Posts Tagged ‘reading’

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.


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.

Learning to Read vs. Reading to Learn

March 1, 2011

Around 2nd or 3rd grade, students begin the transition from learning to read to reading to learn. In the process, they open their minds to a flood of critical information across disciplines. And to incorporate this new knowledge, students must have mastered the basics of reading and achieved automaticity.

At Scientific Learning’s Science of Learning blog, Terri Zezula addresses the criticality of automaticity for students to begin the transition to reading to learn:

In achieving automaticity, we free our brains – our working memories – from the details of the task, allowing us to use that brain power to do more, building on those sets of automatic skills. For our students, achieving automaticity  in reading is essential not only to their becoming effective readers, but becoming effective all-around learners. The majority of students make the shift from “learning to read” to “reading to learn” around second or third grade. At this stage, their reading skills have developed to a point of automaticity where they no longer need to use their working memory to facilitate the task of reading, and they can use that memory for things like interpretation, comprehension and creative thinking.

On the other hand, continues Zezula:

Imagine what learning becomes for the struggling student who does not develop this automaticity alongside his or her fellow students. As others begin to learn more and more from their reading, the struggling reader must engage their working memory in the challenge of getting through the letters and words of each sentence as opposed to using that valuable memory to glean meanings and assimilate information. As their reading skills lag, their overall ability to learn suffers.

A previous post here at Thoughts from Be Amazing Learning addressed the same phenomemon:

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. If you have a child struggling with reading comprehension or other learning challenges, visit our Web site at or call (800) 792-4809 to learn how developing foundational cognitive skills can help your child successfully make the transition to reading to learn.

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.

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.

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.

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