It’s not exactly news that there’s a relationship between auditory processing skills and reading disorders in children. But with research by scientists such as Elise Temple and Nadine Gaab helping to establish and confirm the connection, the mounting evidence points to just how strong the correlation is—especially for children with dyslexia.
In a recent study by Jane Hornickel and Nina Kraus published in the Journal of Neuroscience, the authors set out to determine whether inconsistency in the brain’s response to speech sounds is correlated with poor reading skills. The study evaluated 100 normal-hearing children from 6 to 12 years of age who were divided into 3 groups—good readers, average readers, and poor readers—based on their fluency scores.
The researchers asked the children to listen to the syllables “ba” and “ga” while measuring the children’s auditory brainstem response. They also measured the children’s brainstem response to a simple clicking sound for comparison.
The authors found that the auditory brainstem response was considerably more variable for poor readers than for good readers, but only when listening to the relatively complex speech sounds—not when listening to the simple click sound. They also found that the inconsistencies in brainstem response were more closely associated with the consonant portion of the syllable than the vowel portion.
The variability in brainstem response occurred intermittently throughout the testing rather than building over time, and was primarily seen among the poor readers rather than all three groups, indicating that neural fatigue was likely not a factor. The authors note that the more likely explanation for the intermittent variability is poor encoding of speech sounds in the brains of the struggling readers.
According to Kraus, it’s this inconsistency of brain response that prevents some children from making the crucial connection of sound to meaning that is the foundation of language and reading skills. Strong readers, on the other hand, typically make the connection with ease. The relationship between reading ability and auditory processing skills, she says, is “a highly significant relationship.”
Distinguishing between consonants can be particularly difficult for children with dyslexia, as this study shows, because they are spoken so much more rapidly than vowels. But consonants typically give meaning to words (think “cat” vs. “bat”), so that missing bit of information can make learning to read enormously difficult. The takeaway is that when children with normal hearing experience reading difficulty, auditory processing plays a role.
Fortunately, our students’ brains are highly adaptable and responsive, enabling dramatic improvements with appropriate intervention. When the auditory processing issues are corrected, children are then able to make the critical sound-to-meaning connections that lead to proficient reading and improved learning all around.
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Dr. Chris Weber is a former teacher and school administrator distinguished by his track record of helping at-risk students achieve. He’s an expert on Response to Intervention (RtI) and has authored several bestselling books on the subject. In his recent webinar for Scientific Learning, he gives a progress report on RtI, including trends in special education statistics to date.
Dr. Weber begins by returning to the question of why we have Response to Intervention at all. In answer, he explains that special ed hasn’t been all that successful in keeping students on track to graduate ready for college or a skilled career. Students with disabilities drop out at twice the rate of their peers, and 80% never learn to read. CLD students (learners who are culturally and linguistically diverse) are over-represented in special ed, for no supportable reason. And, most significant, perhaps, is the fact that very few learners who enter special ed ever exit—only about 3%.
Weber’s criticism is not about how well special ed has performed for students who have profound disabilities, but instead for the very high percentage of students who have a mild to moderate specific learning disability, defined as a disorder in one of the basic processes (reasoning, memory, processing, attention, etc.) underlying a student’s ability to use language, spoken or written, to read, spell, write, or to do mathematical calculations. Often, schools still offer separate courses for special ed learners, an approach that sends a clear message of lower expectations, intentionally or not. He also cites students who are “curriculum casualties”—learners who have not responded to intervention and who are prematurely or wrongly given a disability diagnosis despite the fact that the intervention, or instruction, provided was actually ineffective.
It’s a moral imperative, says Weber, that we correct this state of affairs. Socioeconomic status and home language should not make a difference, nor should ethnicity or gender. The decisions we make for all students, he says, should be made with the same care and commitment as those we make for our own sons and daughters.
Another, sometimes unacknowledged driver of RtI, says Weber, is the urgency of helping all students develop 21st century skills. RtI is not just for students who we’ve traditionally thought of as underperforming. In some districts, students who are currently meeting state proficiency standards—which in many states, he says, have been set too low—are still not making the year-to-year growth they need in order to graduate ready for college or a skilled career. RtI can be the framework that accelerates learners to competency on the path that follows graduation.
Weber goes on to discuss several additional points:
He also discusses the tradeoffs that must be made in prioritizing both academic and behavioral skills, as both are essential for success in school and career. Watch the full webinar to get all the details, including special ed stats and data that you may not see elsewhere.
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As a parent, are you unsure about how much help to give your children on homework assignments and special projects? Do you sometimes feel "darned if you do and darned if you don't"? If you don't help your child enough, does she get poor grades? If you do help, is the teacher critical?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, you may feel stuck in "the parent trap." We all want our children to be independent learners, but getting them there can be difficult—especially if you have a struggling learner or a child with a diagnosed learning disability. Here are some suggestions that might help.
Avoid blame. Make it a game.
It’s hard for people to self-motivate to work hard in areas where they struggle, and children are no exception. If you feel you are always badgering your child to get his work done, try turning homework into something fun by scheduling 'game breaks' every half hour or so. Set a timer for a short interval, and as long as he has worked consistently before the timer goes off, do a few minutes of something fun together—a race outside, quick game of "go fish," a short video game, etc. Elementary age children love playing games with a parent, so game breaks can be a great motivator.
Build rewards on assignment boards.
Post a whiteboard in the kitchen or another common area of your home. Each day after school, help your child write a to-do list of assignments for that night as well as for any projects with due dates. Then work with your child to determine a reasonable reward for completion. A reward might be watching a special TV show, calling or texting a friend, or a healthy before bedtime snack.
Rewarding your child for doing homework independently builds important life skills like self-control and stick-to-itiveness. Especially when children struggle with school, rewarding something your child can control (like how long they worked on an assignment by themselves) builds confidence and increases motivation better than punishing bad grades or rewarding good grades.
The 80%-20% rule builds success in school.
Brain scientists have found that when a task is 20% challenging it promotes brain plasticity (positive brain changes). So, to maximize your child’s learning potential, encourage her to do all assignments by herself first, assuring her that you will be there to help once she has completed as much as she can on her own.
You will be the checker: finding mistakes or missing pieces and then helping her with those. If she is accustomed to you providing more help, it may take a few weeks for her to work on her own. If so, set a smaller goal (half of each assignment alone, or a designated number of problems, for example) for a week or so. Try to get to the point where you help with no more than 20% of any assignment.
Strive for drive.
Remember, by making your child's independence in schoolwork your goal—instead of grades or other measures of achievement—you are not only improving your child's motivation and ability to please you, but you also are building self-sufficiency, a trait that will lead to success in many aspects of life.
Not everyone can get top grades in school, but everyone can learn to be a self-starter. Getting out of the parent trap will not only make your life easier it will foster important life skills in your child. In adult life, the ability to self-motivate is where the real dividends of a good education are paid out.
If you have already tried these suggestions or you feel your child cannot realistically reach 80% independence, consider consulting a professional. Your child might have a specific learning issue that can be significantly improved with appropriate neuroscience-based interventions.
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Tim Rasinski is on a mission to change minds and he shares that mission with us in his webinar, “Keys to Increasing Reading Comprehension in the Age of Common Core.”
What’s Hot, What’s Not
Rasinski laments the fact that reading fluency has been ranked “Not Hot” for years in the annual “What’s Hot, What’s Not Literacy Survey” in Reading Today. Worse, he says, is the fact that the reading experts surveyed said that fluency should not be hot.
Fluency is one of the key skills, says Rasinski, that increases comprehension, the real goal of reading. So he wrote an article called “Why Reading Fluency Should Be Hot!,” which was featured in last May’s Reading Teacher magazine.
Building a Bridge to Reading Comprehension
Rasinski likens reading fluency to a bridge that connects accuracy in word study (phonics, decoding, spelling, and vocabulary) to comprehension. When students do not pick up the connection intuitively, educators have to teach it. But, if educators do not see fluency as an important component of reading instruction, the bridge to comprehension may never be built.
Teaching fluency means developing automaticity in word recognition, so learners can devote their available cognitive energy to comprehension. When that limited energy is spent on word recognition, there’s often not enough left over for the difficult task of deriving meaning from the words that have been read.
Ways to Develop Fluency That Really Work
Rasinski outlines what he calls “the essentials” of developing reading fluency:
Anyone interested in helping students become eager and capable readers should take the time to watch the full webinar and hear Rasinski’s thoughts on these points in his own words. It’s a topic he’s thoroughly studied, and he brings his extensive knowledge and passion to the discussion.
The online Reading Assistant program, as Rasinski points out, supports classroom teachers by delivering these five essentials—including real-time corrective feedback—to any number of students simultaneously.
Reading comprehension all comes down to meaning, says Rasinski, and teaching reading fluency ultimately helps learners get better at deriving meaning from any text.
Doesn’t that sound “Hot!” to you?
This May 17th, we will be hosting our annual Visionary Conference for Fast ForWord Providers entirely online for the very first time.
Save on travel expenses, spend less time away, and learn just as much as in years past—maybe even more.
This year’s theme is Growing Together, and we’re thrilled to announce that our esteemed Visionary Conference presenters Dr. Paula Tallal and Dr. Martha Burns will be sharing exciting new research on the brain and learning.
Dr. Tallal will be reporting on the latest research with college students who used the Fast ForWord program and saw improvements in a number of skill areas.
Dr. Burns will present research from the Human Connectome Project (a project studying the connectivity of the human brain) and research on memory and attention disorders and interventions.
Additional sessions will review the latest Fast ForWord product updates, best practices for getting the most from the products, marketing resources, and professional development opportunities to help you thrive as a Fast ForWord Provider and help more children succeed.
Because this year’s conference is online, we’re welcoming any and all attendees, whether you’re a provider or not! There is no charge for any of the sessions, so you can attend one or attend them all. If you’ve been to past conferences then you already know…It’s the highlight of the year!
I remember the early years with my children and the dreams I had for their success. Of course, my dreams and theirs didn’t exactly end up being the same. But what happens when a mother realizes that her dreams for her child may be shattered because that child struggles with auditory processing issues, dyslexia, or other challenges never imagined? That’s exactly what Irene experienced with her daughter, Maria.
Attending school proved difficult for Maria. As she advanced from grade to grade and the work became progressively more difficult, anything presented in auditory form was especially challenging. By sixth grade, Maria had been diagnosed with dyslexia and Auditory Processing Disorder and was labeled with a language impairment.
For obvious reasons, Maria struggled in school. Because of this, she was shy around other students, avoided reading, and required extensive help at home. Her family considered sending her to a private school, but Maria was unable to pass the entrance exams.
By the middle of sixth grade, Maria had attended several different schools and the last was a disaster. It was then that one of her mother’s friends suggested Bridges Academy, a private school that specializes in serving students with learning challenges. Upon enrollment, Maria’s life began to turn in a new direction. When she got into her mother’s car after school she often said, “Mom, they understand me here!”
At Bridges Academy, Maria’s dyslexia and auditory processing issues were analyzed further and the Fast ForWord program was recommended in addition to Maria’s coursework and intervention regimen. Jacky Egli, the Director at Bridges Academy, explained to Maria’s mother that she personally researched every program thoroughly and only used programs that were scientifically based. Irene trusted Jacky and felt it was important to follow her recommendation, so Maria gave Fast ForWord a try.
Maria’s reading level was at least three to four years below grade level when she entered Bridges. She also had struggled in other subjects, because every subject—even math—requires reading. But that soon began to change and, in time, Maria made significant improvements. Maria’s comprehension level increased more than two full grade levels last year. This improvement aligned with her participation in the Fast ForWord Reading and Reading Assistant programs. Over the last 6 years, despite the odds, Maria improved on the Woodcock Reading Mastery Test 7.3 grade levels. Because of this significant improvement, she no longer receives remedial instruction.
Irene sought the best for her daughter and found it in the caring attitude of the staff at Bridges Academy and the innovative programs they use to make a difference for struggling students. “Jacky walks the walk and talks the talk of the school’s mission,” says Irene.
Maria has transformed from a shy, struggling child to a vibrant, engaged student who participates in class, reads aloud to her peers and conducts presentations for content area classes in front of her classmates. She is an ambassador for the school who greets and escorts new students and parents through the campus as she participates in open house and school events.
And, most exciting of all, Maria has been accepted into a local college and is thrilled about rising to meet a challenge and a future that once seemed entirely out of reach.
As spring begins to overtake winter, I’ve noticed an increasing number of children riding their bicycles in my neighborhood.
Seeing one father helping his daughter with her new two-wheeler reminded me of my own initial experience with my first bicycle. The bike I received for my birthday had no training wheels on it and so I floundered on my first attempts to ride it.
A Wobbly Start
My dad came home from his factory job one spring afternoon and saw me struggling to keep my balance as I rode. Getting out of the car, he walked over to me and had me get on the bike while he steadied it by grasping the seat.
As I pedaled and steered my bike, he ran next to me holding me up. When I turned, I usually leaned too much or too little into the curve; my dad gave me feedback (he’d say “lean the other way”) and supported me by tilting the bike in the opposite direction.
The Power of Supported Practice
After a few trips up and down the block he gave me a push, let go of the seat, and before I knew it, I was riding without his help. I could ride my bike! Later that afternoon my father gave me a few more tips on bike safety and expressed how proud he was of my accomplishment.
The experience of learning to ride my bike reminds me of what happens during assisted reading with feedback.
The Importance of Feedback in Learning to Read
A considerable body of theory and research in reading acquisition tell us that the foundational skills in reading (in the Common Core Standards, phonics, word recognition, and fluency) are best developed through instruction followed by practice with support and feedback.
When a struggling or developing reader reads a text while simultaneously hearing it read to them (either with a partner, a group, or a recorded reading) the developing reader will eventually be able to read that text (and others) without assistance.
An essential key to the assist, however, is to provide formative feedback to the reader in the same way that my father gave feedback to me. That feedback can take a variety of forms—emphasizing a word that was mispronounced, providing the definition to a word or phrase, or briefly discussing the reading after the reading and focusing on an area of need or areas in which the reader has improved.
Most learning, it seems, is facilitated by an assist, scaffold, or support provided by another. Learning to read and learning to ride a bike are no exception.
The Teacher’s Touch
As teachers, our role in reading acquisition is to find ways to support our students in their reading while providing formative feedback during and after their reading. When we do so we will find our students not only making great progress in their reading but also viewing themselves as competent and independent readers.
As an educator I spend a considerable amount of time providing advice to parents whose children are finding it difficult to be inspired with reading! Parents will describe their child as “struggling,” “disinterested,” or ”anxious” about reading and are searching for ways to instill the love of reading, when it is such a tedious task for their child.
It’s really quite simple: Children who do not read well will not be inspired to read, or to practice reading more. So, how do we get our reluctant readers to find reading fun?
As the director of a school that specializes in working with students with reading disorders—and a parent of a youngster who was diagnosed with dyslexia in 3rd grade—I see this issue from both sides. Some suggestions that I share with our parents (and that I used with my own son) can create a safe haven for reading for the emerging reader, gifted reader, or a student who needs more direct instruction to improve reading skills.
The Practice of Reading Skills
Keep the work of developing reading skills separate from pleasure reading. Students who require reinforcement in their decoding or vocabulary should practice those tasks for a short time (15-20 minutes) several times per week. Use some of these ideas to make the reading fun!
Reading for Pleasure
Children who are behind in their reading abilities, such as decoding, vocabulary, or comprehension, may not always select independent reading material that “matches” their age and grade. In fact, many children who struggle with the mechanics of reading may be interested in topics that are way above their independent reading level. To meet their intellectual interests and instill the “habit” of reading for pleasure, consider these ideas:
Above all, BE PATIENT and ENCOURAGING with your child as they develop independent reading habits. The “art” of reading is quite complex. Some children will require more support, individualized instruction, and continued practice, and may benefit from the services of a reading specialist. Your positive influence, patience, and support can make your child feel safe to take the “risk” of reading new words or selecting more challenging material. Celebrate the small steps, and keep positive so your child will become more confident!
After 17 years as a teacher and 8 as a researcher in education, I have become increasingly aware of a “gravitational force” pulling me to instruct with little attention to the most ambitious goal a teacher, parent, or administrator can aspire to—inciting curiosity. I say ‘incite’ because it seems counter-culture to do so. My goals here are to illustrate briefly this force and to provide one simple way we can begin to counteract its pull.
When I discuss the matter with colleagues, I see that we all feel the same way. Few of us seem to know why we’re teaching what we’re teaching, how to get students to be interested in it or what to do about it. After years of thinking about this, I’ve come to understand that confusion is often a precursor to learning.
Communication of ideas is a central part of learning. Language matters – especially in mathematics. So far, I’ve said nothing new. However, let’s examine a way in which typical instruction attempts to provide language for students. Even the very attempt to provide language for students can be misguided and can be seen as the source of many learning difficulties. I will attempt to illustrate with an example.
Consider a typical lesson from middle school pre-algebra classes—this is a scenario that plays out across grade levels and content areas. I have chosen this example to illustrate how a common, well-intended teaching practice (pre-teaching vocabulary) can squelch curiosity, contribute to anxiety in the learner, and ultimately turn students into what I call “Do-Monsters.” (Even if you feel anxious reading this and start to break out in math hives, I encourage you to persist!)
Teacher: Today we are going to learn about: like terms, monomials, binomials, trinomials, and ultimately polynomials. Please take out your notebook and write these terms down together with the definitions I will show you. (Definitions are copied…)
Teacher: Now I will show you an example of a polynomial. Please identify two like terms in this example. Example 1: 2x – 3 + x
Take a moment to remember a similar occasion in your learning experience (if you can): your lack of curiosity or need to think critically, and the aimless feeling of the activity. Remember the worksheet with 25 mindless problems you worked on for the rest of that class?
The situation I am referring to is, generally, one in which the topic is foreign to the students and the teacher. The reason for discussing the vocabulary (or even the concept) is that there is an impending test, a social contract that a teacher must cover the book, or a belief that knowing the vocabulary is crucial for critical thinking to begin. Learning vocabulary out of context becomes the purpose of the lesson rather than asking how these words can help us solve problems or think critically.
Questions, Problems, and Meaning
Consider an alternative. Instead of giving students meaningless terms upfront (pre-teaching vocabulary) so they can think about a question, why not give them the question first and deal with vocabulary within a context? I have found that the most meaningful lessons are those in which a student has something worth discussing; one in which there is a problem to solve. The problem with this is that the kinds of questions I have been trained to ask and those primarily found in textbooks are not really central to the topic I teach. They make language acquisition the end—instead of the means to an end.
I have also come to believe that imagination is a necessary ingredient in learning. Once it’s in play we can ask different kinds of questions that leverage existing language to create a need for new language. We might ask questions like, “Do we all imagine the same things happening in this situation? How do you see it? How do our images differ? How are they the same? What would happen next? Can we play out the scenario? What if we changed the situation?”
When a context is present, there is a chance that I can play! Playing is good. Unfortunately, in our desire to ease students’ frustrations/suffering in the learning process we (teachers/parents/administrators) often seek to give them the words they need before they need them, creating a situation in which students don’t know what to do with what has been given to them. We expect a child to wait patiently with a word for the right time to spring into action and use it.
So, what might a lesson look like in which we try to put students in a problematic situation before introducing the vocabulary necessary to describe the phenomena we want students to reason about? Consider a potential revision to the previous scenario in which the goal of the lesson was to teach students about: like terms, monomials, binomials, trinomials, and ultimately polynomials. Changing the goal from language acquisition to critical thinking might play out like this.
