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Sing the Alphabet Backwards Sometimes: Kindergarten Phonemic Awareness Activities

Kindergarten phonemic awareness activities

In Kindergarten, phonemic awareness skills acquisition is a focal point in language and reading development.  Kindergarten phonemic awareness challenges  include memorizing the consonant sounds that are associated with each letter of the alphabet and learning to detect the part of a word where a specific consonant sound is heard.

Your Kindergarteners can practice honing their phonemic awareness skills with some of these activities available via the Web:

Kindergarten Phonemic Awareness Activities from PBS Kids

PBS Kids offers several fun online games that even young children can play to develop phonemic awareness skills:

Elmo Rhymes

Elmo shows the child a selection of objects on the shelves of a closet.  He names one of the objects and asks the child to select all of the items in the closet that rhyme with the named object.  As the child mouses over an object, Elmo says the name of the object.


The child hears a short word spoken and is asked to look at three written words and click on the word that he heard.  The child gets multiple chances to get it right, and after making a correct match, sees the written word next to a picture of the named object.

Fuzzy Lion Ears

The child sees a picture and a word label for the picture.  A letter is missing from the word.  It is the child’s task to select the missing letter from three letters provided.  The game also provides a little help: the child can mouse over several letters to hear the sound each one makes before selecting an answer.  

Alphabet Chant from EFL Playhouse

While the website is geared toward teachers of English Language Learners, the Alphabet Chant is appropriate as a general classroom Kindergarten phonemic awareness activity. The chant is designed to be fun, can be incorporated into the classroom in just 5-10 minutes, and over time helps young learners associate letters with sounds.

Kindergarten Phonemic Awareness Activities from “Patti’s Classroom”

From Los Angeles County Office of Education, “Patti’s Electronic Classroom” (  provides many resources for teachers of students in grades K-3—including a selection of kindergarten phonemic awareness activities:

  • Word rhyming
  • Syllable segmentation
  • Beginning sound substitution
  • Sound isolation
  • Phonemic segmentation

Kindergarten Phonemic Awareness Activities from SaskEd

Books and Language Play (link updated 04/02/2012)

These phonemic awareness activities from SaskEd encourage the use of books and songs that rhyme as well as tongue twisters, alliteration, and other types of language play.  The end of the article features a list of books for young children that highlight language play.

Graphophonic Strategies and Activities (link updated 04/02/2012)

In addition to the book list and language play suggestions, SaskEd’s graphophonic strategies and activities are perfect for helping kindergarteners discover the alphabetic principle, the idea that each letter of the alphabet is associated with one or two sounds.  Activities include making and reading one-letter books and a fun challenge to sing the alphabet backwards sometimes.

Have fun with these phonemic awareness activities and help your Kindergarteners begin to develop a lifelong enjoyment of language and reading and become a successful reader.

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Categories: Family Focus, Reading & Learning

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Sharing the Practices of Phonics Practice: 5 Instructional Approaches

phonics practice

Let’s talk about phonics teaching. Actually, let’s talk about phonics practice. Together, let’s figure out and share what works. But before we start our quest forward, let’s take a quick look back.

The “Great Debate” between proponents of the whole language and phonics approaches to reading instruction and practice has gone on for decades. Essentially, the discussion comes down to the question of whether early readers should focus on developing an understanding of written language at the letter/sound level (a phonics approach) or at the word level (a whole language approach). Today, the most widely accepted strategy indicates that phonics instruction and practice represent the most effective methods of reading instruction for K-6 learners; phonics also has proven very effective in helping struggling students with learning to read and spell. (Report of the National Reading Panel: Teaching Children to Read, 2006)

So, what opportunities—systematically speaking—are open to educators to offer phonics practice and instruction to students? The National Reading Panel outlines five different instructional approaches that we can draw upon. Specifically, the report lists them as follows:

  1. Analogy Phonics—teaching students unfamiliar words by analogy to known words (e.g., recognizing that the rime segment of an unfamiliar word—the part of a syllable used in poetic rhyme—is identical to that of a familiar word, and then blending the known rime with the new word onset, such as reading brick by recognizing that -ick is contained in the known word kick, or reading stump by analogy to jump).
  2. Analytic Phonics—teaching students to analyze letter-sound relations in previously learned words to avoid pronouncing sounds in isolation.
  3. Embedded Phonics—teaching students phonics skills by embedding phonics instruction in text reading, a more implicit approach that relies to some extent on incidental learning.
  4. Phonics through Spelling—teaching students to segment words into phonemes and to select letters for those phonemes (i.e., teaching students to spell words phonemically).
  5. Synthetic Phonics—teaching students explicitly to convert letters into sounds (phonemes) and then blend the sounds to form recognizable words. (Ibid.)

Print publishers as well as online curriculum providers have created countless tools to help educators teach phonics as well as offer practice to solidify these lessons. But any practice of these lessons that reinforces and offers further exercise in these five understandings--inside or outside the classroom--has the potential to help students solidify and improve reading skills. Guidelines for teaching phonics systematically can be found on many blogs and websites, including, where you can find their Current Practice Alerts publication on Phonics Instruction: Go For It! (

In such a discussion of phonics practice, we must make the point that any selection of technology to assist in the process should be thoroughly researched and proven in tests as well as in the field. Speaking specifically about the Fast ForWord® products, multiple studies have shown their effectiveness in building the cognitive skills necessary for reading and writing. They do this through development of memory, attention, processing and sequencing abilities, and by exercising early reading skills including phonics, vocabulary, fluency and comprehension.

That said, finding what works isn’t easy; it takes practice, but it also takes research, adaptation, experimentation and creativity. According to columnist Ruth Bettelheim as quoted recently in USA Today, one of the key elements for effective learning is giving students what she calls “the pleasure of mastery.” Phonics is one of those areas where we can—with the right instructional tools—give students the practice they need to not only achieve success, but deliver that pleasure of mastery to help stoke each student’s fire for learning.

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Announcing the Create a Character Contest Winners!

Boy did we have fun judging the Back-to-School Create a Character contest!  Who knew there was such fantastic creativity and imagination out there just waiting to be unleashed?

I am pleased to present the winning entries:

1st Place: “Danny Dinosaur” (Written description only)

“Danny Dinosaur is a dinosaur, a T-rex to be exact.  He’s a T-rex who loves food and destruction.  He’s blue and green and loves potatoes.  That’s why he lives in Boise, Idaho, “Home of the Potato.” But that’s not all Danny Dinosaur eats.  He also eats any thing that’s alive.

There’s a bird named Short Stalk who follows Danny Dinosaur every where he goes.  Short stalk is a small, yellow, and pink beaked fella but Danny Dinosaur is a large Dinosaur with an evil smile and sharp teeth sticking out.  Although they have several differences, they are still best friends.  That proves what a unique but odd dinosaur Danny dinosaur is.

The game Danny Dinosaur will be in is called the Flying Dino.  There will be a sentence above the dinosaur, which he will read.  The sentence will have one word missing and the player needs to fill in that blank with the correct word.  If it is right the bird will pick up the word with its beak, fly towards the sentence and fill in the blank.  That would be 3 points.  If it is wrong the bird will correct you and you will get 0 points.”

Danny Dinosaur’s creator, an 8th grade student in MA, wins a Flip Video camera!

2nd Place: “Silly Snake”

character contest winners

“Name of character – Silly Snake
He is green with blue eyes and a red tongue.
Silly Snake lives in a cave.
He eats various animals with words on them.
If it is a word he did not say, he spits it out.
When he eats a correct word, he gets closer to his cave.
When he eats incorrect words, he moves away from his cave.”

Silly Snake’s creator, a 4th grade student in RI, wins a $25 gift card from!

3rd Place: “Randy de la Cruz” (lives in Miami FL)

character contest winners

“My character’s name is Randy de la Cruz.  He lives in Miami, Florida.  He has a girlfriend named Maria and he loves his family.  My character has 4 arms.  It has a blue shirt, orange pants, long boots that are blue, a hat that is black, yellow, and red.  He wears a white belt, glasses, and a necklace.  The two top arms are bigger then the lower arms.  His two feet are like human feet.  He has a head like an alien.  On his hat he has a G for Great Man.  This character has pointy hair.  He is 20 years old.  Randy likes eating meat and rice but, his favorite foods are fish and chicken.  He works at Universal Studios in Florida as an actor.  When he was 17 to 19 he used to work as a carpenter with his step father.  Randy likes drawing and at night he likes to look at the stars.

Randy also likes to help the kids learn new words and he reads stories to kids on the computer.  After he reads a story, Randy asks question to see if they were listening.  The other thing he does to help the kids is to break hard words from the story in parts.  Then the kids have to read and say it completely.  For example, he reads the word “generous” and he breaks it in parts like ge ne rous and the kid hears it on a headphone.  Then the kid says the word completely in a microphone.  Randy is a nice man and likes helping people and making friends.  He will like to be your friend too.”

Randy de la Cruz’s creator, an 8th grade student in MA, wins a $25 gift card from!

The contest judges here at Scientific Learning would like to extend a big “thank you” to all of our contest entrants for entertaining us with your inspired drawings, stories, and game ideas.

And might I just say, nice showing New England!

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Why Limit Screen Time? Scientific Research Explains

limit screen time

This past September in a blog posting about the importance of physical exercise, I opened with a comment about the powerful pull that the video screen exerts on young brains. To be sure, this useful evolutionary adaptation has served us very well. Our instinctive ability to focus and concentrate on fast-moving, bright stimuli is a survival mechanism that allowed our ancestors to escape from many a tight spot. Even so, with the advent of modern technologies such as computers and television, we are now experiencing the down side of an endless flood of engaging electronic input. Research has shown that extensive screen time has the power to negatively affect our very chemistry and biology.

As we know from brain plasticity research, the stimuli we receive over time directly affect the development and wiring of the brain. Still, these effects are only the beginning of a long list of problems that screen time engenders. This past September, British psychologist and biologist Aric Sigman published an article in the British MailOnline that pulls together the conclusions of recent research from around the globe, painting a clear picture of the deleterious effects of screen time, and that picture is far from pretty. In fact, it is one that we, as parents, as teachers and as members of a national community, must not ignore.

While screen time has been shown to have negative psychological effects, I found Sigman's run-down of the chemical and biological effects to be of particular concern:

  1. Suppression of melatonin release: Healthy levels of melatonin help regulate sleep, the immune system, and the onset of puberty. When children who watched an average amount of TV had all screen time removed, their melatonin levels went up by 30 percent after one week.
  2. Increased chance of coronary heart disease: A study of 290 boys aged 15 showed that those who averaged over two hours of screen time a day had "elevated levels of chemical markers related to the development of coronary heart disease in later life." A different study out of Melbourne showed that for each hour an adult watches TV a day, there is an 18 percent increase in the likelihood that this adult will die from heart disease. Says Sigman, "Those who watched four or more hours were 80 percent more likely to suffer a fatal heart condition."
  3. Changes in chemicals related to hunger and feeling satisfied: After 45 minutes of screen time, subjects consumed 230 calories more than those who had no screen time. Also, women who watched TV during a meal were more likely to snack later on.
  4. Elevated blood cholesterol: Individuals between five and 15 who watched more than two hours a day were more likely to have raised blood cholesterol later in life.
  5. Release of dopamine: Screen time causes the release of dopamine, a chemical that contributes to learning and concentration. As a result, our brains may become desensitized to the effects of normal levels of dopamine, making it hard to concentrate and focus on non-screen-based stimuli.

Taken in sum, these studies are sending us a clear message that we as parents and educators must take to heart: the more these screen-based technologies occupy time in our days, the more vigilant we must be about maintaining our own healthy habits, as well as educating our students to the risks so they can make their own smart decisions and lead long, healthy lives.

Learn more about the effects of screen time:

Get the details from Dr. Sigman's February 2007 article from Biologist, Visual voodoo: the biological impact of watching TV.

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The Speech and Language Connection: The Nursery Rhyme Effect (Part 1)

Speech and language and nursery rhymesBetween two and three years of age your child will learn and use almost a thousand new words and learn the rudiments of grammar. By the end of this year she will be able to speak in short sentences, use pronouns like “me”, “you”, and “mine” and even start using a few adverbs like “fast” and “slow”.

The brain of a two-year-old is remarkable – it is a pattern analyzer and predictor. Your child can hear a string of words that have no audible break in them, like “Ihearyou” and parse the sentence into three words, logically figuring out that the second word is “hear” even if he has never been exposed to the word “hear” before. If you say “Iseeyou” it might be a little more difficult for your child to determine whether you said “icy you” or I see you” because in English we have many words that end in the  “s” sound.  But we have no words that end in “h”, (“Ih ear” you is impossible in English) and your two-year-old’s brain has figured that out. My daughter Heather around two responded to my plea “Heather, please behave” with “I’m have-ing” mommy”, because she misinterpreted this knowledge to assume “behave” was two words, “be” and “have”, as in “be good”. But for the most part, this ability to statistically figure out where one word ends and the other begins will help your child figure out not just vocabulary, but grammar as well.

The language learning mechanism that cultures around the world have developed to assist this statistical learning of language by two-year-olds is “nursery rhymes”. Linguists will tell you that almost all cultures and languages have nursery rhymes that are told and repeated to two to three-year-old children. Nature, through our adult mirror neuron system, has provided an intuitive mechanism to help our young children figure out the syllable structure and phonological (sound combination) rules of their native language so that during the second year of life a child can master 900 new words in their native language. Keep in mind that nursery rhymes are literally like “music” to the young child’s ears – the rhythm and melody helps the child learn how intonation of sentences conveys emotion in language and the alliteration, (repetition of initial sounds) as well as the rhymes, helps a child develop phonological awareness – knowledge of how words are made up of sounds and sound patterns and an understanding of grammar, not to mention rhythm, rhyme and alliteration.

To appreciate how much language learning can be built into nursery rhymes take a look at this example:

               Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers
               A peck of pickled peppers, Peter Piper picked.
               If Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers,
               Where’s the peck of pickled peppers Peter Piper picked?

From the standpoint of sound, the repetition of the stop consonants /p/ and /k/ provides a young child with the opportunity to contrast sounds produced with the lips /p/ and those produced with the back of the tongue /k/. The repetition of the stop consonants (by that phoneticians mean consonants in which air is stopped for a short time before it is released) – allows the opportunity to learn to contrast and discriminate sounds that seem to have a popping sound from those that are continuous, like the /z/ sound in peppers and where’s – produced with the tip of the tongue. The fact that /p/ and /k/ are among the earliest sounds children produce (note the use of /papa/ and /kaka/ as early language forms) means that a child can begin to practice repeating a nursery rhyme like this with his parents.

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Brain Plasticity: A New Frontier For Education and Learning

NeuroplasticityDr. Norman Doidge is the author of the book The Brain That Changes Itself and in this book, he reveals a fascinating look at how the brain can literally rewire itself throughout the lifespan, even into old age.  He shows how the brain is “plastic” and can change at any age, based on the stimuli it is being given.  The brain is no longer thought of as “fixed” or “unchanging.”  You literally train it in everything you do during your daily life.   This is the concept of “neuroplasticity.”

Dr. Doidge researched this idea of “neuroplasticity” to find that miracles can and do occur as it relates to how the brain can function.  Brains can be “rewired” for success in school.  It has been found that functioning can be restored in brains that have either declined because of old age or because of an injury to the brain.   This is a fascinating new world to explore in the arena of human development and how people function in the world around them. 

Dr. Doidge participated in an interview last spring on the topic of brain plasticity, which you can listen to online.  Here are some of the discussion points from the interview:

  • Part One: The concept of brain plasticity, what it means and how it works. 
  • Part Two: How our brain learns, how technology plays a role in the learning process and how it affects our brain and brain development. 
  • Part Three: An exploration of communication and the roles of computers, text messages and email messages today, including an interesting discussion of how we tend to keep information on technology outside of ourselves, rather than inside our heads. 
  • Part Four: Who can benefit from the concept of brain plasticity and how can it help education today?

Brain plasticity is a newer idea and concept.  Whether you are already a fan of Dr. Norman Doidge or just hearing about brain plasticity for the first time, don’t miss this interview – it is wonderfully informative and eye-opening.  As more research continues to be done on the brain, it will be exciting to see what new things are learned about how the brain functions.  More importantly, it will be fascinating to see how brain plasticity can provide hope to people everywhere.

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Scientific Learning Around the World

Scientific Learning International

Most readers of this blog are familiar with some of the “life-changing” stories associated with the use of Scientific Learning (SLC) programs (Fast ForWord and Reading Assistant) in schools and clinics in North America.  But did you know that these same remarkable results are being achieved with students all over the world?  While the use of our programs continues to expand in North America via sales to school districts and in conjunction with private providers, the company also has a growing international presence.   Currently, SLC has a network of 25 Value Added Representatives (VARs) who provide our programs in over 45 countries (for a list of VARs and their countries.  To obtain a list of our VARs, please visit  The growth of the international market for SLC is considered a high priority, and is fueled by increasing awareness of brain fitness and the role of cognitive neuroscience in the learning process, as well as a keen emphasis (especially in Asian countries) on English language learning as a prerequisite for career success.

Our VAR network is composed of expert implementers of our programs, with backgrounds in such areas as speech pathology, English language learning, audiology, physical therapy, and reading theory.  In most cases, VARs deliver Fast ForWord and Reading Assistant in combination with other interventions, therapies, and curricula, to address the particular needs various sub-groups of users.  Most VARs have developed strategies to address the needs of different segments of their local users. For instance, most VARs have one or more of their own after school-day learning centers.  In addition, they usually develop a network of “sub providers” (who can be composed of therapists, tutoring or language learning center operators, or other specialists).  Finally, many VARs also conduct direct sales efforts to public and private schools.  In each case, the kinds of “value added” services they provide will vary according to the needs of the partner or end user.

In addition to the many instances amongst our VARs of life-changing stories of success with individual students, several international research studies have been conducted which have added to the mounting library of evidence of the efficacy of our programs.  These studies (visit include research from Singapore, Germany, Bermuda, India, Australia, the UK, Ireland, Philippines, and Thailand. 

It has taken time for the concept of brain fitness to gain widespread acceptance in North America.  The same is true internationally.  But recent events have dramatically demonstrated that educators and parents around the world are beginning to understand the power of our programs to build brain fitness, increase academic performance, address specific learning disorders, and enhance English language proficiency.   For instance, in the area of special needs, in 2009 the Australian Government’s Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs named Fast ForWord as an approved intervention for children diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs).  In South Korea, our local VAR partner (which has over 120 sub partners and school clients) has an official relationship with the Korea Association of Primary English Education (KAPEE) as a result of KAPEE’s observation of the success of Fast ForWord and Reading Assistant to help students quickly increase their English reading and speaking proficiency.  And, in China, preliminary results of research conducted in conjunction with two prestigious universities (Peking University and Beijing Normal University) has shown impressive results for Chinese students using Fast ForWord. 

More information about our VAR program can be found at  Our VARs are a committed, caring group of professionals who are happy to share what they have learned about our programs, and they always extend warm invitations to visitors who may be traveling in their countries on vacation and/or business, to visit their centers and learn more about how they incorporate our programs into their businesses.  For more information, you can contact me at

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Categories: Brain Fitness, English Language Learners, Fast ForWord, Reading Assistant

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Listen: Don’t Ignore the Benefits of Music on the Brain

benefits of music in schools

Educators, researchers and education policy-makers have long discussed the benefits of structured music education. In today's environment of shrinking district resources, the arts are often early arrivals to the budgetary chopping block. Certainly, math, science, language arts and social studies are essential subjects, but we must also understand exactly what is lost when we cut arts programs. When we let go music education, we let rest layers upon layers of essential learning.

  • We lose the cultural understanding and historical knowledge that accompanies such training.
  • We remove an environment and a medium that is highly conducive to the acquisition and honing of essential skills for workplace success such as collaboration and creativity.
  • We lose proven benefits to learning and brain function. Through the mechanisms of brain plasticity, music contributes to the development of listening and cognitive skills essential for language.

While all of these losses are arguably of equal importance, I wish to focus on the last. In their August 2010 article Music Training for the Development of Auditory Skills, Nina Kraus and Bharath Chandrasekaran present the neuroscience research demonstrating that music training, in the same way that physical exercise impacts body fitness, "tones the brain for auditory fitness." Specifically, Kraus and Chandrasekaran examine 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."

Kraus and Chandresekaran end their article with a discussion of the implications for education. All of the skills and abilities discussed above clearly have the potential to impact student success and achievement "by improving learning skills and listening ability, especially in challenging listening environments."  Whether considered as content, as skills or as brain processing exercise, the benefits of music should be carefully weighed as we evaluate its place in the school day.

For additional reading on the positive effects of music education, check out:


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Categories: Brain Fitness, Brain Research, Education Trends, Reading & Learning

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Data Driven Decisions: A GPS Approach

data driven decisions in schoolsTechnology offers us so many useful tools and strategies; it’s a wonder how we ever got along without them.  Let’s consider the Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) receiver and its remarkable ability to pinpoint our location anywhere on earth.  Accurate to within one meter, a long step for most adults, and capable of tracking your route across any terrain, they rely on a continuous feed of real-time data that is accurate and reliable.  As educators, can we apply concepts like these to the classroom to make better, faster and more accurate decisions about the learning landscape?   

It’s a rhetorical question, and the resounding answer is Yes. However, there is room to argue that our current system leaves us falling perpetually short as educators are forced to wait weeks or months for standardized assessment results to flow back into their hands.  The resonating concern is that this periodic data limits the ability to accurately address the underlying causes of failure in-step with the ongoing instruction.  Corrective action must ensue, and initiatives to support a more timely return on the data must be put into place through a process with strategies to track the day to day activities and progress monitoring for all students. 

Thankfully, some of these efforts are already underway, reflected in the nation’s focus to implement state-wide reform, with a priority being placed on Assessment and Standards.  However, a paradigm still exists, in that benchmarking is limited to designated grade levels and the “in between years” are somewhat neglected, leaving variability and non-standardization to chance.  So how does your state stack up?  Visit the USDOE Institute of Education Sciences website, National Center for Education Statistics, and query the collection of data and reports to learn more:

Next steps: Plotting a course to data utopia. 

Using cutting edge technology underpinned with neuroscience principles on how the brain learns, Scientific Learning has pioneered software that accelerates the acquisition of language and reading skills, yielding years of gain in a matter of weeks.  Like a GPS, a continuous stream of real-time data provides accurate and reliable measures of student performance daily, plotting an ideal course of learning that eliminates the lag time of data collection and analysis.  Furthermore, educators can weave this information back into the classroom immediately, and focus intently on the specific areas of need.  In keeping sights set high on the destination—achievement for all students—there’s a proven way to deliver success where getting lost is not an option.

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