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Changing the Culture of Poverty by Doing Whatever It Takes

Recently, while driving down the street, I saw this billboard:

Harlem Safe Zone

While that may be a bit extreme, education has been evolving to better meet the needs of today's students, since many children have not been successful with the system employed in years past.  Oftentimes, the majority of these students ‘lost in the system’ were those born into poverty.

Research studies done over the last few decades on the impact of poverty on learning have established that the majority of children born into low income families enter school significantly behind their more affluent peers in language1, cognitive skills (memory, attention, etc.) and noncognitive skills (patience, ability to follow directions, self confidence, etc.)2, as well as general learning experiences. Even with special programs designed to develop and strengthen these skills, the improvements typically last only as long as the programs; there is little long-term impact on academic success without ongoing effort and support systems in place.

Geoffrey Canada was a child who began life in poverty, but his situation was unique--he had an educated mother who was determined to keep her children out of the typical downward spiral of failure. Canada determined to do something that would impact children in poverty and his efforts have been chronicled in the book Whatever It Takes by Paul Tough.

Canada's target area has been central Harlem.  From the start, he knew that significant changes had to be made in family practices from birth and beyond to give these children a chance at success. He believed that if he began with the final outcome he wanted to achieve, and then determined what was needed to realize that goal, he could create a process to change the cycle of poverty.  With the help of many people, he has created a continuous, cohesive and comprehensive system designed to change the overall culture of the area.  This neighborhood ‘safety net’ is called the Harlem Children’s Zone.

The Harlem Children’s Zone began with efforts to improve parenting skills that would help mothers and fathers work on educational skills with their infants and toddlers.  Over time, additional programs have been added to provide extensive support from birth to kindergarten so these children would be prepared for school in a way that few Harlem children had ever been in the past.  For children that have reached “school age”, the provision of extra time in the classroom to focus on individual needs has set the Harlem Children’s Zone apart from other well-meaning efforts.  And now, the Harlem Children’s Zone model has moved beyond Harlem, with New Jersey Governor Chris Christie announcing last week that some of his state’s cities will begin using Canada’s community-based approach.

Children who learn critical skills at an early age are better able to master more complex skills later.  The best way to escape poverty is through education, and that education must begin at birth – or before.  The Harlem Children’s Zone has shown that if you provide the key skills needed to offset the disadvantages of a child’s birthplace, you may be able to remove the seemingly insurmountable obstacles seen in the cycle of poverty of the past.  Truly, we all must be willing to do whatever it takes.


Paul Tough, Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada’s Quest to Change Harlem and America (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009)

1 Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley, Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children (Baltimore: P.H. Brookes, 1995). 

2 James Heckman, “Lessons from the Bell Curve,” Journal of Political Economy 103, no. 5 (October 1995).

Related Reading:

Limiting Young Children’s Screen Time for Long-Term Health

Engaging Children in the World with Words

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Categories: Education Trends, Family Focus, Reading & Learning

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Reading in the Real World: Text Difficulty and Workplace Success

Reading is an active and complex task that requires the brain to use a multitude of cognitive skills and mental processes to develop meaning and comprehension from written text.  Being able to read high-level text independently and fluently is essential for high achievement, not only in academia but also in the workplace and through numerous life tasks.  However there is a serious gap between many high school seniors’ reading ability and the reading requirements they face after graduation.  

Consider the chart below. The Lexile Measure for reading level of high school literature and textbooks falls short of the level typical of college, military and workplace material.  And when you take into consideration the reading level of most standardized assessments for high school students, a Lexile range of 1000-1100, the gap becomes even more evident.  Simply put, students are leaving high school with limited exposure to higher-level text and contact with reading standards and assessments that don’t adequately align to meet the real world conditions they’ll be confronted with.


©International Center for Leadership in Education, Inc.


Research conducted by ACT’s College Readiness Benchmark for Reading indicates that just over half of our nation’s students who are on a college preparatory track are able to meet the demands and rigor of postsecondary and workplace requirements.  And if that isn’t daunting enough, data from the most recent reading assessment conducted by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reveals that only 38% of high school seniors tested at or above proficiency for 12th grade standards.  This bodes ill for the ability of Americans to meet the demands and challenges of a highly competitive global marketplace and begs the question, “Why aren’t our schools’ reading standards higher?”

