Archive for the ‘Fast ForWord’ Category

Brain training games rise in popularity

December 27, 2010

From the San Jose Mercury News:

The idea of “brain training” has been gaining popularity since a 2006 study from the National Institutes of Health suggested that a cognitive training program can have lasting, though narrow, benefits. Numerous companies are touting products such as online games and software packages designed to improve mental sharpness and memory. More are sure to be developed as the number of users, both in the classroom and at home, continues to grow.

The article cites Alvaro Fernandez,CEO of market research firm SharpBrains. Fernandez “estimates that consumers spent about $70 million on them last year, up 40 percent from $50 million in 2008. Schools, employers and health care companies spent more than $200 million in 2009.”

The article focuses primarily on aging populations, who, according to Fernandez, generally chose a brain fitness program out of a desire to stave off age-induced mental decline, or to treat a brain injury or problem. At Be Amazing Learning, we have worked with older learners, but our focus tends to be the beginning of life: building brain fitness abilities (working memory, processing speeds, sustained attention abilities) as a foundation for future academic success.

It’s worth noting, however, that there are similarities between programs designed for young and older learners. In fact, the Posit Science programs that are mentioned in the article, are based on some of the same technology and research that are behind the Fast ForWord programs that we offer for young learners (Dr. Michael Merzenich, the founder of Posit Science, was one of the founders of Scientific Learning, which created the Fast ForWord programs.)

The Mercury News article closes with great advice: do your research before investing in a brain fitness solution. We have previously linked to SharpBrains’ 10 question evaluation of brain fitness programs. It’s definitely worth a look.

Working memory and reading comprehension

November 29, 2010

Reading comprehension is a complex task requiring the synthesis of several cognitive functions:

  • Sequencing is critical for making meaning from text (the sentence “Man bites dog” has a very different meaning from “Dog bites man”).
  • Processing speed must be developed for the brain must be able to successfully process visual and auditory stimuli associated with reading
  • Working memory must be sufficiently developed 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.

Several studies have looked at the impact of Fast ForWord, a training program designed to improve these critical cognitive skills. One that we like a lot looked at reading comprehension improvements in middle and high school students in the Dallas Independent School District. The students made a 22-month gain in age-equivalent reading scores after just 6 months of training.

A recent study, published in May 2010 in the Journal Reading and Writing (link is to abstract only) examined the impact of Cogmed Working Memory Training on reading comprehension abilities. The study also examined the relationship between working memory and reading achievement, hypothesizing that working memory problems can be a root cause of poor reading comprehension. The researchers found Cogmed training to significantly improve reading comprehension development, and working memory measures were shown to “be related with children’s word reading and reading comprehension.”

Having a brain that can efficiently process the visual and auditory inputs that take place during reading is critical for successful comprehension. Students whose brains are not processing efficiently can struggle with reading comprehension. But research shows that programs, such as Fast ForWord and Cogmed, that build efficiency in skills such as processing rates and working memory can have a positive impact on comprehension abilities.

High Schooler Reading at 2nd Grade Level Goes to College After Fast ForWord

November 18, 2010

Articles about educational programs in scientific journals are generally concerned with significant, measurable and repeatable effects on a large pool of subjects. They’re focused on improvements in scores on standardized assessments or, increasingly, physical changes in the brain that can be established by before and after imaging using fMRI.

The measured results of Fast ForWord training are impressive. From the initial university research that led to the development of the programs to the over 1 million students around the world who have now used Fast ForWord programs, students have and continue to make significant gains in critical learning skills after short, intense training with Fast ForWord programs. For details, check out Scientific Learning’s databases of measured user results.

But sometimes it’s the anecdotal results that can be most compelling. Take, for example, this recently publicized story of a high school student who went from struggling reader to scholarship football player after using Fast ForWord:

When Kenny Hilliard reached high school, he was a gifted football player; he was not a gifted student. He was reading at the level of a second grader and struggled in all of his academic courses. School district officials in St. Mary Parish, Louisiana, originally put him on a GED track, hoping he could earn a general high school equivalency diploma instead of a traditional diploma. But today, Kenny is looking forward to not only graduating from Patterson High School with the traditional diploma, but also to attending LSU on a football scholarship.

“What changed is that Kenny did a computer program called Fast ForWord,” said Patterson High School Principal, Rachael Wilson. “He is such a talented football player, and his talents can carry him far, but recruiters are looking for kids who have talent and good grades. The first two questions recruiters ask me are ‘What kind of kid is he?’ and ‘What kind of grades does he make?’ Thanks to the progress Kenny made in Fast ForWord, he does not need to rely on athletic talent alone.”

“Before Kenny did Fast ForWord, I was worried sick that he would drop out of school,” said Brenda Hilliard, Kenny’s mother. “I knew something was different when he began reading on his own. I’d find him reading sports magazines. I knew then, that he was actually understanding what he was reading. Now he’s going to college. I am so proud of him.”

Aside from the fact that we generally cheer for the Pac-10 over the SEC here at Be Amazing Learning, this is pretty cool stuff.

What’s going on in there? A look inside the teenage brain

November 12, 2010

Research tells us that significant brain development occurs in the first few years of life: the brain reaches 95% of its adult size by age 6.

But recent brain studies show that significant brain development occurs around adolescence. Up to age 12, the brain is adding gray matter (or, to put it more technically, “cortical thickness” increases), at which point, gray matter begins to thin, as the brain prunes connections that developed in childhood, but are no longer deemed necessary.

The PBS series Frontline recently dedicated a show to the teenage brain. The show’s Web site is loaded with content, including the transcript of interviews with several researchers who are looking at the development of the teenage brain. One in particular that caught our eye is with Dr. Jay Giedd, a neuroscientist at the National Institute of Mental Health. Dr. Giedd is focused on how to turn what we’re learning about the brain into practical advice for parents, teachers and teenagers. Now that we have established the concept of brain plasticity, says Giedd, researchers are turning to:

… the forces that can guide this plasticity. How do we optimize the brain’s ability to learn? Are schools doing a good job? Are we as parents doing a good job? And the challenge now is to … bridging the gap between neuroscience and practical advice for parents, teachers and society. We’re not there yet, but we’re closer than ever, and it’s really an exciting time in neuroscience.

At Be Amazing Learning, we regularly work with teenagers who themselves (or whose parents) are looking for solutions for their developing brains. In many cases, these teens have difficulty planning, organizing, and paying attention to and remembering details. Cogmed and Fast ForWord programs can be effective interventions for children and teens with these “executive function” deficits because they develop and strengthen the cognitive skills associated with successful executive function, including working memory, attention and processing rates.

The Frontline series on the teenage brain is fantastic, and there’s a bunch of information available on the show Web site. We’ll be highlighting additional interviews in future posts.

Music on the brain

November 9, 2010

The relationship between music and language (and to a degree, overall academic performance) has been explored extensively in the research. We’ve previously posted on the topic (and have also posted on why it’s so hard to shake a song that’s stuck in your head, which isn’t really as academically important, but is interesting…).

Most parents are familiar with the so-called Mozart Effect, wherein exposure to music (or more specifically, classical music) (or even more specifically music written by Mozart) (or if  you really want to get down to brass tacks, the first movement “allegro con spirito” of the Mozart Sonata KV 448 for Two Pianos in D Major) can improve academic performance. The idea was born out of a 1993 study published in Nature that reported that individuals who listened to the Mozart Sonata scored significantly higher on standard ized tests of abstract/spatial reasoning ability than those who were instructed to relax or those who just sat there in silence.

Listening to music we like does make us feel good, which, in turn, increases focus and attention, which improves performance on many tests of mental sharpness. According to an article in the Racine Journal Times, some studies have shown “improvement in the kind of mental skills we use in doing complex math problems, interpreting driving directions and pondering how to fit a large bookcase in the trunk of a small car.”

But the idea that simply listening to music will have a profound and lasting effect on academic performance has generally been dismissed. (For a thorough analysis of the shortcomings of the initial research, check out this post at the Sharp Brains blog). Instead, researchers (including, says the Journal Times, those who conducted the original “Mozart Effect” study) have shifted to focus on the cognitive effect of learning to make music. Says the Journal Times: “If you want music to sharpen your senses, boost your ability to focus and perhaps even improve your memory, the latest word from science is you’ll need more than hype and a loaded iPod. You gotta get in there and play. Or sing, bang or pluck.”

Learning to make music engages and demands coordination among many brain regions, including those that process sights, sounds, emotions and memories, says Dr. Gottfried Schlaug, a Harvard University neurologist.

Years ago, Schlaug found a glaring and suggestive difference between the brains of 30 professional musicians and 30 non-musician adults of matched age and gender.

In the musicians, the bundle of connective fibers that carry messages between the brain’s right and left hemispheres – a structure called the corpus callosum – was larger and denser on average than that of their non-musical peers. The brawnier bridge was particularly notable toward the rear of the brain, at the crossing that links areas responsible for sensory perception and voluntary movement.

It suggested not only that musicians might be able to more nimbly react to incoming information but also that their brains might be more resilient and adaptable, allowing right and left hemispheres, which specialize in separate functions, to work better together.

Schlaug and colleagues also found that the musicians who had begun their musical training before the age of 7 showed the most pronounced differences – suggesting an early start might rewire the brain most dramatically.

Over at the New Science of Learning Blog, Dr. William Jenkins (one of the neuroscientists behind the Fast ForWord programs), highlights a recent article, Music Training for the Development of Auditory Skills by Nina Kraus and Bharath Chandrasekaran, that examines three specific areas of brain function where music training positively affects function:
  • Transfer of cognitive skills: Music has been shown to affect how the brain processes pitch, timing and timbre. Along with describing music, these are also key elements of speech and language—that are positively affected by musical training.
  • Fine tuning of auditory skills: “Musicians, compared with non-musicians, more effectively represent the most meaningful, information-bearing elements in sounds — for example, the segment of a baby’s cry that signals emotional meaning, the upper note of a musical chord or the portion of the Mandarin Chinese pitch contour that corresponds to a note along the diatonic musical scale.” While music does not appear to affect visual memory or attention, research shows that it does affect auditory verbal memory and auditory attention.
  • Better recognition of “regularities”: The human brain is wired to filter regular predictable patterns out from the noise surrounding us (e.g., we can pick out a friend’s voice in a room filled with many other sounds and voices.) Musical training enhances this cognitive ability.

Based on this information, Kraus and Chandresekaran argue “that active engagement with music promotes an adaptive auditory system that is crucial for the development of listening skills. An adaptive auditory system that continuously regulates its activity based on contextual demands is crucial for processing information during everyday listening tasks.”

So while the idea of a Mozart Effect, by which we can improve academic performance simply by exposing children to music, seems feeble at best, there are significant cognitive benefits to musical training, particularly in the area of language and processing abilities.

 

Technology as a tool

November 4, 2010

Technology can make a lot of things easier and more efficient: email is faster than the US Mail, and shopping online doesn’t require hunting for a parking space. In the case of the Fast ForWord programs, technology actually enables something that isn’t otherwise possible: it can be used to modify to a consonant sound that a student is struggling to process and make it longer and louder. Go ahead: just try to make the /b/ sound in the word “bat” longer. It isn’t going to happen without some technological assistance.

The NY Times highlights technology – specifically the Apple iPad – that, while not specifically designed for those with disabilities, is nonetheless helping them communicate.

The article highlights Owen, a 7 year old with a motor-neuron disease that leaves him without the strength to maneuver a computer mouse. But he got the touch-screen iPad to work on his first try. The article also describes iPads used to train basic skills to children with autism, and, loaded with a speech-to-text application to give those with disabilities a voice.

One of the major advantages of the iPad is its relatively low price compared to specialized computer equipment that individuals with disabilities have used in the past. And, according to one interviewee, the “cool” factor of the iPad makes it a less stigmatizing tool in social situations.

Even gifted students can improve

October 13, 2010

When the Fast ForWord programs were first introduced in the late 1990s, there was a general consensus that the programs were appropriate for students with diagnosed language and learning difficulties. The standard for “appropriateness” was typically that students should score at least one standard deviation below the norm on a standardized language battery.

When Fast ForWord was introduced into schools, students from across the learning spectrum were exposed to the program. Mainstream educated students, including many who were designated as gifted and talented, trained with the programs and saw tremendous improvement in foundational cognitive skills as well as general learning and reading abilities.

The programs target cognitive skills that are critical for effective learning. These skills don’t necessarily correlate to grade levels (for example, there’s no such thing as a second grade working memory), so kids with varying abilities across these skills and of many ages can benefit.

Scientific Learning (creators of Fast ForWord programs) just released the results of a study of gifted students who trained with the programs. The study looked at early fourth graders whose average reading grade equivalency was mid-fifth grade. After training with the Fast ForWord programs, the students grade equivalency in reading improved to mid-seventh grade. These dramatic results indicate that even gifted and talented students, who would not be identified for additional reading support, can still benefit from improved foundational cognitive skills developed by Fast ForWord.

There is more information on the study at Scientific Learning’s blog.

Be Amazing Learning is a provider of Fast ForWord programs. At Be Amazing Learning, we have helped students across the learning spectrum, including many gifted students, reach their full potential. For more information, visit our Web site at beamazinglearning.com or call (800) 792-4809.

Developing abilities in gifted and talented kids

October 6, 2010

We spend a lot of time talking about struggling students, from kids with diagnosed learning difficulties like dyslexia or auditory processing disorder, to kids for whom reading and learning is just plain harder than it should be.

But students across the learning spectrum can struggle to reach their potential. As an example, check out this recent post from Prufrock’s Gifted Child Information Blog (Prufrock Press publishes books and other resources about gifted education; blogger Carol Fertig is the author of Raising a Gifted Child: A Parenting Success Handbook):

Young people who have a strong visual-spatial ability visualize and retain images in their minds and then mentally manipulate those images. Kids who have this ability may be very smart but, because they learn in a style that is different from the usual sequential and verbal style of the classroom, they may not be a good match for the typical school.

Maybe. Or perhaps with assistance developing other foundational cognitive skills like sequencing and auditory processing, these visual-spatial learners can thrive.

We know from fMRI scans that learning and reading tasks activate various centers of neural activity in the brain, including those responsible for visual and auditory processing as well as memory. And we know that when particular areas are abnormally activated, significant challenges to learning can occur (for example, the visual centers of the brains of students with dyslexia tend to be hyper-activated during reading, while their auditory centers are under-activated).

But most importantly, we have programs that can strengthen areas of the brain, such as those responsible for sequencing and auditory processing, that may not be operating at peak efficiency.

Learners across the spectrum will struggle to reach their potential when their brain processing efficiency isn’t maximized. For gifted students who are visual-spatial learners, this may mean that they need assistance to develop their auditory sequencing and processing abilities. At Be Amazing Learning, we have helped many gifted students reach their full potential. For more information, visit our Web site at beamazinglearning.com or call (800) 792-4809.

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, beamazinglearning.com, 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.


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