Brain Science and Reading Instruction

Friday, August 14, 2015 - 08:00
  • Timothy Rasinski, Ph.D. and Martha S. Burns, Ph.D.

Reading Achievement

Key Points:

  • Reading achievement has largely remained the same in the US in the past 30 years, despite various efforts
  • Five critical factors for reading are phonological awareness, phonics or word recognition, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension
  • Research indicates many children who struggle with reading have difficulty processing the “fast parts” of speech
  • One school saw students reading at a Basic or above level increasing from 19% to 81% after using Fast ForWord

How to improve student reading achievement

The past three decades have seen substantial efforts at the national, state, and local levels to improve reading instruction and reading outcomes for students in the United States. These have ranged from the Reading Excellence Act, to the National Reading Panel, to Reading First, to various standards movements, to high stakes testing of students, and higher degrees of teacher accountability. Yet, despite these and other efforts, reading achievement among students in the United States has largely remained unchanged during this period. The National Assessment of Educational Progress reports that the most recent assessment of 12th grade students’ achievement in reading (2013) is actually lower than it was in 1992 (U.S. Dept. of Education, 2013). Clearly, we have yet to find the “magic bullet,” if there is one, for improving student reading achievement.

One major advance in our understanding of effective reading instruction came at the turn of the century with the advent of the National Reading Panel (2000). The panel was made up of a group of distinguished literacy scholars who were given the task of laying a scientific foundation for effective reading instruction. After reviewing the existing scientific research into reading and reading instruction, the panel identified five critical factors that students must develop competency in and that teachers should emphasize in instruction. These factors were:

  • Phonological awareness
  • Phonics or word recognition
  • Fluency
  • Vocabulary
  • Comprehension

Phonological Awareness

Phonological and phonemic awareness refer to the ability to perceive, segment, blend, and otherwise manipulate sounds, particularly the sounds of language. Research has demonstrated that this competency is required for effective phonics instruction. If students have difficulty in perceiving and manipulating language sounds, they will certainly be challenged when those language sounds become associated with written letters as in phonics.

Phonics or Word Recognition

Phonics or word recognition refers to the ability of readers to produce the oral representation of a written word using, primarily, the sound symbol representation of letters and letter combinations.

Fluency

Fluency is the ability to produce the oral representation of written words effortlessly so that readers can direct their attention to the meaning of the text. Fluency also includes the ability to read with appropriate expression that reflects and enhances the meaning of the written text.

Vocabulary

Like phonics, vocabulary refers to competency with words. However, vocabulary deals with the meaning of the oral and written words rather than the ability to “sound out” words. Clearly, comprehension is not possible if readers do not know the meaning of words, even if they can sound them out correctly.

Comprehension

Finally, comprehension refers to the ability of readers to gain meaning from a written text. Comprehension is the ultimate goal of reading and requires meaning-making effort and strategies on the part of the reader.

Brain plasticity and reading

During this same period in which the scientific foundation was being laid for reading instruction, advances were being made in our understanding of how the brain works. One of the earliest discoveries was that of the human brain’s ability to change itself, or brain plasticity, even beyond the early stages of development. The prevailing scientific view had been that once the critical period of development had passed, infancy to early childhood, the human brain operated within a limited and fixed range of ability. Although changing the brain or learning was clearly possible after the critical stages of development, there were limits.

Through a series of studies conducted in the 1990s, neuroscientist Dr. Michael Merzenich and colleagues discovered that our brains had the ability to change in significant ways well beyond early childhood. However, the stimuli (i.e. instruction) that lead to brain changes need to be intentional, intense, focused and repetitive. Early in life, our brains seem to learn effortlessly. Beyond that early period, more intentional effort is required to change the brain.

During this period, neuroscientists, using ever more sophisticated methods, were developing more detailed maps of the brain. That is, they identified specific locations of the brain that were associated with cognitive tasks and competencies. Brain locations and functions were identified for phonological or sound awareness, visual awareness and perception, fluency, vocabulary, and language comprehension.

Reading and brain science meet

We know that there are competencies that need to be mastered in order to become a proficient reader. We also have learned that there are specific areas of the brain that are associated with these competencies. Moreover, we have discovered the brain’s ability to change itself in response to intentional stimuli. Do these understandings offer some new approaches for conceptualizing, implementing, and monitoring reading instruction? The answer is, of course, yes.