The Birth of Puzzlement
Teacher: I’m thinking of a number…so that 3 less than twice my number plus my number again equals 15. What number am I thinking of?
Did you find yourself trying to answer the question? Maybe you did and maybe you didn’t. The point is that students have a starting point to imagine what could happen. A debate could break out about what that number is and students could talk to each other. The situation could be changed enough to make them think again until they are comfortable with the phenomenon – searching for an unknown number that satisfies the given condition.
Eventually, when the situation gets complicated enough, we might need the terms: like terms, monomials, binomials, trinomials, and ultimately polynomials. We know we are at that point when students see the need to refer to 3 less than twice my number as one entity instead of two. What would we call that thing? It is incumbent on us as teachers to bring students to this point through a careful selection of tasks. There is no algorithm other than asking the question, “How can I puzzle my students the right amount today?”
One argument to continue pre-teaching vocabulary is that a student (a second language learner in particular) might not know what a word means and might not have a sense of the question at hand. In that case, isn’t it better to pre-teach vocabulary?
There are no hard and fast rules. Sometimes yes, but usually no. In fact, I have come to see that puzzlement goes hand in hand with confusion in the beginning and that this is a sign that learning can occur. It represents the possibility that something can be learned and this is what excites me most about teaching. I WANT students to raise questions about words they don’t understand and begin to ask questions about them spontaneously. I WANT students to play out the scenario under their own interpretations—whatever those interpretations are. I WANT debate.
Unfortunately, too often we see no possibility of debate because we spend far too much time focusing on the wrong lessons. The irony about language acquisition is that it happens best as we use the language we have, not when we are taught words out of context. To really learn a term, we must first have something to talk about that requires the new word itself. In short, here is where we lose our way. To quote a colleague, “We are so fearful we won’t cover the material, that we fail to uncover something meaningful.”
In the nearly 25 years since Congress designated the 1990s “The Decade of the Brain,” educators have been flooded with information about how the brain learns. Some of the “brain myths” that educators have learned are actually right on target, while others are outright wrong. Some data is still open for debate and other inquiries are just getting under way.
We asked Dr. Bill Jenkins and Dr. Martha Burns for a little help in sorting fact from fiction for those of us with other things to do besides reading through the original research studies and teasing out our own conclusions. They presented a great live webinar on the topic, and here’s what we learned:
Myth #1: The Brain is Hardwired – True or False?
Until the 1990s, neuroscientists believed that the adult brain was indeed hardwired with fixed neural circuits. The Decade of the Brain revealed that this view is false—the adult brain is not hardwired and neither is the child brain. In fact, learning goes hand in hand with the re-wiring of brain circuits on the fly, a re-organizing ability that lasts throughout our lifetime.
Myth #2: There are Multiple Intelligences – True or False?
When I first heard about the idea of multiple intelligences, I responded to it immediately. I’m a visual learner! I thought. Of course. And I know I’m not alone.
The truth is more complicated. The construct of multiple intelligences falls under the category of “still open for debate” and may depend as much on our frame of reference as anything else. Regardless, what’s important for teachers is to understand individual students’ strengths and weaknesses and not evaluate students along one dimension of Smart vs. Not Smart.
Myth #3: There’s a Critical Period for Language Learning – True or False?
The widely held belief that language learning must be mastered early is an example of a fact being taken too far. True, it is typically easier to learn a new language before age 7, but we retain the ability for language learning throughout life.
In fact, intensive language training can produce large gains in oral language and reading skills even in older children who are not yet fluent. This includes in-person training or computer programs such as the Fast ForWord Language and Reading programs. They key is an individualized and intensive approach that influences brain organization through mechanisms of neural plasticity.
Further, learning a new language later in life can be good for the brain—better than, say, Sudoku or crossword puzzles.
Get the Facts About 10 More Brain Myths
Drs. Jenkins and Burns had much more to say about fact vs. fiction in how the brain learns. Watch their on-demand webinar on Brain Myths in Education and get answers about these brain myths and more: