Showing posts with tag attention Show all posts >
When teachers think of teaching writing, they typically begin with the type of writing they want their students to compose—persuasive pieces, personal narratives, academic essays and the like. They think of following the steps of the writing process—prewriting, drafting, revising, editing, and publishing—and conduct mini-lessons during writers’ workshop. Others teachers begin diagraming sentences, discussing subject-verb agreement or distinguishing between nominative and objective case pronouns.
All too often, however, little attention is given to the cognitive skills of writing. And that’s a shame, because cognitive skills are the building blocks upon which writing depends.
The Cognitive Building Blocks of Writing
Cognitive skills such as memory, attention, sequencing, and processing speed underlie all composition. It is generally presumed that by middle and high school, students have mastered these basic cognitive skills, and, as such, mainstream writing curricula for secondary students rarely explicitly address the cognitive skills of writing. Nonetheless, research evidence is mounting that many middle and high school students who continue to struggle with writing have not mastered the underlying cognitive and linguistic skills on which written language depends (Berninger, Fuller, & Whitaker, 1996)
To write cohesive, readable, and understandable text, the writer must not only have a firm linguistic foundation in order to select the appropriate vocabulary and grammatical structure to convey the meaning intended, but must also hold the concepts, vocabulary, and grammatical form of sentences and paragraphs in working memory while formulating each new sentence.
The writing process itself places considerable demands on real-time verbal working memory, as writers construct and hold in mind the ideas they wish to express, inhibiting the irrelevant and attending to the relevant details of what they are presently writing. Simultaneously writers must keep in mind what they have already written, and plan for what they are about to write to complete their thoughts (Torrance & Galbraith, 2008).
Another cognitive skill that has been shown to affect writing is focused and sustained attention (Ransdell, Levy, & Kellogg, 2002). A writer’s full attention is consumed in thinking about what to say and applying correct spelling, punctuation, and syntactical rules to what is written. Sentence generation involves consciously reflecting on and manipulating knowledge that needs to be retrieved rapidly from long-term memory or actively maintained in short-term working memory. Writers must toggle their attention between formulating their thoughts to be written and the transcriptional demands of actually recording these thoughts in written form, all the while inhibiting distractions from the environment.
Sequencing and Processing Speed
Writing also places heavy demands on both perceptual and motor sequencing. Writers must process their thoughts sequentially as they compose letters into words, words into sentences, and sentences into paragraphs that conform to the rules of any language. Applying language rules during writing—from recalling the correct sequence of letters within words, to recalling the proper order of words within sentences (such as, in English, nouns precede verbs and adjectives precede nouns), to building multiple paragraphs within a composition—also places particularly heavy demands on the writer’s sequencing abilities.
As the writer translates this mental process into a motor process of composing each word in a sentence, all preceding words in that sentence must be kept in working memory while words and sentences are strung into paragraphs. The writer needs to coordinate these cognitive tasks almost simultaneously, placing heavy demands on processing speed. The significance of processing speed is felt most heavily in the classroom, where students who cannot process rapidly enough are often times left behind.
What the Research Says
Because of the heavy cognitive demands that writing places on attention, sequencing, working memory, and processing speed, Robert T. Kellogg, a professor of psychology at Saint Louis University suggested (Kellogg, 2008) that explicit cognitive skills training programs—especially ones that emphasize deliberate practice—might prove particularly beneficial in improving student’s writing skills.
In two separate studies conducted by the author (Rogowsky, 2010; Rogowsky, Papamichalis, Villa, Heim, & Tallal, 2013) a significant improvement in students’ writing skills occurred after their participation in a computer-based cognitive and literacy skills training. In the first study, a pretest-posttest randomized field trial was conducted in a public middle school (Rogowsky, 2010). The study compared the writing skills of sixth-grade students who either did or did not receive individually adaptive, computer-based cognitive skills instruction (Fast ForWord) in conjunction with their standards-aligned comprehensive literacy curriculum for one school marking period (45 days). The writing skills of students who received the cognitive training, in addition to the standards-aligned comprehensive literacy curriculum, improved significantly more than those who received the standards-aligned comprehensive literacy curriculum alone, with a large between-group difference.
