Posts Tagged ‘reading comprehension’

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:

It’s About Time…

March 29, 2011

Auditory processing describes what happens when the brain recognizes and interprets sounds. Humans hear when energy that we recognize as sound travels through the ear and is changed into electrical information that can be interpreted by the brain. For many students, something is adversely affecting the processing or interpretation of this information. As a result, these students often do not recognize subtle differences between sounds in words, even though the sounds themselves are loud and clear. For example: “Tell me how a chair and a couch are alike” may sound to a child struggling with auditory processing like “Tell me how a hair and a cow are alike.”

These kinds of problems are more likely to occur when the child is in a noisy environment or is listening to complex information.

The Temporal Dynamics of Learning Center (TDLC) at the University of California is one of six Science of Learning Centers funded by the National Science Foundation. Its purpose is “to understand how the element of time and timing is critical for learning, and to apply this understanding to improve educational practice.”

What is the role of timing in learning? From the TDLC Web site:

When you learn new facts, interact with colleagues and teachers, experiment with new gadgets, or engage in countless other learning activities, timing plays a role in the functioning of your neurons, in the communication between and within sensory systems, and in the interactions between different regions of your brain. The success or failure of attempts to communicate using gestures, expressions and verbal language also depend on timing.

In short, timing is critical for learning at every level, from learning the precise temporal patterns of speech sounds, to learning appropriate sequences of movements, to optimal training and instructional schedules for learning, to interpreting the streams of social signals that reinforce learning in the classroom.

Learning depends on the fine-scale structure of the timing between stimuli, response, and reward. The brain is exquisitely sensitive to the temporal structure of sensory experience:

  • at the millisecond time scale in the auditory system;
  • at the second time scale in reinforcement learning;
  • at the minute time scale for action-perception adaptation; and
  • at the day-to-week time scale for consolidation and maturation.

Each level of learning has its own temporal dynamics, and its own timing constraints that affect learning. These levels are not independent, but instead, timing constraints at one level affect learning at another level in a nested way. For example, the dynamics at the cellular level, which is often on the order of milliseconds, implement learning on the whole-brain and behavioral level on much longer time scales, including memories that last a lifetime.

The past decade of neuroscience research demonstrates that the intrinsic temporal dynamics of processes within the brain also reinforce and constrain learning. For example, we have discovered that slow learners tend to have slow “shutter speeds” in terms of how their brains take in and process information. For some poor readers, the underlying problem is the their inability to perceive fast acoustic changes in speech sounds (phonemes) that must be accurately perceived in order to learn letter-sound correspondence rules for reading.

Fortunately, says the TDLC Web site, “Neuroscience-based training regimes that improve this temporal processing ability improve both spoken and written language learning in struggling readers.”

One such training program is the Fast ForWord program, which can be an effective intervention for children with struggling with processing rates because it goes right to the cause of the problem, strengthening the gray matter in the area of the brain responsible for processing auditory information. With Fast ForWord, children are first exposed to sounds that are modified to enhance the minute acoustic differences between similar speech sounds. As children demonstrate proficiency and build new neural pathways, the program automatically reduces the level of modification, until eventually students are challenged to process normal speech sounds.

When their brains are processing speech sounds at peak efficiency, students can better  recognize and discriminate the rapidly changing sounds that are important for discriminating phonemes (the smallest units of speech that distinguish one word from another). As a result, they will more easily:

  • Attend and respond to directions and class discussions
  • Remember questions, directions, and information
  • Learn to read and become a better reader

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.

Memory vs. Memorization

January 14, 2011

A post at Scientific Learning’s New Science of Learning blog highlights the importance of memorization in early schooling: math facts, counting to 100, reciting a poem, or recalling sight words are all examples of memorization tasks that are prevalent in the early grades.

Memorization, it turns out, is not a particularly advanced skill, centered as it is in the hippocampus of the brain, which is, evolutionarily, one of the oldest parts of the brain:

A great deal of learning in the elementary grades involves the hippocampus. Memorization of spelling rules likes “i before e except after c,” math facts, reading of “sight” words that cannot be sounded out, and geographical facts, just to name a few, demand good memorization skills (hippocampus function.). Reading curriculum used before 1970, like those used when the goal was memorization of the “Dolch” sight words, also stressed memorization skills.

Different from memorization is working memory. 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. And, unlike sight word memorization, working memory is critical for grasping a phonics-based approach to reading, which is prevalent in most American curricula.

As young readers develop, working memory takes on more importance. For example, to gain meaning from text, a student’s working memory must be sufficiently developed to remember the beginning of a sentence when she get to the end. Or the first sentence of a paragraph when she gets to the last.

We have previously highlighted a recent study, published in May 2010 in the Journal Reading and Writing (link is to abstract only), which 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 working memory measures were “related with children’s word reading and reading comprehension.”

Even if working memory is more important than memorization for developing reading and other learning skills, we can’t completely abandon memorization (as evolutionarily primitive as it may be). For example, in its report “Foundations for Success” (2008), the National Math Panel emphasized the importance of developing automatic recall of addition, subtraction, multiplication and division facts in order to adequately prepare for algebra and beyond.

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.

Teaching language to a machine

October 5, 2010

We posted last week about the Children of the Code Web site, and noted that 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. Computers are good at breaking down complex tasks like forecasting weather – could they be any good at learning language and reading?

Today’s NY Times describes a computer program under development at Carnegie-Mellon University called NELL (for Never Ending Language Learning). NELL is attempting to learn by acting not like a computer (computers are generally very good at following rules – for example, learning to play chess – but lousy at more nuanced tasks), but like a human being.

Researchers working on NELL cited an example of the following two sentences:

The girl caught the butterfly with the spots.

The girl caught the butterfly with the net.

A human reader inherently understands that girls hold nets, and girls are not usually spotted. So, in the first sentence, “spots” is associated with “butterfly,” and in the second, “net” with “girl.”

“That’s obvious to a person, but it’s not obvious to a computer,” Dr. Mitchell said. “So much of human language is background knowledge, knowledge accumulated over time. That’s where NELL is headed, and the challenge is how to get that knowledge.”

But if a computer is using a hierarchy of rules self-developed rules to resolve ambiguity in language, what happens if it gets a rule wrong?

When Dr. Mitchell scanned the “baked goods” category recently, he noticed a clear pattern. NELL was at first quite accurate, easily identifying all kinds of pies, breads, cakes and cookies as baked goods. But things went awry after NELL’s noun-phrase classifier decided “Internet cookies” was a baked good. (Its database related to baked goods or the Internet apparently lacked the knowledge to correct the mistake.)

NELL had read the sentence “I deleted my Internet cookies.” So when it read “I deleted my files,” it decided “files” was probably a baked good, too. “It started this whole avalanche of mistakes,” Dr. Mitchell said. He corrected the Internet cookies error and restarted NELL’s bakery education.

The researchers behind NELL (and other projects that are attempting to teach computers to attack language as humans do) cite the possibilities for improved natural language search (where searching returns answers to questions, rather than just lists of relevant Web sites) as a positive outcome of their research. One hopes as well that as we train a computer to think like a human we gain additional insight into how humans think and learn, with the potential to improve learning for our children.

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

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.

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