One of the first approaches came in the areas of phonological awareness and auditory processing. Research indicated that many children with language and reading difficulties had difficulty processing the “fast parts” of speech - common combinations of consonants and vowels that are pronounced quickly (e.g., the plural suffix that distinguishes the word cat from cats). It was the ability of the brain to perceive rapid auditory input that lagged behind other aspects of language use. This resulted in difficulties in distinguishing differences in similar sounds as well as perceiving grammatical prefixes and suffixes in some contexts.

A program was developed that eventually evolved into Fast ForWord®, a program that trains students in sound perception by using technology to initially slow down or enhance the production of the “fast” sounds. Through frequent, repeated, focused and sustained practice with reinforcement, the sound production was gradually modified until it approximated normal speech speed in exercises that emphasized speech perception in words and oral language comprehension. Clinical research indicated that students who were put into such an enhanced auditory processing program made significantly greater progress in speech discrimination, language processing, and grammatical comprehension than students who were placed in a similar program using natural speech production (Tallal, et al., 1996). Similar findings of improved language processing were also reported in a study of special education students.

Evidence from students’ reading achievement

Although examining changes in the way the brain processes linguistic stimuli is encouraging, the real proof for educators and the general public is the extent to which an intervention can affect actual reading outcomes in students. An early clinical study (Temple et al., 2003) of the use of Fast ForWord Language over 6-8 weeks with dyslexic students found that the students made significant and substantial improvements in word reading and passage comprehension. School-based studies, of course, provide even more convincing evidence of the effectiveness of a particular intervention as the intervention is actually implemented in a real school setting with real school personnel. Thomas Gibbs Elementary School in St. Mary Parish implemented Fast ForWord over the course of two years with fourth-grade students. Students’ performance on the statewide high-stakes reading achievement increased dramatically, with the percentage of students identified as reading at a Basic or above level increasing from 19% to 81%. During the same period, the statewide average of students identified as Basic or above readers increased from 51% to 69%. Gibbs students went from performing well below the statewide average in reading to substantially above the average in two years.

Conclusions

Albert Einstein was famous for, among other things, defining insanity as doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. It seems that major educational publishers have been offering the same generic type of reading program for students for years. And the result has been reading achievement that has not substantially changed in 20 years. Perhaps it is time to consider new approaches to reading education and intervention, approaches that tap into informative uses of technology and new understandings about how the human brain works, while at the same time holding on to understandings of the competencies students need to master in order to become fully literate. Fast ForWord and Reading Assistant appear to offer some new ways of thinking about and approaching reading instruction that use technology and understandings of the workings of the brain and brain functions, and that correlate with our understandings of what is important in learning to read. Perhaps it is time to try something new; perhaps it is time for schools to give Fast ForWord and Reading Assistant a try.

    This blog post is an adaptation of a white paper written by Dr. Timothy Rasinski and Dr. Martha S. Burns.

     

    New Research Shows How to Minimize Side Effects of Chemo

    Tuesday, August 4, 2015 - 08:00
    • Martha Burns, Ph.D

    Key Points:Fast ForWord and chemotherapy

    • Regardless of age, cancer treatments impair learning, memory and attention
    • The speed of processing information can also be diminished
    • These effects can last for months, or even years, after cancer treatment is finished
    • Research study shows Fast ForWord can help prevent learning problems in cancer survivors when used during cancer treatment

    The cognitive impact of chemotherapy on children

    When any of us are told someone we love has a diagnosis of cancer, “The Emperor of all Maladies” so aptly named by Siddhartha Mukherjee, it is very upsetting. But, when it is a parent who learns of a cancer diagnosis in their child, time seems to stand still for months, often years, as treatments are administered.  The good news is that the overall mortality rate from cancer has decreased markedly in the last 20 years. For children diagnosed with cancer, today’s cure rate exceeds 80% for some types of cancer. Earlier diagnosis and more specifically targeted forms of chemotherapy, combined with evidence-based protocols, mean many children are now miraculous survivors of this age-old, but very complex, illness.

    After cancer – what are the implications on learning?

    However, the success of targeted chemo and radiation therapy does come with a price. With improved survival rates, oncologists have become more aware of the aftereffects that childhood cancer treatments have on thinking, learning and remembering.  According to Jorg Dietrich at Massachusetts General Hospital and his colleagues at Stanford University and Anderson Cancer Center, conventional cancer therapies like chemotherapy and radiology for brain tumors in patients of any age frequently result in a variety of thinking and memory of problems. These neurocognitive deficits, as they are called, include impaired learning, memory, attention, and negatively impact the speed of information processing.

