included a history of technology in the classroom that starts with the Horn Book, a wooden paddle with printed lessons that was introduced circa 1650, and ends with the iPad (a 21st century Horn Book of sorts), which the Times speculates may replace the textbook. Along the course of history was the chalkboard (1890), the pencil (1900) and Liquid Paper (really? technology?) (1960).

The use of technology to assist with learning is obviously not new. And since the time of the Horn Book, educators have probably wondered whether technology would, at some point, replace them at the front of the classroom. Recent developments in online learning are certainly challenging the traditional nature of how we learn.

Thirty years ago, we wrote papers out by hand. Today, students can type them and submit them by email. Technology has improved the efficiency of this process, but it hasn’t really changed the nature of the process itself. A program like Fast ForWord, improves learning by using technology to accomplish something that wasn’t previously possible. For example, for students who struggle to accurately process brief consonant sounds in English, the program acoustically modifies the short and soft consonant sounds to make them more pronounced. You and I can’t do this. (Try it. Say the word “cat” slowly. It comes out “C-a-a-a-a-a-t”, and all you’ve done is make the vowel sound longer.) But with an algorithm applied to digitized speech, the Fast ForWord program can isolate the consonant sound, make it louder and longer. And then it can present the modified sounds in thousands of precisely adapted trials that ensure that each student is challenged appropriately to promote learning.

Technology in the classroom is great. And learning to navigate technology is a life skill. But when it comes down to using technology to promote learning in new and different ways, programs like Fast ForWord stand out from the crowd.

Getting to the root of reading comprehension struggles

September 24, 2010

We hear from parents a lot that their child does just fine with the mechanics of reading (decoding, spelling, etc.), but struggles with comprehension. Reading comprehension is a difficult task, as it represents the synthesis of so many language and literacy skills, from phonemic awareness to sequencing and working memory. As such, it takes time and a lot of practice to develop reading comprehension skills.

It’s important to note, however, that while kids may be struggling with comprehension, the root cause of their struggle may be more foundational in nature. For example, a child may decode well, but if his brain is working overtime on decoding, there may just not be anything left when it comes time to comprehend what he’s just read. Comprehension requires things like a working memory that’s developed enough to remember the beginning of a sentence when you get to the end. Or the first sentence of a paragraph when you get to the last. But if we can get a child’s brain to process more efficiently, the mechanics of reading become easier, which frees up energy for more complex tasks like comprehension.

The good news is that we can help kids’ brains process more efficiently. Just like we exercise our bodies in the gym or on the track to build physical fitness, we can build brain fitness through targeted exercises that adapt to our abilities.

Be Amazing Learning provides solutions that build brain processing efficiency in critical cognitive skill areas like working memory, processing rates, attention and sequencing. The programs are based on decades of research into brain plasticity, and provide effective, enduring and validated results in just 3-4 months. If comprehension is a struggle for your young reader, visit our Web site at or call (800) 792-4809 for more information.

“Lives have been changed!”

September 23, 2010

Fantastic article in the Vancouver Sun about schools in British Columbia that have adopted Fast ForWord programs to help students who are struggling with language and literacy.

Great quote from Sandy Collins, the speech-language pathologist who is overseeing the implementation:

We had interventions and we’d done lots of wonderful things, but we couldn’t do what computers can do. We can’t synthesize our speech, slow it down, stretch it out and emphasize the various elements that need to be emphasized. I couldn’t quite believe it myself when I started working with the program. It was doing things that I had thought for years, ‘if only I could do that.’

Get those kids out and run them!

September 22, 2010

The NY Times Well blog compiles recent research into the link between physical fitness and academic performance. We have previously highlighted research with rats that indicated that rigorous exercise improved performance on an avoidance task, but these new studies have looked at school kids, and not just their performance on tests but physical changes in their brains.

  • A study at the University of Illinois compared performance on a cognitive test between higher and lower fit 9 and 10 year old students. The higher-fit students performed better on the test, and brain scans indicated they had larger basal ganglia, a part of the brain responsible for impulse control and response resolution.
  • A second study by the same researchers compared performance on complex memory tasks between high fit and low fit 9 and 10 year olds. The study found better performance in high fit students, and brain scans showed larger hippocampi, the portion of the brain associated with complex memory tasks.

The authors of the two studies highlight the importance of the findings: “Because children are becoming overweight, unhealthy and unfit, understanding the neurocognitive benefits of an active lifestyle in childhood has important public health and educational implications.” In other words, keep the funding in place for physical education in schools!

Want to learn? Forget what you know!

September 21, 2010

In time for the back to school season, the New York Times highlights new research into the dos and don’ts of studying:

  • DON’T find a specific place to do all of your studying. The brain makes subtle associations between what you’re studying and background sensations. More variation in the background gives the information more “neural scaffolding.”
  • DO mix up your studying. Just like athletes mix strength, speed and skill training in their workouts, students should vary the type of material they study in a given study session.
  • DON’T cram for tests. Scientists say this is akin to cramming a cheap suitcase full of clothes before a trip. It’ll all fit in there, but it will all spill out before long. Space your studying to improve later recall.
  • DO embrace those tests. Scientists say the act of taking a test fundamentally changes the way information is stored in the brain in a way that makes it more accessible in the future.

We’ve got one more do to add (thought it wasn’t in the Times summary): DO ensure your child’s brain is processing at peak efficiency. Smart kids whose brains aren’t processing efficiently will struggle with even the best curriculum delivered by the very best teachers. The good news is that we can improve brain processing efficiency with programs like Fast ForWord. It’s not easy, but Be Amazing Learning can help. Give us a call!

%d bloggers like this: