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What Every Parent Should Know About Their Baby’s Developing Brain (Part 2)

Baby's Developing Brain

In my August post, I discussed how the primary job of the infant brain is to detect relevant information about language and the environment in which the baby is born and to design itself, in a relatively short period of time, to be an expert at that language and environment. This month, we will continue the discussion of how the brain develops in a young infant.

The genes more or less provide the blueprint for the brain’s hardware and early wiring, but after a child is born, and perhaps even for several months before, the stimulation in the world around the infant sets up the experiences that the brain uses to wire itself for later learning. Whether that stimulation is beneficial or detrimental is a matter of expectations: if our goal is that a child be good at attending to brief segments of information (so called, “sound bites”) but not be as good at sustaining attention for a longer period of time (as might be expected in a first grade classroom), then hours of watching television might be viewed as beneficial. But since teachers do not talk in “sound bites,” and most education, from learning to read to learning algebra, requires extended periods of concentration to relatively unchanging stimulation (a teacher’s lengthy explanations, for example), television watching may prepare the brain for attentional skills that are not beneficial for school success.

Parents can help their babies and young children prepare for the “listening” demands of school by spending time in activities where Mom or Dad talk, read or sing to their child in a quiet setting for fifteen minutes to half an hour (for children over three) at a time. Even infants under six months of age can be encouraged to “listen” to adults. Young infants are very interested in facial expression and voice melody but they need to see a parent’s face and hear their voice together to build up the brain networks that sustain their attention to speech. Mom or Dad can build this network by holding the baby within a foot of their face (lying on a parent’s lap or being held close a parent can talk to the baby about parts of his face for example, “You have such a nice nose, here is your nose, look at Mommy’s nose; and here is your ear and this is Mommy’s ear.” As the baby gets older and can sit up, Dad and Mom can begin to pay games that further attract the baby’s attention to their voice and face, like “Peek-a-Boo.” Babies under a year often enjoy these activities and can attend for several minutes at a time, preparing their brain for later attention to speech.

For children over a year, parents can establish a routine “quiet time” to settle a child down before bedtime. A fifteen minute to half-hour quiet time where Mom or Dad sit with the child on their bed and look at books together, or talk about something special that happened during the day, or sing nursery songs before bed can provide a perfect opportunity build listening skills. If a child gets accustomed to sitting for 30 minutes listening to songs or stories he will have he will have established the attention skills that he will need when he gets to school.

As a case in point, the American Pediatric Association has recently published research indicating that too much exposure to television during the first two years of life seems to increase the likelihood that the child will be diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder in the early school years.1 From a neuroscientists’ perspective, attention deficit disorder may not represent so much an abnormal brain as a brain that has developed in a way that is not well suited to sitting and learning in a classroom environment.

That does not necessarily imply the child is not “intelligent” (although parents may be led to view the child that way) or that the child is not “well behaved’, but it does bias the child against being viewed as intelligent and well behaved in an environment that places emphasis on “sitting still and listening”, namely the typical public school classroom. And although one option might be for parents to remove the child with a “short attention span” from the public school environment and either home school the child or pay for a private school that is not as overtly punitive, ultimately, the child will most likely eventually have to sit and concentrate for long periods of time, either at college, or at work. So, it would make sense to build the child’s brain in such a way to allow him or her to successfully compete in a world where listening or watching and concentration to one task are important.

That does not mean, however, that the brain is inflexible, unable to multitask, or incapable of handling rapidly changing information as well. Think of a professional basketball player, who has developed a genius of sorts for a sport, who must maintain concentration on his or her team position as well as an expected play while at the same time following the ball and observing opponents and team members as they move around the floor. So, it turns out, a brain that is good at sustained attention to a single task can also be good at multitasking as well as handling rapidly changing information.

The human brain appears to be remarkably equipped to develop these capacities and to utilize them in almost all aspects of learning in which one might find himself, be it a classroom, a sports arena, a symphony orchestra, or a multitude of other performance.2 The key is preparing the brain for these potential capacities during the first few years of life.

[1]Journal of the American Pediatric Association, 2007
[2] Merzenich, M. Personal communication, 2008

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Categories: Brain Fitness, Family Focus, Reading & Learning

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Creating Reading Intention to Improve Reading Comprehension Skills in Students

Reading Comprehension

Most everyone can stand to improve reading comprehension, from early readers to adult professionals. An internet search for reading comprehension strategies to improve this skill yields a multitude of exercises and recommendations, but overall, they all seem to arrive at a singular idea: to improve reading comprehension skills, we must prime the brain through creating a framework that allows the reader to experience a text with intent.

Teaching our students (or just re-training ourselves) to enter into the reading experience with intent allows the reader to extract and retain the key elements of information. This is quite different from simply picking up a book, flipping to page one and jumping right into “Once upon a time...” A number of things can happen before that moment to frame the reader’s mindset and prime the brain to better comprehend the information it is about to delve into.

So, what are some ways of improving reading comprehension by creating that intent and priming the brain? Here are some examples of pre-reading activities and questions that we can offer students young and old to frame their reading for improved comprehension.

Before reading, take a look around. A book is much more than the words on its pages. What is the title? What do we see on the cover? Who is the author and what kinds of stories and books does this person create? When was the book written? By taking a few minutes to focus on these elements, we can set up expectations in our minds—like a loose outline—that we will later fill in with the details.

Get a 30,000 foot view. Delving in a bit deeper, what can we learn about the story by reading the table of contents and flipping quickly through the pages? Tables of contents offer huge amounts of information to help readers further develop expectations and outlines.

Make it personal. Our brains are more likely to absorb information when it is directly applicable or related to our interests and our lives. Thinking about the information we have just accessed by answering the above questions, what aspects of this book grab our interest on a personal level? What features of the book relate directly to our lives?

Write it down. Now that we have a framework of expectations around what we are about to read, write down questions that have arisen about the story and its characters, and make some predictions about how the story might unfold.

All of these pre-reading activities help the reader to create a mental framework that will later hold the details of the text. Readers can then use these notes during and after reading to see where predictions were on target or where they might have gone off course.

Regardless of their simplicity—or maybe because of it—the reading comprehension strategies above help create the reading intention to improve reading comprehension skills. Your own internet search will yield countless additional helpful hints and resources, but don’t underestimate your own creativity. How many ways can you think of to engage students in thinking about a text prior to turning to page one?

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Categories: Reading & Learning

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The Inspirational—Remarkably Human—Child Prodigy

child prodigies

Why are we so fascinated by people like Akrit Jaswal, IQ 146, who performed his first surgery at seven years old; or Kim Ung-Yong, IQ 210, who attended university at age four and received his doctorate in physics at age fifteen; or the precocious Adora Svitak, who has become an accomplished writer, poet, teacher and humanitarian by age twelve?

We have interests and passions just like they do. Still, their abilities allow them to pursue their passions and achieve fantastic success at speeds most of us reach only in our dreams. While their talents and unique minds set them apart from the general public, they represent the best of us, with incredible abilities to learn, process and utilize information and skills. When we look at these individuals, we see life trajectories jumping effortlessly from success to success ad infinitum.

One branch of research into prodigies asks the question: What gives them these abilities? While the scientific basis is still not entirely understood, the Society for Neuroscience, in its briefing, Glia: The Other Brain Cells (September 2010), suggests that part of this capability might lie in a very high density of glia cells which support synaptic function and, ultimately brain plasticity. Studies of Albert Einstein's brain in the 1980s revealed a high density of glia cells "especially in the association cortex, an area of the brain involved with imagination and complex thinking."

Another branch of research asks another question altogether: Why is it that child prodigies often do not necessarily grow up into the out-of-this-world adult successes that we imagine they would? According to Ellen Winner, Boston College professor of psychology and author of Gifted Children: Myths and Realities, child prodigies rarely grow up to become adult geniuses. Interestingly, their young minds seem to be able to master knowledge that has already been discovered, but that does not always come with the ability to create, which "requires innovation, rebelliousness, dissatisfaction with the status quo (What Are Child Geniuses Like As Adults? (ABC News, 2005)."

Malcolm Gladwell, bestselling author of Blink, Outliers and The Tipping Point, summed it up when he said, "What a gifted child is, in many ways, is a gifted learner. And what a gifted adult is, is a gifted doer. And those are quite separate domains of achievement." (See APS Observer, August 2006) In Outliers, Gladwell argues that most so called geniuses (but not these types of prodigies) became experts in their fields by early and intense exposure and practice in areas that they would later excel in; his guesstimate is that it takes about 10,000 hours to become an expert. Somehow, with their mental abilities, these prodigies do what they do without Gladwell's time investment.

Research aside, they represent amazing talents, and we are right to find inspiration in them. Adora Svitak does possess that restlessness and dissatisfaction; these are the minds that I find most interesting. Through watching someone like Miss Svitak learn and succeed as she matures, I am constantly inspired to take my own learning and my own successes, and see how I can use them to make the world a better place.

Learn more about child prodigies in these articles:

Finally, do take eight minutes and thirteen seconds and watch Adora Svitak's February 2010 TED talk. You will be inspired.

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Find Your Footprint!

Find Your Footprint ContestThis fall, National Geographic is encouraging students in grades K – 12 to submit ideas and enter the “Find Your Footprint” contest.  The multi-media "Find Your Footprint" program includes online, on-air and print educational opportunities that focus on conserving energy, reducing waste and conserving water tips. 

Here's more information for students interested in entering this contest: 

  1. Pick one of these three themes:  Save Water, Reduce Waste, Save Energy. 
  2. Research how you can make the biggest difference in making both your school and the world a “greener” place to live. 
  3. Take your ideas about making your school's environmental footprint smaller to your school officials. 
  4. Working with your teacher, come up with ideas on how your classroom can impact your school's footprint. 
  5. Write up your ideas and illustrate your proposals with photos, movies and illustrations and send these in before December 3, 2010. 

Prizes range from National Geographic Kids magazine subscriptions to five Promethean interactive digital whiteboards (ActivBoards). 

Entries are being received through December 3, 2010. The contest is open to students and teachers from grades K – 12. 

Enter today and good luck!

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Neuroscience for Kids?!

National Circle of Learning 2010Kids love to learn about their brains and there are many books and websites with information, games, experiments, and other resources to help students better understand their brains, and ultimately their learning processes.   One comprehensive resource is Neuroscience for Kids. This website offers topics as diverse as neurotransmitters, sensory systems, the musical brain, and laughter.  Dig into experiments, activities, and games for students of every age.  Consider using Neuroscience for Kids’ 30-minute TV show with your students.  Get your students engaged in their brains!

Dr. Eric Chudler, a neuroscientist at the University of Washington, created and maintains the site with a team of scientific researchers.  Post your burning brain questions on their site.  Sign up for their newsletter and keep up to date on the latest in neuroscience research.  Don’t miss out on helping your students expand their minds and understand their brains.

We are thrilled to have Dr. Chudler as our keynote speaker at Scientific Learning’s National Circle of Learning’s professional development conference November 4th and 5th in Las Vegas.  For more information and to register for the conference, please go to:

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Categories: Brain Fitness, Brain Research


Building a Foundation for Academic Success

Becoming an expert reader depends upon having extensive reading experience. Researchers often refer to an individual’s cumulative reading experience as their level of “print exposure,” and they have found that print exposure is linked to educational achievement, that it depends on reading fluency, and that it varies widely among both children and adults. Reading a lot will certainly make you a better reader, but does it have any other cognitive consequences? Cunningham and Stanovich conducted a series of studies to answer this question. Their studies consistently showed that sheer volume of reading is a powerful predictor of verbal skills and world knowledge. In addition, they concluded that “reading yields significant dividends for everyone—not just for the ‘smart kids’ or the more able readers.”

In another study, Cunningham and Stanovich collected data from a group of students over a ten year period, to examine the relationship between early skills and 11th grade print exposure. Across a range of 1st grade measures, the most important predictor they found was the students’ reading fluency, as measured by tests of decoding, word recognition, and comprehension. It is worth noting that they found an even stronger connection between 3rd and 5th grade reading fluency and 11th grade print exposure. This suggests that students who don’t get off to a quick start can overcome that setback, as long as they eventually become fluent readers.

Just how much does children’s exposure to print vary? Data collected by Anderson, Wilson, and Fielding, who investigated how much time fifth graders spent reading books outside of school. They found quite a range: children at the 10th percentile averaged only one tenth of a minute per day, while children at the 90th percentile averaged more than 20 minutes per day – 200 times as much – and the students who read more made greater gains in reading comprehension.

Students who don’t choose to read independently are usually non-fluent readers, and they may benefit from interventions that improve fluency and increase print exposure. As daunting as this gap looks, adding just 10 minutes of book reading time each day could substantially reduce it.  Increased exposure would move a student from the 30th percentile to somewhere above the 70th percentile in words read per year.

Teachers can’t control how their students spend their time outside of school. However, by providing well structured guided oral reading practice, they can help their students gain fluency and increase print exposure during the school day. Scientific Learning Reading Assistant™ software is a tool that helps teachers provide this kind of research-based reading intervention. Reading Assistant is designed to help students across a wide range of ages and ability levels to become more fluent readers.

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Categories: Family Focus, Reading & Learning, Reading Assistant

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How Can You Predict Student Reading Growth?

In 2007, Scientific Learning introduced Reading Progress Indicator, or RPI for short.  RPI is an individually administered, computer-based assessment for reading and language skills.  We will review the key features of RPI, demonstrate its close relationship to a wide array of high-stakes reading tests, and show how it can be used to forecast future district reading success.

When we were building RPI, we wanted an assessment that would achieve the following four goals:

  1. Be an individually-administered computerized assessment.
  2. Be short and easy to administer.  We wanted a test that took between 30 and 40 minutes to complete.
  3. Cover key reading and language skills: phonological awareness, decoding, vocabulary, and comprehension.
  4. Quickly and reliably detect improvements after using Fast ForWord products.

RPI achieves all four of these goals.

If we look at the academic calendar year, we can see that most state reading assessments happen once a year, in the spring.  Though they are important for measuring student reading growth, they are infrequent.

RPI is a good supplement to the picture of student reading growth.  With a pre-test in the fall, and subsequent tests after completing each product, teachers can get more information to answer critical instruction questions:

Who’s currently succeeding? Who’s on track with their reading growth? And finally, who’s likely to do well on the state reading assessment? Now, that third question can only be answered if RPI measures reading ability in a similar way to those state reading assessments.  Does it?

It turns out it does align well with state reading assessments.  Here’s an example from Florida.  The Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, or FCAT, has a developmental scale score which spans all grade levels.  RPI correlates positively with this FCAT score.  The data shows the correlation is 0.51.  Of course, it’s not perfect, but 0.51 is a pretty strong correlation, and it suggests that RPI measures the same kinds of reading skills that the FCAT measures.

These results are not limited to Florida.  Here are four more tests that have a strong positive correlation to RPI.  The ITBS/ITED tests from Iowa and the ISTEP from Indiana – two more state reading assessments. The Gates-MacGinitie Reading test and the Woodcock-Johnson – both widely used supplemental reading assessments. All of these correlations are well over .5, and all are statistically significant.

So what can be done with these kinds of correlation data? Well, it’s important to realize just how rich this dataset is. We have matched data from over 25,000 RPI Users and data from over 12,000 students who took state assessments and used Fast ForWord products. 

With strong correlations between the two, we can begin to predict student performance on state assessments by looking at the trends in a student’s RPI scores.  Not perfect predictions, of course, but we can build reasonably accurate mathematical models of student growth for a variety of states. 

One application of these models is the Reading Proficiency Growth Calculator.

This tool allows districts to input simple summary numbers, such as the number of students in the district and the percentage of those students reading proficiently at grade level and see what kinds of reading gains are possible for their students under a district-wide implementation of Scientific Learning’s Fast ForWord® and Reading Assistant™ products. 

All of this is possible because of the mathematical models that carefully align RPI to state reading tests.

If you’re interested in exploring what these models forecast for your district, the Reading Proficiency Growth Calculator is available online at

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Dyslexic Learners Dramatically Improve Reading Skills with Fast ForWord

This study was conducted by Nadine Gaab and her colleagues and was published in Restorative Neurology and Neuroscience in 2007.  Studies have shown that in adults with developmental dyslexia, there is a disruption of the left prefrontal cortex’s response to short sounds.  This is important since speech is made up of numerous short sounds and a person’s mastery of the subtle sounds of spoken language are related to reading ability. 

In this study, the researchers wanted to extend those findings to children.  They did this by investigating which regions of the children’s brain were active in response to rapid auditory stimuli, determining whether the activation patterns were similar in children with dyslexia and children with typically developing reading skills, determining whether these differences could be remediated, and determining whether the remediation also resulted in changes in language and reading scores.  A total of 45 children took part in this study.  The average age was 10 ½.   22 of the children had developmental dyslexia and 23 had typically developing reading skills.  All students were behaviorally and physiologically assessed.   Some students then used the Fast ForWord Language product, an intensive intervention that builds rapid auditory processing, phonological, and linguistic skills.  Fast ForWord Language, is an intensive computerized product that uses sounds and processed language to help build students’ foundational learning skills including their auditory processing skills, their memory, their attention, and their sequencing.  The version of the product that was used did not include any orthographic stimuli -- there was no text, it was all sounds and pictures. 

The students used the Fast ForWord Language product for 100 minutes a day, five days a week, for eight weeks.  The behavioral tests evaluated students’ early reading skills and reading achievement. They were: The Comprehensive Test of Phonological Processing, The Clinical Evaluation of Language Fundamentals, and the Woodcock Reading Mastery Test.   These tests evaluated students’ ability to manipulate the sounds in language, as well as their ability to use language in general, and their ability to read and understand words, sentences, and paragraphs.   In addition to the behavioral tests, fMRI was used to measure students’ brain activity while they were doing a task unrelated to reading and language – they were listening to sounds that change in frequency, like the sound of a whistle.  The pre-tests showed that the students with dyslexia had reading skills that were significantly below the reading scores of their typically developing peers.

After using the Fast ForWord product, students’ reading and language skills were re-evaluated.   The students had made improvements in sight-word reading and passage comprehension as well as their total language skills and phonological awareness.  These improvements were statistically significant. In addition, the students’ cortical activity was re-evaluated.  In children with dyslexia, there are no regions in the brain where they have significant differences between the cortical responses to fast transitions versus the cortical responses to slow transitions. After remediation, it was found that several regions where the differences in activation increased – more similar to the activation patterns of children with typical development.  Of particular interest is left pre-frontal region – an area that has been repeatedly shown to have different processing in children with dyslexia. The results of this study are consistent with the hypothesis that deficits in auditory processing can compromise the ability to process rapid changes in frequency such as those that occur within phonemes, and that this impairment can lead to a deficit in the phonological processing of oral language, which can lead to a reading impairment.  These results also show that the neural circuitry of children with developmental dyslexia is plastic – it can be changed.  Effective remediation can be accomplished by focusing on improving rapid auditory processing and oral language skills and results in improved reading and language skills, as well as increased brain activity in response to rapidly changing sounds. 

For more information, please see:

Sound Training Rewires Dyslexic Children's Brains For Reading (by Nadine Gaab, Ph.D.)

Sound Training Rewires Dyslexic Children's Brains For Reading (from Science Daily)

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Categories: Brain Research, Fast ForWord, Reading & Learning

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Gifted and Talented Students Demonstrate Improved Reading Achievement after Using Fast ForWord Products

During the 2009-2010 school year, the St. Mary Parish Public School System was interested in evaluating the impact of the Fast ForWord® products on the reading achievement of gifted and talented students. Students who were part of this group were in the 2nd through 9th grades and their average grade level was early 4th grade. Even though their average actual grade level was early 4th grade, the group was reading at a grade level of mid-5th grade, demonstrating their gifted and talented status.

Students started on the Fast ForWord Language or Fast ForWord Literacy products, using the 40- or 50-Minute protocols. Students then progressed through the Fast ForWord Reading products. Some also used Scientific Learning’s Reading Assistant™ software. Students were pre- and post-tested using Reading Progress Indicator, a computerized assessment used to rapidly measure a student’s reading skills, including phonemic awareness, decoding, vocabulary, and comprehension.

The students made gains on Reading Progress Indicator, significantly improving their grade-equivalent scores from a reading grade level of mid-5th grade to mid-7th grade. Before these students started on the products, they had an average actual grade level of early 4th grade. These results show that the students were advanced prior to using Fast ForWord products but also that they were able to benefit, suggesting that students of various levels can show benefit from the products.

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Early Learning Success Leads to a Leg Up in Life

Kindergarten and preschool education

In today's fast-moving, highly competitive global economy, our students need every advantage we can afford them to ensure that they develop into the well-prepared leaders and thinkers of tomorrow. This past August, an article in Science Daily offered a helpful summation of the research, Learn more in kindergarten, earn more as an adult. According to the article, John Friedman and his research team at Harvard have found that—quite literally—higher test scores in early learners lead to higher incomes later in life.

Their studies indicate that:

  • Kindergarten students who raise their Stanford Achievement Test scores from average to the 60th percentile can expect to make about $1,000 more a year at age 27 than students whose scores remain average.
  • Those same youngsters who learn more—as measured by an above-average score on the Stanford Achievement Test—and are in smaller classes earn about $2,000 more a year at age 27.
  • Those who learn more in kindergarten are 1) less likely to become single parents, 2) more likely to own a home by age 28, and 3) more likely to save for retirement earlier in life.

Other key factors for long-term success include smaller class sizes and teacher experience. Overall, early learning experiences such as those in preschool and kindergarten had a marked impact on overall life success.

Additional results from several model programs have shown the positive effects of preschool participation on school completion and years of education. Long-term studies of participants in three different preschool programs found that:

  • Program participants were found to have higher rates of high-school graduation (67% vs. 49% at age 19; 71% vs. 54% at age 27).
  • Participation was associated with a higher rate of attending four-year college (36% vs. 14%).
  • Study participants had higher rates of school completion (49.7% vs. 38.5% at age 20; 65.8% vs. 54.2% at age 22). (Reynolds, Suh-Ruu. pp.2)

Why might these early learning experiences have such far-reaching affects? Researchers have developed a number of interesting hypotheses. According to the cognitive advantage hypothesis, preschool experiences lay a cognitive and developmental foundation that result in improved developmental and academic outcomes later on. Another hypothesis, the family support hypothesis, essentially says that participation in preschool programs promotes parental involvement and greater contact between parents and teachers, increasing the effectiveness of a child's earliest learning experiences at home as well as at preschool. (Reynolds, Suh-Ruu. pp.3)

Whatever mechanisms are at work, the data clearly tells a story that every educator and parent should understand; we cannot underestimate the importance of positive, effective school experiences for our youngest learners. Whether we consider this data from a parental or societal perspective, the conclusion is clearly the same: we must clearly prioritize delivering productive, quality learning experiences to our young learners as early as possible to ensure that they develop the solid foundations on which they can build successful futures.

For more details and a deeper perspective on the implications of this research on public policy, see these studies:


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Categories: Education Trends, Family Focus, Reading & Learning

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