Archive for the ‘reading’ Category

Studying Japanese yields clues for kids with dyslexia learning English

July 11, 2011

The Wall Street Journal reports on recent research into the use of character-based languages such as the Japanese language kanji.

Learners with dyslexia struggle with the association between letters and sounds in English (a language in which words are comprised of groups of sounds that readers decode). However, character-based languages, where the characters represent complete words or ideas, are mastered through memorization, a skill that many students with dyslexia have mastered to compensate for their decoding struggles.

One study featured in the WSJ article looked at fMRI brain scans of dyslexic students and discovered that they use the same area of the brain to read English as do readers of kanji, a character-based Japanese language. This is different from the area of the brain used by typically developing English readers (and readers of kana, another Japanese language in which characters represent sounds instead of words or ideas).

As the article notes, we don’t cure dyslexia by teaching students in a character-based language. But it does offer some insight into how these kids’ brains are working differently and how teachers might be able to deliver reading-based content more effectively.

We have a link to a fantastic dyslexia study on our Web site. The study, performed at Stanford, is very consistent with the findings discussed in the WSJ article, as it supports the idea that students with dyslexia tend to make reading a more visual task, while typically developing readers integrate auditory processing as well.


Be Amazing Learning client featured on ABC News

June 17, 2011

Be Amazing Learning client Sami Merit was featured on San Francisco Bay Area ABC 7 News, as part of a story that looked at Fast ForWord use at home and at an Oakland elementary school.

Hooray Sami!

The Thirsty Linguist reviews Oliver Sacks’ latest book “The Mind’s Eye”

March 31, 2011

Doctor and author Oliver Sacks is known for bringing neuroscience to the masses. In The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Awakenings (which was made into a movie starring Robert DeNiro and Robin Williams), Sacks explores neurological disorders with the writing skills of a novelist.

Our friend, the Thirsty Linguist, reviews Sacks’ latest book, The Mind’s Eye, which explores the human experience of vision:

As in some of his previous books, Sacks presents case histories of individuals suffering from neurological injury or disease, and uses these histories as a means to probe the capacities of the mind. Lilian Kallir, for example, is a pianist who loses the ability to read, even though the rest of her vision remains intact and, puzzingly, she can still write. Sacks follows Lilian’s story over a period of three years, describing the coping strategies she develops, such as color-coding items in her home, as well as the new talents that arise unexpectedly with her condition, such as the ability to re-arrange musical pieces in her mind without consulting a score. Howard Engel, featured in another case history, is a writer who also loses the ability to read, but he approaches his situation differently: he rejects audiobooks, refuses to give up the world of text, and painstakingly learns his ABCs all over again.

Lilian’s and Howard’s cases both suggest that the brain has a specific location dedicated to reading. But it is not at all obvious why this should be so. Unlike spoken language, which evolved over hundreds of thousands of years, written language is a relatively recent cultural invention that offered no survival advantage to humans in primitive societies. Plasticity offers a potential answer to this conundrum: we can and do use structures in the brain for purposes very different from those for which they evolved. Sacks casts a wide net to gather evidence for this idea. He describes case histories of nineteenth century neurologists, who treated patients with symptoms similar to Lilian’s and Howard’s. He cites evolutionary thinkers from Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace to Stephen Jay Gould and Elisabeth Vrba, tracing the history of the notion of “exaptation,” a biological adaptation which gets put to a new use. He presents key results from imaging studies which demonstrate that different areas of the brain are active during reading versus listening. And he summarizes a computational study of over 100 writing systems which shows that, despite their diversity, these systems share basic visual signatures which resemble those found in natural settings.

The Mind’s Eye thus offers narrative science writing of the most satisfying kind. We delight in pedagogical moments because Sacks weaves them seamlessly into the case histories. We get drawn into the topics of evolution, brain imaging, and computation because we want to follow people like Lilian and Howard. “Make characters the matter of your narrative,” advises James Shreeve in A Field Guide for Science Writers, “and let the science spill from their relations.” Sacks does precisely that.

If Sacks’ work intrigues you, you might also be interested in:

TED Talk: Dr. Michael Merzenich on Rewiring the Brain

March 23, 2011

Dr. Michael Merzenich is a pioneer in brain plasticity research. In this TED Talk, recorded in 2004, Dr. Merzenich describes impairments to the brain’s processing ability, and how we can train the brain back to normal processing:

We now have a large body of literature that demonstrates that the fundamental problem that occurs in the majority of children that have early language impairments, and that are going to struggle to learn to read, is that their language processor is created in a defective form. And the reason that it rises in a defective form is because early in the baby’s brain’s life the machine process is noisy. It’s that simple. It’s a signal to noise problem. Okay? And there are a lot of things that contribute to that. There are numerous inherited faults that could make the machine process noisier.

Every sound the child hears uncorrected is muffled. It’s degraded. The child’s native language is such a case is not English. It’s not Japanese. It’s muffled English. It’s degraded Japanese. It’s crap. And the brain specializes for it. It creates a representation of language crap. And then the child is stuck with it.

Now the crap doesn’t just happen in the ear. It can also happen in the brain. The brain itself can be noisy. It’s commonly noisy. There are many inherited faults that can make it noisier. And the native language for a child with such a brain is degraded. It’s not English. It’s noisy English. And that results in defective representations of sounds of words, not normal, a different strategy, by a machine that has different space constants. And you can look in the brain of such a child and record those time constants. They are about an order of magnitude longer, about 11 times longer in duration on average, than in a normal child. Space constants are about three times greater. Such a child will have memory and cognitive deficits in this domain. Of course they will. Because as a receiver of language, they are receiving it and representing it. And in information it’s representing crap. And they are going to have poor reading skills. Because reading is dependent upon the translation of word sounds into this orthographic or visual representational form. If you don’t have a brain representation of word sounds that translation makes no sense. And you are going to have corresponding abnormal neurology.

The point is is that you can train the brain out of this. A way to think about this is you can actually re-refine the processing capacity of the machinery by changing it. Changing it in detail. It takes about 30 hours on the average. And we’ve accomplished that in about 430,000 kids today. Actually about 15,000 children are being trained as we speak. And actually when you look at the impacts, the impacts are substantial.

Think of a classroom of children in the language arts. Think of the children on the slow side of the class. We have the potential to move most of those children to the middle or to the right side. In addition to accurate language training it also fixes memory and cognition speech fluency and speech production, And an important language dependent skill is enabled by this training — that is to say reading. And to a large extent it fixes the brain. You can look down in the brain of a child. in a variety of tasks that scientists have at Stanford, and MIT, and UCSF, and UCLA, and a number of other institutions. And children operating in various language behaviors, or in various reading behaviors, you see for the most extent, for most children, their neuronal responses, complexly abnormal before you start, are normalized by the training.

There’s some stuff about monkeys in the middle that went a little over our heads, but the talk is worth the 20 minute investment.

Happy National Grammar Day!

March 4, 2011

Grammar gets a bad rap, but today, National Grammar Day, we celebrate it!

If learning to read and write is like packing for a trip around the world, grammar is your socks: something you need, but nothing you’re going to get too excited about.

But grammar (understanding the elements of language, including proper word order, syntax, vocabulary, prefixes and suffixes, plurals, and subject-verb agreement) is critically important for strong listening comprehension and reading comprehension. Knowledge of grammar allows students to understand the different meanings conveyed by different sentence structures and grammatical markers. Students with a better understanding of grammar conventions derive more meaning from what they hear in the classroom, and more easily master reading and writing skills.

So today, just for today, celebrate grammar! Check out for a playlist of songs with grammatically incorrect lyrics and grammar day poems and stories.

More research on the importance of auditory processing abilities for reading

February 7, 2011

We were interested to see new research from Belgium that looks at the link between early auditory processing abilities and later reading struggles. Published in January in Research in Developmental Disabilities, the longitudinal study showed that auditory processing and speech recognition struggles in kindergarten and first grade corresponded to dyslexia diagnoses in the third grade.

This new research is in line with previous studies that have determined that the auditory centers of the brain in dyslexic readers are under-activated compared to their typically developing peers (interestingly enough, the visual centers of the brain in dyslexic readers are hyper-activated).

Given the criticality of developing auditory processing abilities in young children, what’s a parent to do?

On her Parent Smart blog, Dr. Martha Burns has a couple suggestions:

  • Bed time stories: “It doesn’t matter what the stories are. Many very young children love to hear the same storybook over and over, that is just fine.   Try to make a habit of 15 or more minutes a day of “quiet time” before bed in which your child selects a book and you read it together.” Dr. Burns includes age-specific suggestions for story time as well.
  • Audio books: “Rather than bringing a DVD player along on a trip, try audio-books. The advantage of an audio book over a DVD is that it builds listening skills which are critical for doing well in school and allows your child to follow along with the written pages as they listen to the book, so it builds reading skills as well.”

An intervention like the Fast ForWord programs may be appropriate as well. A study of public school children with Auditory Processing Disorder showed improvement in phonemic decoding and sight word reading abilities after training with Fast ForWord. And the Stanford study referenced above showed normalization of activity in critical areas of the brain used for reading and significant improvements in reading and oral language skills on a number of assessments after Fast ForWord training.

Fast ForWord vs. Cogmed

January 5, 2011

Be Amazing Learning offers programs that address foundational cognitive skills, rather than academic content. We work on helping children learn better. By developing skills such as working memory, attention, sequencing, and brain processing rates, our programs don’t simply give kids new academic knowledge; instead, they equip kids’ brains to better access and retain information they are exposed to, whether in the classroom or in daily life.

Two programs we use most frequently are Fast ForWord and Cogmed. Both programs are based on the concept of neuroplasticity (the lifelong ability of the brain to reorganize neural pathways based on new experiences). They both are computer-based interventions with rigorous daily protocols. And both have very solid foundational research behind them: Fast ForWord research and Cogmed research.

The programs differ in the cognitive skills they develop. Fast ForWord primarily develops auditory processing rates and auditory working memory, with additional training in sequencing and sustained attention. Cogmed primarily develops working memory (auditory and visual-spatial) and attention skills.

At Be Amazing Learning we recommend one or both of the programs for students, depending on the specific learning or behavior challenge they are dealing with. For example, we typically will recommend Cogmed for students struggling with ADD or ADHD. Cogmed addresses the underlying causes of inattentive behavior and improves attention by developing working memory and the ability to focus on multiple tasks and ignore distractions. (Poor auditory processing abilities can also contribute to attention challenges, and in these cases, the Fast ForWord programs may also be an effective intervention.)

Similarly, for students with dyslexia, we typically recommend the Fast ForWord programs, as they attack the auditory processing disorders that cause reading difficulties. And there’s great research on students with dyslexia showing significant improvements in reading and oral language skills on a number of assessments, as well as normalization of activity in critical areas of the brain used for reading after Fast ForWord training.

And in some cases, such as for students struggling with executive function disorder, we might recommend both programs, because they both effectively develop and strengthen the cognitive skills associated with successful executive function, including :

  • Memory – The ability to store information and ideas.
  • Attention – The ability to focus on information and tasks, and ignore distractions.
  • Processing Rate – The rate at which a student is able to accurately perceive and manipulate information.
  • Sequencing – Placing the detail of information in its accustomed order.

The bottom line is that nearly every child can benefit from improved brain processing efficiency.  Wherever your child is, Be Amazing Learning can help move them forward. Our programs have been proven to be effective with many types of learners of all ages, from students with diagnosed learning difficulties, to those simply struggling with homework or reading. With Cogmed and Fast ForWord at our disposal, we can design an effective training program to develop a range of foundational cognitive skills and improve academic potential and performance.

Traditional Tutoring vs. Cognitive Training

January 4, 2011

Traditional tutoring offers additional help in a particular subject area or with a particular skill. It can be an effective addition to content delivered in the classroom, especially because it can frequently be tailored to a child’s individual needs.

Be Amazing Learning is different because the programs we offer (Fast ForWord and Cogmed) address foundational cognitive skills, rather than academic content. We work on helping children learn better. By developing skills such as working memory, attention, sequencing, and brain processing rates, our programs don’t simply give kids new academic knowledge; instead, they equip kids’ brains to better access and retain content they are exposed to, whether in the classroom or with a tutor.

Additionally, training cognitive skills with Be Amazing Learning is a one-time shot: kids build their brain fitness with the programs, then move on to better academic performance. Once children have cognitive training, they stay “fit” by using their new cognitive skills. Studies have shown that the improvements in cognitive skills we can help your child achieve are both substantial and enduring. For example, a 4-year longitudinal study conducted at Dallas Independent School District that showed that students who trained with Fast ForWord programs achieved significant gains in reading, and maintained those gains relative to their peers.

For more information about how cognitive training can help your child, visit our Web site or call (800) 792-4809.

Good News For Control Freaks!

December 7, 2010

So screams the first line of a recent article on Science Daily. What’s the good news? A study, published in the journal Nature Neuroscience, shows that “having some authority over how one takes in new information significantly enhances one’s ability to remember it.”

The study compared active and passive learning in a novel way: participants were presented with an array of objects to be memorized, masked by a gray screen. A “viewing window” allowed the study participants to see one object at a time. To test active learning, the participants were able to control the window using a computer mouse. Passive learners viewed a recorded version of the viewing made by an earlier active learner.

The study found significant differences in brain activity in the active and passive learners. Those who had active control over the viewing window were significantly better than their peers at identifying the original objects and their locations.

Cool enough, but to get to a neurological explanation for the phenomenon, the researchers repeated the study with individuals with amnesia (the impaired ability to learn new things) as a result of damage to the hippocampus (the portion of the brain responsible for many memory-related functions). For these participants, there was no difference in recall between active and passive learning.

Additionally, brain imaging of healthy participants indicated that:

Hippocampal activity was highest in the active subjects’ brains during these tests. Several other brain structures were also more engaged when the subject controlled the viewing window, and activity in these brain regions was more synchronized with that of the hippocampus than in the passive trials.

We’re not so sure what to make of the neurological findings in the study, but the clear differences between active and passive learning have lots of relevance for education. It explains why television makes a lousy teaching tool, and why actively engaging students in reading (for example, stopping to ask them questions about what they’ve just read or what they expect to happen next) is helpful for students.

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.

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