Posts Tagged ‘language’

TED Talk on the Linguistic Genius of Babies

February 17, 2011

In this great 10-minute lecture, Patricia Kuhl, co-director of the Institute for Brain and Learning Sciences at the University of Washington, shares her findings about how babies learn one language over another — by listening to the humans around them and “taking statistics” on the sounds they need to know.

Experiments and brain imaging show how 6-month-old babies use sophisticated reasoning to understand their world. Dr. Kuhl’s work has played a major role in demonstrating how early exposure to language alters the brain. It has implications for critical periods in development, for bilingual education and reading readiness, for developmental disabilities involving language, and for research on computer understanding of speech.

The pen is mightier than the keyboard

February 16, 2011

If you want to learn, scientists say, put pen to paper.

A recent article in Business Week cited research in France and Norway, which concluded that “writing by hand is actually a very different sensory experience than typing on a keyboard, with each activating distinctly different parts of the brain.”

Study co-author, associate professor Anne Mangen from the University of Stavangers Reading Centre in Stavanger, Norway, says:

Tests reveal that the act of handwriting — literally the feeling of touching a pen to paper — appears to imprint a “motor memory” in the sensorimotor region of the brain. In turn, this process promotes the visual recognition of letters and words, suggesting that the two seemingly separate acts of reading and writing are, in fact, linked.

In the study, participants were taught a new alphabet. Those who studied by writing out the letters by hand learned significantly more than those who studied only on a computer. Additionally, “brain scans revealed that while learning by handwriting prompted activity in a particular part of the brain known as Broca’s area, learning by keyboarding prompted little or no such activity.” Broca’s area is the portion of the brain most associated with speech production.

If you’re interested in more research-based study tips, check out these previous posts from our blog:

Hat tip to Posit Science for the link to the Business Week article.

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.

How children’s brains acquire language

February 1, 2011

In adults, injury to the areas of the brain that are responsible for language skills (Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas) result in loss of language abilities. However, injuries to those same areas in early childhood don’t seem to impact language development in a negative way. As a result, researchers have long thought that a different area of the brain was active in language acquisition. But new research from UC San Diego, published in the Oxford University Press journal Cerebral Cortex says otherwise: “similar left frontotemporal areas are used for encoding lexico-semantic information throughout the life span, from the earliest stages of word learning.”

From a recent Science Daily article summarizing the research:

Combining the cutting-edge technologies of MRI and MEG, scientists at the University of California, San Diego show that babies just over a year old process words they hear with the same brain structures as adults, and in the same amount of time. Moreover, the researchers found that babies were not merely processing the words as sounds, but were capable of grasping their meaning.

Study co-author Kathleen Travis, quoted in the Science Daily article:

“Babies are using the same brain mechanisms as adults to access the meaning of words from what is thought to be a mental ‘database’ of meanings, a database which is continually being updated right into adulthood.”

And from co-author Eric Halgren, also in the article:

“Our study shows that the neural machinery used by adults to understand words is already functional when words are first being learned. This basic process seems to embody the process whereby words are understood, as well as the context for learning new words.”

Who’s a good dog?

January 18, 2011

We cover some serious topics on this blog. This is not one.

The cover story of today’s NY Times Science section is about a border collie trained by psychologist John Pilley to recognize over 1000 words. Pilley’s findings were published in the journal Behavioral Processes.

Pilley trained Chaser, the border collie, 1022 words through brute force: one or two new nouns per day, driven home with repetition (up to 40 times), and reinforcement of nouns the dog forgot.

The article makes the claim that Pilley’s experiment may help explain how children learn language. Specifically, Dr. Pilley concludes that “Chaser acquired referential understanding of nouns, an ability normally attributed to children.” Referential understanding refers to the ability to identify a reference to an object (such as a photo).

But there’s some reason to be skeptical. First, as the article points out, Chaser’s task was more challenging because she lacked any context for the nouns that can make them easier to remember (for example, “knives, forks and spoons are found together”). Additionally, children don’t generally learn new words through brute repetition. And, Chaser learned all of her words as “proper nouns, which are specific labels for things, rather than as abstract concepts like the common nouns picked up by children.”

If you’d like to learn more, Chaser will be featured in a Nova episode about animal intelligence on February 9th.

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.

Your Brain on Metaphors

November 17, 2010

We’re suckers for an article tagged “philosophy” and “neuroscience.”