In a second study, Fast ForWord training was shown to improve college students’ writing (Rogowsky et al., 2013). College students with poor writing skills participated in 11 weeks of computer-based cognitive and literacy skills training, and were compared to a group of college students from the general population of the same university. Results from this study showed the group who received training began with statistically lower writing skills before training, but exceeded the writing skills of the comparison group after training. Although writing was not explicitly trained, the individually adaptive, computer-based training designed to improve foundational cognitive and linguistic skills generalized to improve writing skills in both middle school and college students.
What it Means for Writing Instruction
Based upon these two studies, there is clearly a link between writing and the foundational cognitive skills upon which writing exists. Learning to write is one of the most cognitively demanding academic activities a student must perform. It is not surprising that so many students struggle to perfect and improve their writing abilities throughout their academic years. In addition to the traditional writing methodologies, the future of writing instruction calls for the inclusion of cognitive skills training.
Berninger, V.W., Abbott, R.D., Swanson, H.L., Lovitt, D., Trivedi, P., Lin. S., Gould, L., Youngstrom, M., Shimada, S., & Amtmann, D. (2010). Relationship of word- and sentence-level working memory to reading and writing in second, forth, and sixth grade. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools, 41, 179-193. doi:10.1044/0161-1461(2009/08-0002)
Berninger, V.W., Fuller, F., & Whitaker, D. (1996). A process model of writing development across the life span. Educational Psychology Review, 8(3), 193-218. doi: 10.1007/BF01464073
Kellogg, R.T. (2008).Training writing skills: A cognitive developmental perspective. Journal of Writing Research, 1(1), 1-26. http://www.jowr.org/articles/vol1_1/JoWR_2008_vol1_nr1_Kellogg.pdf
Ransdell, S., Levy, C. M., & Kellogg, R.T. (2002). The structure of writing processes as revealed by secondary task demands. L1-Educational Studies in Language and Literature, 2(2), 141-163. doi: 10.1023/A:1020851300668
Rogowsky, B.A. (2010). The impact of Fast ForWord® on sixth grade students’ use of Standard Edited American English. (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from ProQuest Digital Dissertations. (AAT 3432348)
Rogowsky, B.A., Papamichalis, P., Villa, L., Heim, S., & Tallal, P. (2013). Neuroplasticity-based cognitive and linguistic skills training improves reading and writing skills in college students. Frontiers in Psychology, 4, 137. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00137
Torrance, M., & Galbraith, D. (2008). The processing demands of writing. In C.A. MacArthur S. Graham, & J. Fitzgerald (Eds.), Handbook of Writing Research (67-80). New York, NY: Guilford Press.
Attend one of our popular webinars with thought leaders in learning. Live and pre-recorded webinars are available. Register today!
“There is an endless war of nerves going on inside each of our brains. If we stop exercising our mental skills, we do not just forget them: the brain map space for those skills is turned over to the skills we practice instead. If you ever ask yourself, ‘How often must I practice French, or guitar, or math to keep on top of it?’ you are asking a question about competitive plasticity. You are asking how frequently you must practice one activity to make sure its brain map space is not lost to another.”
-Norman Doidge in The Brain that Changes Itself
The Critical Period
From our very earliest days, our brain begins to map itself to the world as we experience it through our senses. The mapping is vague at first, lacking detail, but the more we interact with the world, the more well-defined our brain maps become until they are fully formed and differentiated.
“The critical period” is the name given to the time in infancy and early childhood during which our brain is so plastic that its structure is easily changed by simple exposure to new things in the environment. Babies, for example, learn the sounds of language and words effortlessly by listening to their parents speak. Inside the brain, what this learning looks like is the brain actually rewiring itself to change its own structure.
Use It or Lose It: Training the Brain to Form New Maps
Just a few decades ago, the prevailing scientific view held that the brain was a finely tuned machine that operated within a fixed scope of ability once the critical period had passed. But in the 1990s, through a series of experiments with monkeys, Dr. Michael Merzenich discovered that our brains can change well past the critical period—and indeed throughout our lives. But learning that takes place after the critical period is no longer effortless, and children and adults must work hard to pay attention to the new information that they wish to absorb and master.
The maxim commonly used to describe the phenomenon of neural learning is “neurons that fire together wire together,” and it’s this “wiring together” that results in the corresponding structural changes in the brain. Timing is key to the process, with neurons that fire simultaneously wiring together to create a map.
The space allocated to a neural map evolves over a number of stages. When learning is taking place, a relatively large space is allocated to the map. Once a skill is established, the mapped neurons become so efficient that fewer are needed—allowing some of the map space to be reallocated again for new learning. It’s a practical use-it-or-lose-it process that allows us to continue picking up new skills without bumping into space limits in the brain. Taking up a musical instrument such as violin, for example, causes more map space to be allocated to the playing fingers, and consequently, less space is allocated where there is lower demand.
As we develop mastery of a skill, our neurons not only grow to be more efficient, but they also begin to process faster. With that faster processing they tend to fire together more readily as well, creating more groups of neurons that send out clearer signals. The clarity of those signals has a great deal to do with how well the brain learns and remembers what the neurons have processed. The clearer the signal, the more clearly the brain remembers.
But what if there are gaps or inefficiencies in the maps that have been established?
From the Lab to the Learner
Dr. Merzenich had become interested in the work of Dr. Paula Tallal at Rutgers University. Dr. Tallal was interested in understanding why some children have more trouble than others when it comes to learning to read. Her research had shown that auditory processing problems were causing the “fast parts” of speech—common combinations of consonants and vowels that are pronounced very quickly—to be problematic for children with language difficulties.
Dr. Merzenich believed the problem was a matter of the children’s auditory processing speed lagging behind the speed of the speech sounds, resulting in an inability to distinguish differences between similar sounds or to perceive the correct sequence of sounds when they occurred in rapid succession.
Another known contributing factor was that of neural readiness. After processing a sound, neurons require a rest period before they can fire again. Normally this rest period is about 30 milliseconds, but for most children with language impairments it takes at least three times as long for the neuron to recover. The result is that a lot of critical language information is simply missed during the rest period.
Merzenich and Tallal believed they could combine forces to effectively help children who struggled to read. In 1996, Merzenich and his colleague Dr. Bill Jenkins teamed up with Tallal and her colleague Dr. Steve Miller to develop a real-world application of the science of neural plasticity by creating a product that could help struggling readers rewire their brains. From this union, Scientific Learning was born.
The partnership between Merzenich, Jenkins, Tallal, and Miller resulted in the software product that today we call Fast ForWord. Fast ForWord was carefully designed in the guise of a video game that could challenge and develop cognitive skills like memory, attention, processing speed, and sequencing as well as language and reading skills from phonemic awareness to decoding and comprehension.
Merzenich and Jenkins wanted Fast ForWord to trigger the children’s brains to secrete dopamine and acetylcholine—neurotransmitters that help lock in learning. Because the brain secretes these neurotransmitters when it gets rewarded, a generous supply of entertaining animations was built into the product to play spontaneously when a child achieved a goal.
From the very beginning, Fast ForWord elicited remarkable results. Children who participated in the initial field trial boosted their language development by 1.8 years, on average, in just six weeks. A subsequent study at Stanford University, dyslexic children’s brains showed increased activity in several areas after Fast ForWord, bringing them more in line with the patterns seen in typical readers’ brains. The dyslexic children’s brains had shown different patterns of activity before Fast ForWord (as revealed by fMRI).
In the 14 years since the field trial, Fast ForWord has been used by more than 2.7 million children around the world, with achievement gains of up to two years in as little as three months. During this time, school-based results—such as those at St. Mary Parish Public School System in Louisiana—have demonstrated that Fast ForWord can improve test scores across subject areas. And many additional research studies have corroborated the effectiveness of the Fast ForWord program for building cognitive, language, and reading skills.
In a 2010 study at Wilkes University in Pennsylvania, Beth Rogowsky found that Fast ForWord significantly improved students’ grammar skills as measured by the Written Expression Scale from the Oral and Written Language Scales (OWLS). A subsequent study by Dr. Rogowsky published in 2013 showed that college students who used Fast ForWord increased their reading and writing skills significantly more than students in a comparison group as measured by the Gates MacGinitie Reading Test and the OWLS.
The Brain That Changes Itself
Our current understanding of how the brain changes itself in response to experience opens the door to mind-bending possibilities. With the development of newer, smaller, and faster technologies, there’s no telling how Merzenich’s revolutionary discovery of brain plasticity past the critical period will impact the future of education.