Studies show that aligning high school standards to college and workplace expectations is a critical step toward giving students a solid foundation in the academic, social and workplace skills needed for success in a postsecondary education or career.  The American Diploma Project has found that there is a common core of knowledge and skills, particularly in English and math, that students must master to be pre­pared for both postsecondary education and well-paying jobs.  The research shows that there is a strong correlation between scores in high school math and English and wages earned once in the workplace.  Students who are taking below-average or functional/basic classes increase their likelihood of being employed in a low-paid or low-skill job, compared to students in the top quartile who earn significantly more in the decade following high school than their ‘average’ or low performing peers. 

As we seek to curtail the disparity between what’s taught in K-12 classrooms and what’s expected in the real world, it’s important that we coordinate with our local and national education and business leaders, help them to provide a cohesive approach to improve the rigors of academic coursework, promote relevant and innovative learning opportunities for all students, and share information and resources that advance the coordination across the K-12 and postsecondary sectors of our society.  And by all means if you can read this, thank a teacher!


Malbert Smith III, Ph.D. Bridging the Readiness Gap: Demystifying Required Reading Levels for Postsecondary Pursuits.

Related Reading:

The Essential Nature of Developing Oral Reading Fluency

Adolescence: What’s the Brain Got to Do with It?

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Inspiring Fluency: One School’s Journey to Improve Reading Skills

Improving reading skills

A focus on core reading skills has recently been promoted in college coursework for beginning teachers, statewide initiatives for student achievement, and professional development for teachers across the curriculum in all levels of education. One of the five core skills, fluency, is still being heavily debated among the researchers, but is gaining traction as an instructional skill that is necessary to the efficiency of reading. Differences in word reading or naming speed, two aspects of fluency, have been identified as early as kindergarten levels in struggling readers (Wolf, Bally, & Morris, 1986), and can continue to be tracked into middle and high school (Meyer, Wood, Hart, and Felton, 1999). Many students who struggle and are identified as having reading deficits have difficulty with reading speed and accuracy. 

Although there seems to be a significant and growing body of research on reading skills, including fluency, there is still much to be learned about the impact of fluency on overall learning. The typical definition of fluency is “the ability to read connected text rapidly, smoothly, effortlessly and automatically with little conscious attention to the mechanics of reading, such as decoding” (Meyers and Felton, 1999). Reading fluency problems of children with reading difficulties, according to Torgeson (2006), are a result of students’ difficulties forming large vocabularies of words that they can recognize “by sight” or at a single glance. If students receive “powerful and appropriately focused interventions many of them can become accurate readers and their reading comprehension improves as a result of being able to correctly identify more of the words in text” (Torgeson, 2006).

Bridges Academy, located in Winter Springs Florida, serves students with specific learning disabilities. The overall purpose of the program is to remediate the learning gaps for the students and to “bridge” them back into mainstream schools with mainstream curriculum. Ninety-nine percent of the students who attend the school have an identified deficit in reading and many are considered to be dysfluent readers. Several years ago, Bridges Academy incorporated a computer-based instructional tool, Reading Assistant software, that provided a highly focused intervention for fluency to address the skill development of reading fluency, as a trial implementation.

For the pilot program, 10 middle school aged students were selected to try the Reading Assistant program. Each middle school student was invited to participate, if they desired to do so, during their homeroom time at the end of the day. Homeroom time, of course, is a very social time and many of the middle school students looked forward to spending some time connecting with their peers before leaving campus for the day. Each of the students was asked to commit to no more than 10 days, so they did not feel that they were giving up their social time for the rest of the school year. 

To get familiar with the program and the process, each student was assigned a level of the computer program that was instructionally suited to their present independent reading level. The requirements were straightforward. Students were to listen to a selected story read aloud on the computer a total of three times. Then each student was required to review any words that were unfamiliar to them by selecting the word and seeing or hearing an example of that word in a picture or sentence. After this initial step the students were required to orally read the story selection. Words Correct Per Minute (WCPM) was tracked by the software and students were directed to complete a series of comprehension questions when done. One key component unique to this product was the requirement that the student listen to their own voice recording of the selection after each of the three required oral reading samples. 

The interest and enthusiasm amongst these 10 middle school students as the project began was very exciting to the faculty and administration. All 10 students shared information with their parents and their classmates about the project and the way the program worked. During their lunch break, they discussed the various stories that they were reading amongst themselves   and shared their present WCPM scores with their peers with tremendous pride!  These students would celebrate their promotion to a new story with a “high five” and pored over their data reports at the end of the week to see what types of gains in fluency they were making. What was most encouraging? All 10 of the students chose to work on the program for the duration of the school year, a period of eight weeks. One student even elected to come back to the campus during summer vacation to complete the stories he was reading, so he could reach his own set goal of 200 WCPM! 

The impact of this implementation of the Reading Assistant program is now being realized across the campus at Bridges Academy. All students who are reading above a second grade level are provided access to the Reading Assistant program two to three times a week, throughout the school year. Students who are preparing to “bridge” to a new school program are provided the opportunity to work four afternoons a week as an after school option, so that they may increase their proficiency rate with above grade level material in preparation for their move to the mainstream schools. Every January through April, 80% of the students eligible for bridging can be observed working in the afterschool program. What is most impressive is that these students have chosen to participate in this afterschool program! 

The assessments, data analysis, and individual summary reports built into Reading Assistant track the overall impact of the program in improving reading skills for student participants.  Bridges Academy staff and administration are pleased with the overall improvements in the students’ reading skills and confidence. The students perceive themselves as readers, and parents report that the students are now becoming more confident readers who enjoy reading--many for the first time!


Meyer, M.A., & Felton, R.H. (1999). Repeated reading to enhance fluency: Old approaches and new directions.  Annals of Dyslexia, 49, 283–306.

Meyer, M.S., Wood, F.B., Hart, L.A. & Fenton, R. H. (1999) Longitudinal course of rapid naming in disabled and non disabled readers. Annals of Dyslexia, 48, 89-114.

Torgeson, J.K. & Hudson, R. (2006) Reading fluency: critical issues for struggling readers. In S.J. Samuels and A. Farstrup (Eds.). Reading Fluency: The forgotten dimension of reading success. Newark, DE: International Reading Association

Wolf, M., Bally, H., & Morris, R. (1986) Automaticity, retrieval process and reading: A longitudinal study in average and impaired readers. Child Development, 57, 988-1000.

Related Reading:

Truth in Numbers: School Achieves Statistically Significant Improvements on TAKS

The Essential Nature of Developing Oral Reading Fluency

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Categories: Reading & Learning, Reading Assistant, Special Education

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Jolene’s Story: “I Saw Tremendous Change”

We regularly hear from our customers that Scientific Learning employees are tremendously passionate and committed.  For many employees, that passion comes from having family members who have experienced dramatic improvements after using our products.  We thought it might be nice to share some of those stories with you, and today’s post is the first in a series aimed at doing just that.

Jolene’s Story:

“Hi.  I’m Jolene.   I’ve been a Progress Monitor with the company about two years.  When I first heard about Fast ForWord it was actually when I looked at a job posting and I looked into the company a little bit. 

It was an interesting timeframe.  I kind of looked at it when I got the job as a Godsend, because I have two twin boys myself and a little girl and they were behind in their reading tremendously so that we had ended up having to hold them back for third grade and they had to repeat. 

I took the software home and I had them go through Fast ForWord Language v2 first.  And I did all the facilitating and the monitoring just as I was doing with the teachers so it worked out very well. I saw tremendous change. 

The boys are at reading level now; they were a year-and–a-half behind.  So, it brings tears to my eyes to think that I was very fortunate to get this job so that I can not only make a difference with everyone else, but see success in my own family.

And continued success because I’m going to be using it with my little girl, too.  Thank you for letting me share. “

Related Reading:

Fast ForWord Featured on ABC 7 News

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Ben’s Story: Intensive Intervention Helps a Young Boy on the Autism Spectrum Succeed

Intensive intervention Brainpro Autism

Ben was just over two when his mother brought him to my office for a speech and language evaluation. She was a speech pathologist herself and knew he was late to start talking. She had seen another speech language professional before me but wanted a second opinion; that professional had told her she thought Ben might be developmentally delayed.

Both mom and I sat on the floor with a few toys, a car and a truck, trying to entice Ben to play with us. Ben ran around the room, very anxious, probably because of the unfamiliar environment and a new stranger, me, to contend with. He threw the car against the wall and began to cry uncontrollably. I suggested that I leave the room for a few minutes to let Ben settle down and acclimate to the surroundings with his mother. Waiting outside I could hear her attempts to calm him down being frustrated by Ben's increasing agitation.

Finally I reentered the room and mom told me sometimes Ben would settle down in new places if he could have some place to hide for awhile. I opened the door to my materials closet and in he ran, slamming the door behind him. While Ben was "hiding" I asked mom to recount his history. I had heard very similar stories many times before. Ben was a first child, a beautiful responsive baby. He began smiling when a few weeks old and sat and crawled by six months. But sometime around his first birthday he began to change. He resisted being held, threw frequent temper tantrums, and his early first words disappeared. He had several ear infections so mom and his pediatrician thought these might account for his delayed speech so he had an operation at 20 months to place tubes in his ears to reduce the fluid in his middle ear.  But when he still wasn't talking by his second birthday mom began to worry. She also noticed he had started rocking and biting his right hand when he became frustrated and screamed if she tried to take him shopping with her.

He loved riding in the car in his car seat but the second she unstrapped him and he recognized and unfamiliar locale, his back arched and he would thrash and yell. One day, she recounted, a woman who had apparently overseen such a display in the store parking lot, came over to her and told her she needed some parenting lessons. Devastated, Ben's mom said she called her pediatrician who recommended a local social worker who specialized in helping parents deal with problem toddlers. It was the social worker who recommended mom bring Ben to me.

Ben eventually emerged from hiding after I enticed him with his favorite toy from home,  Thomas the Tank Engine. He sat in the floor staring at the toy train car and quietly spun the wheels for several minutes. Mom and I sat silently because if either of us spoke Ben would cover his ears and start rocking.

I enrolled Ben in speech therapy sessions three times a week and recommended that he also receive Occupational Therapy to provide sensory integration therapy to help Ben learn ways to calm himself. After about six months of therapy Ben was talking some but most of his speech was repetitive. "Teeze an kako" was one of his favorite repeated phrases as a request for cheese and crackers that we used in therapy to reinforce his good behavior. Mom said she had stopped trying to take Ben out to dinner or to the store because everyone stared at him, and she felt, blamed her as a bad mother when he yelled or threw things.

By three and one -half Ben was very hyperactive, not yet potty trained, and walked on his toes with his hands flapping in the air. He was speaking in short sentences but his speech was still repetitive and sing-song like. A typical phrase was, "You Ben friend? You Ben Friend?" and, "Ben want Tom Tom! Ben want Tom Tom!"  At this time Ben was diagnosed with autism by a well regarded psychologist in the area.

For many years mom rejected the autism diagnosis. She and her physician husband felt Ben was very bright and that his behaviors and speech problems masked his other strengths. For example, by four years of age Ben had memorized many nursery songs, word for word.  By five Ben could name all the major dinosaurs and tell you the era in which they lived and whether they were plant or animal eaters. But Ben's parents were crushed when the expensive private school they enrolled him in for kindergarten rejected him for first grade.

By the time Ben was seven his parents had invested thousands of dollars in private therapies, private schools, parent counseling, and ABA (applied behavioral analysis) interventions. Ben's mother had hired several different daytime babysitters to help her when a new baby girl arrived, but all would quit after a few months because Ben was so difficult to manage. They had tried ADHD medications which helped calm Ben down during the day but then he could not sleep at night, so either mom or dad ended up, night after sleepless night, trying to supervise Ben as he ran around the house at two a.m.

I have worked with many children like Ben and their parents. These children are dear and very smart in many ways. Yet these children are often locked in a mental prison that keeps them in a perpetual internal turmoil when they are young. As they age and receive therapy they usually emerge, finding solace and relief in their passionate interests. But their unique interests and strengths are rarely as comforting for the parents who see their child stop being invited to birthday parties and play-dates. Parents watch with constant anguish as other adults stare as their child rocks, spins, or obsessively recites favorite poems or perhaps counts windows or red shirts, on planes, in restaurants, at the park.  As Ben's mother explained, "If Ben had a visual sign of impairment others would show compassion, I'm sure. But he looks normal, just acts oddly, so I know people think I did something wrong as a mother."

As we learn more about Autism Spectrum Disorders, we are able to identify signs earlier, and our therapy can begin sooner and have more profound effects. Ben (which is not his real name), I am happy to say, was one of an early group of children to go through an experimental computerized language program out of Rutgers University in 1996, shortly after his seventh birthday which is now available to parents as part of the BrainPro Autism service from Scientific Learning. The first change Ben’s mother and I noticed after he completed six weeks of the program was that Ben began speaking in full sentences and started to initiate conversations. One day shortly after the program ended, he told me that his sister had “opened his lose tooth,” meaning that she had knocked out a wobbly baby tooth.  His intonational contour also changed dramatically, from being rather stereotyped to emotional and natural. Within a month or so he began relaying other stories about home and for the first time started enjoying games that involved pretending. On a standardized language test administered before and after the program, he had gained almost two years growth in receptive language skills. Some of the growth on the test appeared to be attributable as much to his ability to pay attention to test questions as well as new language skills he had acquired from the language tasks within the program.

A few years ago Ben’s mother informed me that he attended a junior college program in computer technology and, as of my last communication with her, was working as a computer technician for a local computer retail outlet.  He lived at home then but had friends at work and a hobby, not surprisingly, of building dinosaur models. Mom said, Ben “seems happy now" and his parents did as well. They were encouraged by his job, circle of friends, and hobby. With the years of anguish they were trying to help other parents cope with the fears and pain that surround an autism diagnosis in the early years, but inform on the hope emanating from new research on early identification and new technological intensive interventions that can supplement therapies.

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Categories: Brain Fitness, Family Focus, Fast ForWord, Reading & Learning

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Left vs. Right: What Your Brain Hemispheres Are Really Up To

Right brain left brain

In the 1980’s, brain researchers viewed the two sides of the brain as dichotomously opposed: the right hemisphere was seen as a gestalt processor, good at “seeing the big picture,” while the left hemisphere was attributed with detail processing skills. Other views at that time attributed the left hemisphere with being more logical and analytical while the right hemisphere was considered more intuitive.[i]

Some went so far as asserting that men and women exhibited different right vs. left preferences: men were attributed with stronger left hemisphere skills and women better right hemisphere skills. Although this male-female distinction was never empirically verified through research, the somewhat “pop-psychology” view that the right hemisphere is important for skills like music and art, predominated. In fact, there were books written instructing individuals on how to “draw with the right hemisphere” or how to “teach to the right hemisphere”.[ii]

It now appears that some of these notions need to be revised.  A current view is that, for the majority of us, the right hemisphere is a pattern recognizer that may develop before the left. From this perspective, the right hemisphere enables a child to attend to and appreciate the gist of a sensory experience within each cognitive domain. For example, in acquisition of mathematical concepts, the right hemisphere may enable a young child to appreciate quantities in terms of more vs. less prior to assigning numerical values to the quantities (which would involve left hemisphere skills). There is research demonstrating that babies can discern a group of dots in terms of general aspects of quantity.[iii]

Patricia Kuhl at University of Washington in Seattle has shown that typically developing infants show an interest in human voices over other environmental sounds like a car horn or doorbell, and direct their attention to human voice when it conveys information that is interesting.[iv] Ultimately this may lead to an understanding of how the melody of a voice is used to convey a person’s intent.  In other words, recent research suggests that the right hemisphere may be best at processing patterns like voice contour, facial expression, aspects of size and quantity, gestalt aspects of the world which, from a developmental perspective, represent the way children begin to learn about cognitive areas like music, art, mathematics or language.

Considering the cognitive domain of music, for example, the right hemisphere appears to have a fundamental preference for recognizing melody, which allows a young infant to be interested in and ultimately reproduce early nursery songs. In the realm of visual processing, the right hemisphere has been shown to be better at perceiving the form or outline of an object than the details contained within the object.[v]. And, similarly, although many people regard the left hemisphere as dominant for language, newer research has shown that the right hemisphere is superior at processing information like vocal inflection (prosody), and perhaps going directly from word to meaning, especially in very familiar phrases like idiomatic expressions (eg., “it is raining cats and dogs”) while the left hemisphere is more important for processing aspects of language that depend on analyzing the specific sequence of the sounds and words which are essential for understanding grammatical form of language and perceiving internal details of words.[vi]

Several neuroscientists have accordingly revised and expanded the early right-left dichotomy to see the right hemisphere as preferential in processing form, structure, and perhaps, direct links to emotion,[vii]  while the left hemisphere handles complex, rapidly changing stimuli, in which discerning the specific sequential order is critical to perception (as in speech perception, for example, where one must discern and order very rapidly changing complex acoustic events very quickly.)[viii]

Another revision to the older view of right versus left hemisphere complements the view that the right hemisphere is preferential for pattern analysis, and comes from developmental neuroscience which has reported research that supports the contention that for most cognitive skills the right hemisphere matures before the left.[ix] This certainly seems to the case when one looks at the early stages of neuronal development and migration in the fetal brain,[x] and also the building of early axonal superhighways, as well as the research on myelination.[xi] In fact, it may be that when this typical right to left maturation does not occur, developmental neurological abnormalities result. For example, there is some early research evidence that Autism Spectrum Disorders may represent one example of developmental deviations in this typical right-to-left developmental hierarchy.[xii]

Although it may seem somewhat of a stretch from the early research in this area, one can observe how this organization might be reflected in early childhood development in the stages children pass through in the gradual mastery of skills. For example, when a child first begins to enjoy music, the observant adult notices that the child moves his or her whole body to the musical rhythm. For nursery songs, like “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” the child often begins by humming the melodies. In both cases, this may represent right hemisphere processing.

In most cases, it will be a few years before the child will be able to read musical symbols which would presumably involve more left hemisphere skill. We do have research that shows that when three month old babies are first listening to oral language, the right hemisphere is much more active than the left.[xiii] Patricia Kuhl has shown that mothers instinctively seem to match their speech to babies’ early developing perceptual preferences by exaggerating melodic inflection with young babies, probably reflecting their intuitive knowledge that they need to exaggerate the language cues (intonational contour and vocal inflection) that the right hemisphere seems to process preferentially while deemphasizing the production of the speech sounds themselves (left hemisphere preferences).[xiv]

[i] Deutsch, Georg and Sally P. Springer. Left Brain, Right Brain: Perspectives From Cognitive Neuroscience . W.H. Feeman and Company/Worth Publishers. 2001.
[ii] Edwards, Betty. Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. Penguin Putnam Press. 1999.
[iii] Xu, Fei et al. (2005) Number sense in human infants. Developmental Science. Vol. 8. 2005.
[iv] Kuhl, Patricia. Early Language Acquisition: Cracking the Speech Code. Nature Reviews Neuroscience. Vol 5. 2005.
[v] Devinsky, Orrin and Mark D’Esposito. Neurology of Cognitive and Behavioral Disorders. Oxford University Press. 2004.
[vi] Hickok, Gregory and David Poeppel. The Cortical Organization of Speech Processing. Nature Reviews Neuroscience. 2007.
[vii]Cahill, L. et al. Sex-Related Hemispheric Lateralization of Amygdala Function in Emotionally Influenced Memory: An fMRI Investigation. Learning and Memory. Vol. 11: 261-266. 2004
[viii] Tallal, Paula. Improving Language and Liteacy is a Matter of Time. Nature Reviews Neuroscience Vol. 5. 2004.
[ix] Huttenlocher, Peter. Morphometric Study of Human Cerebral Cortex Development. Neuropsychologia. Vol. 28. 1990.
[x] Galaburda, Albert et al. From Genes to Behavior in Developmental Dyslexia. Nature Neuroscience  Vol 9. 2006.
[xi] Herbert, Martha et al. Brain Asymmetries in Autism and Developmental Language Disorder: A Nested Whole-Brain Analysis. Brain: A Journal of Neurology.2004.
[xii] Herbert, Martha et al. Ibid.
[xiii] Hickock, Gregory and David Poeppel. Ibid.
[xiv] Kuhl, Patricia. Ibid.

Related Reading:

A Gymnast, a Cursor and a Monkey Named Aurora

7 Amazing Discoveries from Brain Research

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Categories: Brain Research, Reading & Learning

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The Need for Physically Active Learning

Physical activity

The human mind is most engaged to react and perform at optimal capacity when our hearts are pumping and our blood is flowing. Any athlete will tell you that he or she feels most alive and sharp when they are in the midst of the contest, heart beating hard, mind alert and ready. Given the interconnected nature of how our brains and bodies function, how the brain gets more oxygen and works better when the heart is pumping, it’s easy to see that we are designed not only to learn, but to think best “on our feet.”

In fact, this concept extends far beyond circulation alone; physical activity has been shown to have substantive affects on brain chemistry. In 2003, Sibley and Etnier demonstrated that, for 4-18 year-olds, exercise positively impacts perception skills, IQ, achievement, verbal and math scores, development and academic readiness.[i] Exercise can affect the release of neurotransmitters key to the learning process, such as norepinephrine (which increases blood flow to skeletal muscles as well as to the brain) and acetylcholine (which can slow the heart rate and contribute to sustained attention).

With these concepts in mind, now imagine the modern classroom. The average student sits for hours a day usually sitting still.  She shouldn’t stand up and stretch, or worse, walk around the classroom. (For goodness sake, that’s distracting to the other students and disrespectful to the teacher.) Physical education programs are getting cut due to shrinking budgets, and recess time is being cut to create more opportunities for test preparation. Obesity and diabetes are dangerously on the rise. Since the early 1970s, the number of overweight students has quadrupled from four percent to seventeen percent. (American Heart Association)

In general, the classroom becomes a place where we expect students to focus the mind and quiet the body. What we’re learning is that this is just not necessarily the best way to go. A new trend in classroom management is bringing this tradition into question. Through what is becoming known as “physically active learning,” educators are not only experimenting with integrating more physical activity into classroom lessons, but they are generating positive results.

According to Jena Mee, a physical education and school health education consultant for the Department of Education, “Research is showing us very persuasively that if students exercise for sustained periods of time before they do challenging work, they perform cognitive tasks better, they remember things better, they can apply their skills better.”[ii]

In theory, the idea is to break up lessons with short breaks of physical activity that get students up out of their seats and moving around the room. According to eSchool News, “The approach also has been shown to improve attendance and student behavior and reduce discipline referrals.”

As educators under pressure to maximize student academic performance, we often focus on the material and forget that our real goal is to help the whole child. This research is just one more reminder that we need to attend to the body as well as the mind. If we can do both, we will help our students become all that much more successful.

While the research is still developing, you can get the story as reported this past May on

And if you want to explore one idea to bring more physical activity into your classroom, how about using exercise balls instead of chairs?

[i] Sibley B.A. and Etnier J.L. (2003). The relationship between physical activity and cognition in children: a meta- analysis. Pediatric Exercise Science, 15:243-256.

[ii] ‘Physically active learning’ improves test scores, sharpens concentration. eSchool News. May 16, 2011.

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5 Paths To Brain Health: Tips From Dr. Paul Nussbaum

Brain health

As the webinar coordinator here at Scientific Learning, I hosted yet another fascinating webinar about brain health with Dr. Paul Nussbaum in early May called “Brain Health Across the Lifespan”.  Dr. Nussbaum combined humor with interesting facts about the brain and the webinar ended up being one of our best sessions to date.  He provided a simple yet comprehensive look at the brain and how it functions. 

One interesting story Dr. Nussbaum shared was about the development and eventual delaying of the onset of Alzheimer’s disease based on lifestyle choices.  He cited research that has been done at autopsy that shows that there can be evidence of Alzheimer’s disease in the brain that has never manifested in memory problems during a person’s life.   

Dr. Nussbaum concluded that if you look at the individual’s life, you might find that they had a higher education level or more demanding occupation or participated in complex and varied activities throughout life, building up a stronger and more “fit” brain and delaying the onset of the disease.

He then covered 5 important aspects to brain health and suggested some activities that can keep your brain fit and healthy throughout your lifetime:

  1. Nutrition:  Eat more “good” fats including Omega-3 fatty acids, more fruits and vegetables, and fewer “bad” fats and processed foods. 
  2. Socialization:  Stay involved with life and develop a personal mission and hobbies along with building networks of family and friendships.
  3. Physical Activity: Be mobile and active.  Walk, play, run, garden, exercise, bike, hike.  These activities can help reduce the risk of dementia later on in life.
  4. Mental Stimulation:  Learn a second language, learn sign language, travel, play board games, and either play or listen to music.
  5. Spirituality:  Slow down, meditate, and learn relaxation procedures.  Identify what your stressors are and how they affect you and then identify ways to handle them.

To find out more about Brain Health, watch our previously recorded webinar or visit Dr. Nussbaum’s website.

Related Reading:

Lifelong Leaning and the Plastic Brain

Educating Kids about Nutrition and the Brain

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How Learning and Literacy Enhance Our Brains

Learning and literacy

Reading is a recent cultural invention. It is not a skill we are naturally programmed to develop like walking or vocalizing. It is a relatively recent development in human history estimated to be only about 6000 years old. The development of oral language in humans is believed to be nearly 300,000 years old.  Oral language is thought to have co-developed with the use of tools as both require complex motor control.

To quote from the recent book Reading in the Brain (Dehaene, 2009): "At this very moment, your brain is accomplishing an amazing feat­—reading. Four or five times per second, your gaze stops just long enough to recognize one or two words.  You are, of course, unaware of this jerky intake of information.  Only the sounds and meanings of the words reach your conscious mind.  But how can a few black marks projected onto your retina evoke an entire universe?"[i]  

In 2010, Stanislas Dehaene, et al. published a study which evaluated whether learning to read improves brain function, and also whether there are tradeoffs for such learning.[ii] In other words, does learning to read “occupy” a space in the brain that could or would be used for something else in our evolutionary past?

Dehaene and his research team have used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to measure how the brain responded to various stimuli, including spoken and written language, visual faces, houses, tools, and checkers in a group of literate and illiterate adults. Ten were illiterate, 22 learned to read as adults, and 31 learned to read as children.

In the end, their studies generated a number of fascinating conclusions. Literacy—no matter at what point in life the skill is acquired, in youth or as an adult—enhances brain response in three ways:

  1. It boosts the organization of the visual cortex. Located toward the back of the brain, this is the area that processes visual information.
  2. It allows the area of the brain responsible for spoken language—the planum temprale—to be activated by written sentences.
  3. It refines how the brain processes spoken language.

Granted, there is much more detail to understand behind these conclusions, and I certainly invite you to read the entire article. Still, for us as educators, these conclusions hold useful insights.

In being aware of how literacy is related to these other skills, such as speaking and visual processing, we can use this information as yet another tool to help us better understand what we can expect from our students, no matter their ages. If they come into our classroom able to read, we know that we can expect them to have greater capacity for speech. If they come in with fewer or no reading skills, we might want to be aware that they might have challenges in processing visual input. 

Given these conclusions, the more we can continue to develop technology solutions that can teach while detecting deficiencies and adapt to student needs “on the fly,” the better we will be able to individualize instruction, fill in gaps in learning and strengthen essential skills.

As these scientists continue their investigations and the research sheds more light on how reading affects brain processing, we as educators will continue to increase our abilities to make better targeted instructional decisions that will help every individual student achieve optimal success.

[i] Dehaene, Stanislas. Reading in the Brain. Penguin Viking Publishing. November, 2009.

[ii] Dehaene, Stanislas et. al.How Learning to Read Changes the Cortical Networks for Vision and Language. 2010.

Related Reading:

How Learning to Read Improves Brain Function

The Essential Nature of Developing Oral Reading Fluency

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