In the NY Times, Robert Sapolsky explores the fact that while the neuron of a common housefly is remarkably similar to that of a human, we benefit from having a lot more neurons (about 100 million for every one the fly has). And, as Sapolsky says, this quantity yields quality, enabling us to carry out complex tasks like the digit manipulation required to trill on a piano, or make the decision to study hard to get good grades and eventually a good job. Gophers, Sapolsky points out, don’t do that.

Sapolsky, though, is taken with a different human-only trait:

Symbols, metaphors, analogies, parables, synecdoche, figures of speech: we understand them. We understand that a captain wants more than just hands when he orders all of them on deck. We understand that Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” isn’t really about a cockroach. If we are of a certain theological ilk, we see bread and wine intertwined with body and blood. We grasp that the right piece of cloth can represent a nation and its values, and that setting fire to such a flag is a highly charged act. We can learn that a certain combination of sounds put together by Tchaikovsky represents Napoleon getting his butt kicked just outside Moscow. And that the name “Napoleon,” in this case, represents thousands and thousands of soldiers dying cold and hungry, far from home.

And we even understand that June isn’t literally busting out all over. It would seem that doing this would be hard enough to cause a brainstorm. So where did this facility with symbolism come from? It strikes me that the human brain has evolved a necessary shortcut for doing so, and with some major implications.

We won’t get into the neurochemical analysis that Sapolsky does, but if you’re a fan of the brain, his article is a great read.

 

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.

 

Baby’s Developing Brain

November 3, 2010

Over at the Science of Learning blog, Dr. Martha Burns has just completed a two part series on the development of the infant brain. The good news and bad news for parents is that we play a significant role.

In August, Dr. Burns described the infant brain as a learning machine: working to determine the relevant information about language and the environment, while designing itself, quickly, to become an expert in said language and environment. The parents’ role is to provide an environment that fosters the development of skills that will be helpful later in life.

In her recent conclusion, Dr. Burns provides some more detail on how parents can help the developing infant brain, especially with the goal of developing the kind of sustained attention skills required in a classroom. The brain, says Dr. Burns, wires itself for learning based on early stimulation and experience. To facilitate this development:

  • Parents of infants can build sustained attention to speech by ensuring that children are seeing and hearing speech at the same time. In other words, get in their face!
  • Parents of older children should set aside time for reading together or talking about the highlights of the day.

Getting a child accustomed to sitting for 30 minutes and listening to songs or stories will establish the attention skills required in school.

Oh. And unfortunately, while this probably goes without saying, lay off the TV:

The American Pediatric Association has recently published research indicating that too much exposure to television during the first two years of life seems to increase the likelihood that the child will be diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder in the early school years.

We have previously posted about the importance of engaging children with language. From that posting:

Particularly in the critical stage of brain development (when only stimulation is required to develop neural pathways), continuous exposure to language is of utmost importance. The differences in students early experiences with language and literacy are meaningful: by first grade, children whose parents have engaged them with language know twice as many words as those whose parents have not. And it continues: high school seniors near the top of their class know four times as many words as their lower-performing peers, whose vocabularies are equivalent to high-performing third graders.

Can we be serious here for a minute?

October 21, 2010

Last week, we posted about kids’ recognition and use of ironic language. Today, it’s the serious stuff.

Dutch researcher Lotte Henrichs has examined what she terms “academic language.” It’s not a unique language, but rather is:

Characterised by difficult, abstract words and complex sentence structures. The language often contains a lot of clauses and conjunctions and due to the methods of argument and analysis it has a scientific appearance.

Why is academic language important for children? From a Science Daily summary of Henrich’s research:

Children at a primary school need a certain type of language proficiency: academic language. Academic language …  is the language that teachers use and expect from the pupils. It enables children to understand instructions and to demonstrate their knowledge in an efficient manner.

Henrich says that how parents approach language interactions with their children has a significant impact on the children’s development of academic language: “Those who address children as fully-fledged conversation partners lay an early basis for the development of ‘academic language'”:

If children are given the opportunity to make meaningful contributions to conversations, they often use characteristics of academic language proficiency naturally. In addition to this, the knowledge of academic language depends on the extent to which parents read to their children, tell them stories and hold conversations about interesting subjects.

We’ve also previously posted about the importance of engaging children with language.

 


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