What is certain is that true brain-based learning has arrived, that it’s available today, and that children around the world are overcoming language and reading problems that not long ago were often considered insurmountable.
Doidge, N. (2007). The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science. London: Penguin Books.
Attend one of our popular webinars with thought leaders in learning. Live and pre-recorded webinars are available. Register today!
I’m so excited to announce our webinars for this fall! We are honored to have Dr. Norman Doidge, the well-known author of The Brain That Changes Itself, join us October 2nd for a webinar. This is a rare opportunity that educators, clinicians and parents alike won’t want to miss. Dr. Tim Rasinski, one of our favorite presenters, is returning to speak about the role of fluency in comprehension, and Dr. Marty Burns will be speaking on meeting the needs of the rapidly changing diverse student populations.
Dr. Martha S. Burns will discuss what the latest brain science says about the true learning potential of ELLs, struggling readers, and students with ADHD. Find out how today’s powerful intervention technologies can help build foundational reading and cognitive skills for a variety of student populations—and help students improve their ability to learn.
Dr. Timothy Rasinski is a vocal proponent of teaching reading fluency as a means of helping students build better comprehension. In our September webinar, Dr. Rasinski will talk about fluency as a predictor of reading comprehension, present the research on fluency, and substantiate fluency as an essential component of any successful reading program (National Reading Panel). All this and you’ll gain a better understanding of how to teach fluency so your students can start getting more from their reading.
For 400 years, the brain was thought to be a more-or-less fixed piece of machinery after infancy. Dr. Norman Doidge, author of The Brain That Changes Itself, will talk about the recent discovery that the brain retains the ability to change its own structure and function in response to experience through the latest years of our lives. Learn how this discovery was made, how it turns our understanding of learning on its head, and how it radically alters the was we think about student potential—especially for students with learning challenges or disorders. And, discover the online interventions that have grown out of the science and learn how they work to help students overcome reading and language difficulties.
Attend one of our popular webinars with thought leaders in learning. Live and pre-recorded webinars are available. Register today!
Dr. Martha Burns has recently begun holding monthly Office Hours via webinar for private and international providers of Fast ForWord and Reading Assistant software. During her June Office Hours, Dr. Burns answered questions sent in by providers as well as a few questions posed live by attendees. Much discussion centered on the question of when it’s appropriate to use each of the different products—Fast ForWord Language v2 versus Fast ForWord Literacy versus Fast ForWord Reading Level 1-5—and/or the Reading Assistant program.
In answer, Dr. Burns first reminded us that Reading Assistant can always be used simultaneously with any Fast ForWord product as Reading Assistant primarily targets reading fluency through assisted oral reading—so there is not an either/or choice needed when considering Reading Assistant. With mild reading problems, Dr. Burns advised that there is "still a reason" for the struggle—even when the cause is not immediately apparent—so she recommended starting with either Fast ForWord Language or Fast ForWord Literacy and using the program itself to help determine whether it is necessary.
Since all Fast ForWord products are included in the yearly license fee, there is no additional cost incurred by trying Fast ForWord Language or Fast ForWord Literacy for a few days to determine if there is a mild processing, working memory, attentional and/or language problem that could be affecting reading. If a client soars through Fast ForWord Language or Fast ForWord Literacy in the first few days, then moving on to the appropriate Fast ForWord Reading product makes sense. But if any exercise progresses significantly more slowly, keep the client on Fast ForWord Language or Fast ForWord Literacy until completion (80% completion on five of seven exercises in Fast ForWord Language v2 or four of five exercises in Fast ForWord Literacy).
Another question centered on appropriate clinical usage of Reading Progress Indicator (RPI). In reply, Dr. Burns reiterated that RPI is not designed to be a diagnostic tool for clinical use. She recommends turning RPI off in clinical settings.
For the next question, a provider asked for a simple way to explain Fast ForWord to parents. Because of the sophisticated nature of the Fast ForWord products and their effects, Dr. Burns recommends customizing the sample PowerPoint presentations for parents, available in the SciLEARNU tab of MySciLEARN.
Finally, Dr. Burns discussed attentional issues and reminded providers about Dr. Courtney Stephens’ research on the use of Fast ForWord Language to treat attentional problems in children with SLI as well as typical learners.
The full Office Hours Webinar was recorded if you would like to listen to it yourself. The next Office Hours Webinar is scheduled for July 29, 2013 at 10am Pacific time/1pm Eastern Time. Submit your questions ASAP to ensure that we are able to include them!
If you attended this year’s 100% virtual Visionary Conference on May 17th, then you already know about the amazing research presented by perennial audience favorites Dr. Martha S. Burns and Scientific Learning co-founder Dr. Paula Tallal. But if you happened to miss it, you’re in luck—because we’ve captured all of the conference sessions so you can watch them at your convenience and catch up.
Find the links to the research presentations below, along with links to additional sessions full of practical information for clinical providers in support of this year’s theme, Growing Together.
What’s New in Neuroscience?
In a jam-packed session, Dr. Martha Burns took conference attendees on a fascinating tour of trends and milestones in recent neuroscience. She reviewed years of foundational research underlying detailed maps of the neuronal connectivity of the brain that today we call “connectomes.” She then covered recent studies revealing the semantic map of the human brain, with words and word meanings mapped hierarchically over the cortex. She wrapped up with details about specific connectomes within the brain, the cognitive domains controlled by each (from a speech-language perspective, those governing attention and flexibility are particularly interesting), and symptoms related to dysfunction within a connectome. Advances in connectome research, according to Dr. Burns, point to new possibilities for evolving the clinical application of Fast ForWord program technology.
New Research with College Students
Dr. Paula Tallal’s session presented revolutionary new research using the Fast ForWord program with college students. The studies sought to determine whether college students using Fast ForWord would show improvements in attention, reading, and writing. Results were impressive, with significant improvements not only in attention and reading, but in writing as well. Dr. Tallal went into detail about the design and results of each study, so you will want to watch the presentation to fully understand the implications of this exciting new peer-reviewed research.
Product Updates and Enhancements
Every year, we look forward to sharing the recent and planned product enhancements with our providers at the Visionary Conference. This year, Ching Lee and Joan Ferguson of Scientific Learning gave online walk-throughs of product and reporting enhancements for both the Fast ForWord and Reading Assistant programs. Their session is a must-watch for any provider looking to stay current with product and reporting features, as well as those who are curious about future enhancements currently in the works.
Connecting Fast ForWord to Reading Assistant
Using the Fast ForWord and Reading Assistant programs together can be a powerful treatment approach for children and a strong marketing differentiator for private providers. Speech Language Pathologist Beverly Gough’s session focused on strategies and techniques for blending the Fast ForWord and Reading Assistant programs in private practice. She walked through a number of clinical scenarios and answered audience questions, providing a wealth of valuable information mined from her years of professional experience as a Scientific Learning provider.
Growing Together: Maximizing Your Reach
Finally, attendees heard from Speech Language Pathologist Renee Matlock about how to reach more students and grow a clinical practice through offsite implementation and general marketing best practices. Ms. Matlock is a recipient of the Scientific Learning Sustained Excellence Award marking the highest quality of implementation of Fast ForWord for more than 10 years. After the release of MySciLEARN®, Ms. Matlock found that parents preferred the ease of having their children work on Scientific Learning products from home. She proceeded to transform her business into a 100% offsite practice, and generously shared her learning at the Visionary with all Scientific Learning Providers. It’s the perfect session for any provider looking to grow their practice—so be sure to watch and learn!
How can we build better readers? What should we be doing to ensure each student leaves the classroom able to read better than they did when they arrived? Teachers are plagued by these questions. Even when teachers are highly prepared and expertly understand the strategies for reading improvement, learners may disengage. With limited instructional time and the added pressures of today’s classrooms, teachers need effective student engagement strategies along with appropriate instructional strategies for reading improvement.
Guided oral reading, for example, is a highly effective instructional strategy for improving reading. But engaging all students with sufficient guided oral reading opportunities is a daunting and difficult thing to do. Students who do not read well are often clever enough to find ways to avoid reading in front of their peers. I know from personal experience that students paired together may sometimes “cheat,” letting the stronger reader do all of the reading while the struggling reader listens. Too often, the students who need it most simply do not get the daily reading practice they need to grow their skills.
Reading comprehension—the entire aim of reading—requires active engagement. Too often students read a text purely with the intent of moving through it and completing the assignment. The purpose of reading for learning and discovery is lost to them. Students need to be drawn into the text. They need to use their background knowledge, to make predictions, to concentrate on details and hold information in their minds. The reading practice needed to realize improvement cannot be a passive activity.
Picture for a moment an engaged classroom working on a reading lesson. We would see every student participating, each one of them focused on learning. We’d see body language reflecting their mental participation and physical responses as they learn. We would also hear them asking questions and getting excited about what they were reading. A zealous vibe would be palpable. When we feel that excitement in a classroom we know that our instructional strategies are working to help students learn.
So what can we do, as teachers, to help our students engage?
Self-esteem is built through engaged, dedicated effort that yields results. Our focus needs to be on ensuring participation, motivation, and excitement around reading for every student.
Categories: Reading & Learning
This May 17th, we will be hosting our annual Visionary Conference for Fast ForWord Providers entirely online for the very first time.
Save on travel expenses, spend less time away, and learn just as much as in years past—maybe even more.
This year’s theme is Growing Together, and we’re thrilled to announce that our esteemed Visionary Conference presenters Dr. Paula Tallal and Dr. Martha Burns will be sharing exciting new research on the brain and learning.
Dr. Tallal will be reporting on the latest research with college students who used the Fast ForWord program and saw improvements in a number of skill areas.
Dr. Burns will present research from the Human Connectome Project (a project studying the connectivity of the human brain) and research on memory and attention disorders and interventions.
Additional sessions will review the latest Fast ForWord product updates, best practices for getting the most from the products, marketing resources, and professional development opportunities to help you thrive as a Fast ForWord Provider and help more children succeed.
Because this year’s conference is online, we’re welcoming any and all attendees, whether you’re a provider or not! There is no charge for any of the sessions, so you can attend one or attend them all. If you’ve been to past conferences then you already know…It’s the highlight of the year!
Earlier this month, Dr. Martha Burns presented a webinar titled “What’s in the Common Core, but Missing in Your Curriculum.” One of the exciting new changes that the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) bring is a great deal more emphasis on how students learn rather than focusing solely on what they learn. The emphasis of previous standards have focused more on memorization of facts rather than on higher order thinking skills. In this webinar, Dr. Burns reviews the learning capacities spelled out in the CCSS and describes the skills that students need to be successful as lifelong learners, e.g., the ability to evaluate, to adapt, adjust and critique, etc. At the foundation of these higher order abilities lie the foundational skills below. Together, these skills can be termed the “process of learning.”
· Executive control or self-control
Students with deficiencies in these foundational skills may be labeled as “trouble makers” or “at risk” and have difficulty keeping up in today’s growing classroom. Experienced educators have always recognized the importance of these skills, but the idea that they can be specifically addressed and improved is relatively new. Without the ability to remember the details of a non-fiction text, how would a student be able to evaluate and critique it?
Dr. Burns describes new insights in neuroscience that are contributing to our understanding of the process of learning and what can be done to strengthen these skills in all learners, even those with learning disabilities and other challenges. The idea that these skills are inherent in students and cannot be changed is simply untrue. With the right training, all students can become stronger, more capable learners.
One efficient way for students to practice the skills needed to meet the rigor of the Common Core Standards is through the research-based learning tools employed by Scientific Learning’s Fast ForWord and Reading Assistant programs. Dr. Burns concluded her presentation with a walkthrough of the programs, highlighting the aspects of the programs that speak directly to the foundational skills needed to create college and career ready students. She also describes what happens in the student’s brain when they are engaged with the software and the results that can be expected.
This new approach by the Common Core State Standards to draw attention to the “process” of learning, rather than just content, is important for all stakeholders to understand. With this new understanding comes a greater importance to use all of the tools at our disposal to help all learners succeed.
What would it be like if you went to a cocktail party – or a rock concert or even your quiet corner coffee joint, for that matter – and you didn’t have the ability to filter out one voice or sound from the sea of other sounds around you? This ability is called “selective hearing” and is a computational function in your brain that enables you to focus in on your companion’s voice in the midst of the endless sound waves coming from ceiling fans, ambient music, and other people’s voices bouncing off the walls. Your ability to focus in on that single selected voice is impressive.
Doctoral candidate Bridget Queenan of Georgetown University Medical Center is figuring out how we humans are able to perform this difficult feat by studying bats. She has found that certain neurons in bats’ brains can “quiet” other neurons, allowing the bat to prioritize certain sounds over others. In short, through “turning up the volume” on certain neurons, bats can zero in on the most important sounds, such as their own echolocation sounds, and allow other sounds to fade into the background. (2010)
Researchers at UCSF recently published an article in the journal Nature that describes how they have actually seen this process take place in humans. Using a sheet of 256 electrodes placed on the brain, they can see which neurons activate at the sound of certain voices through the use of sound samples played simultaneously. They could then “decode” the data from the electrodes to find out what the patient heard without talking to the patients themselves. (2012)
When you consider that a bat must hunt, gather, and navigate through spaces populated with thousands and thousands of other bats, it’s easy to see why a brain function like selective hearing is essential to survival. Humans have depended on selective hearing throughout our history for much the same reason.
Although most modern humans are no longer engaged in hunting and gathering activities, our world would look very different were it not for selective hearing. Imagine living in a city – or even a moderately sized suburban town, for that matter – with its ambient atmosphere combining traffic, voices, weather sounds such as wind or rain, and the rest of the cacophony of daily life that we simply don’t think about from moment to moment. Were it not for selective hearing, we would drown in an overwhelming sea of noise, unable to focus on any one sound well enough to effectively evaluate its importance. Considered in that context, the neurological capability that we call selective hearing has played a significant role in defining how we function as a species.
You can also see how this ability would be important in the real-world context of the classroom. Without it, students who are already easily distracted would simply be swallowed by the noise. Independent research has shown that students’ selective auditory attention improves after they use the Fast ForWord program for as little as six weeks. (2008)
So the next time you find yourself unable to focus on someone’s voice at a party, or you encounter a student who is having a hard time paying attention in a noisy classroom, take a moment. Appreciate your ability to use your selective hearing. And have patience while that other person works to engage theirs.
Bardi, J. (2012). How Selective Hearing Works In the Brain. Retrieved from the University of California San Franciso website: http://www.ucsf.edu/news/2012/04/11868/how-selective-hearing-works-brain.
Mallet, K. (2010). Bat Brains Offer Clues As to How We Focus on Some Sounds and Not Others. Retrieved from the Georgetown University Medical Center: http://explore.georgetown.edu/news/?ID=54075&PageTemplateID=295.
Stevens,C., Fanning, J., Coch, D., Sanders, L., & Neville, H. (2008). Neural mechanisms of selective audiory attention are enhanced by computerized training: Electrophysiological evidence from language-impaired and typically developing children. Brain Research. 1205, 55 – 69. doi: 10.1016/j.brainres.2007.10.108.
On October 30th, noted neuroscience researcher and co-founder of Scientific Learning, Dr. Paula Tallal, conducted a live webinar titled “What do Neuroscientists Know About Learning That Most Educators Don’t?” In her presentation, Dr. Tallal discussed her original research on auditory processing, its relationship to language development, and the far-reaching effects that deficiencies in those areas can have on learning.
Research continues to support the hypothesis that difficulty discriminating between small changes in sound is at the heart of learning problems both in students who have a diagnosed difficulty and those who do not. Dr. Tallal described how oral language is the foundation for learning and for most successful educational outcomes, adding that oral language itself is dependent on the brain’s ability to discriminate and process auditory information. Children who have difficulty perceiving the many subtleties of language find the deck stacked against them in their educational careers. They can experience a variety of impediments to learning, including:
Students with this subtle level of auditory processing problem need specific differentiation that is not possible in most classrooms. The good news, as Dr. Tallal describes, is that modern technology can be used to address the difficulties these children face and help bridge these skill gaps. In fact, it is this level of research and development that informed the development of Scientific Learning’s software programs, including Fast ForWord.
To close, Dr. Tallal took questions from the educators relating to how these insights can be used to improve educational outcomes in all classrooms. Teachers left this insightful webinar with practical strategies that can be used to help learners of all abilities.