    Increased survival rates = increased studies on effects

    Interested specifically in those effects on children treated for cancer, Raymond Mulhern and Shawna Palmer at St. Jude’s Research Hospital have reported that the neurocognitive effects of cancer treatment on children can linger for months, or even years, after cancer treatment has been successfully completed. This new understanding of the long term effects of successful cancer treatment has resulted in an increase in the study and understanding of cancer treatment-related learning problems.  Fortunately, it has also led to an increase in research on effective methods for treating the cognitive aftereffects of successful cancer treatment.

    According to Mulhern and Palmer, the two most frequent types of childhood cancers that are associated with neurocognitive disorders after successful treatment are acute lymphoblastic leukemia and brain tumors.  The authors state that although neurocognitive effects of cancer therapy are quite variable – depending on the actual diagnosis and age, length and dosage of therapy – researchers generally agree that a high percentage of children will experience problems with learning and thinking, which can interfere with academic achievement after successful cancer treatment.  Oncologists have been working to change their treatment approach when possible to reduce the cognitive aftereffects, but their primary goal is first to maintain the high cure rate.

    Research study: can we counteract these cognitive aftereffects?

    Very recently, an exciting new controlled study was published indicating that the neuroscience-based intervention, Fast ForWord, provides significant improvements in learning to read after chemotherapy and radiation therapy for a kind of brain tumor called meduloblastoma. Ping Zou at St. Jude Research Hospital and his colleagues investigated whether Fast ForWord could prevent learning problems in cancer survivors when used during cancer treatment.

    They studied two groups of school-aged children who either used Fast ForWord during their cancer treatment or a standard-of-care without the Fast ForWord intervention. Then, about 2 and one-half to three years after successful completion of chemo and radiation therapy for this type of brain tumor, the survivors received functional measures of brain function as well as a series of educational tests. A control group of 21 typically developing children with no history of cancer were included for comparison. The education tests included assessment of phonological skills (known to be a critical component of reading skill) and a variety of reading measures.  Their brain function was evaluated by using functional brain imaging (fMRI).

    The results

    During the time of the brain imaging, the researchers found that the tests of phonological skills were significantly higher among the cancer survivors who had received the Fast ForWord reading intervention during their cancer treatment, than among those who received standard-of-care. Even more important, the measures of functional brain activation across those brain areas recognized as important for reading showed a trend towards normalization among the children who received the Fast ForWord intervention.  This led the authors to conclude that the results of the study provide evidence for the long-term value of this type of reading intervention in children after surviving a serious form of brain cancer.

    A diagnosis of cancer in a child is frightening and overwhelming, but fortunately the cure rate of many childhood cancers is now very high. With the high cure rates, doctors now recognize that these very effective cancer therapies may have long term aftereffects on learning and thinking. However, the best news is that there are interventions, such as the Fast ForWord programs, specifically designed by neuroscientists to normalize brain functions for learning that can prevent and/or remediate some of these learning problems.  

    References:

    Dietrich, J.Monje, M., Wefel, J. and Meyers, C. Clinical Patterns and Biological Correlates of Cognitive Dysfunction Associated with Cancer Therapy. The Oncologist. 2008;13:1285–1295

    Mukherjee, S. The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer. Scribner; 2010

    Mulhern, R. and Palmer, S. Neurocognitive late effects in pediatric cancer. Current Problems in Cancer. July–August 2003, Pages 177–197

    Zou, P et al. (2015) Functional MRI in medulloblastoma survivors supports prophylactic reading intervention during tumor treatment. Brain Imaging and Behavior, 2015. Available at: http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11682-015-9390-8. Accessed July 27, 2015.

     

    Path Out of Poverty? Education Plus Neuroscience

    Tuesday, July 14, 2015 - 08:00
    • Martha Burns, Ph.D

    Key PointsNeurological implications of poverty on kids

    • Children raised in poverty are exposed to millions of fewer spoken words at home
    • Income level negatively impacts cognitive functions
    • There are links between family income and memory and attention
    • Poverty is associated with chronic stress which can have a toxic effect on brain architecture
    • Computer games designed to target the skills that are impacted can turn around some effects of poverty

    How family income impacts children neurologically

    Poverty impairs the brain’s ability to develop and learn. Perhaps as toxic as drugs and alcohol to a young child’s brain, poverty not only affects the development of cognitive skills in young children, but it also changes the way the brain tissue itself matures during the critical brain “set up” period during early childhood.  We have known for decades, since Hart and Risley’s seminal research published in 1995, that children who come from homes of poverty are exposed to millions of fewer spoken words in the home environment by the time they enter school than children who are raised in homes where the parents are professionals. Neuroscientists have recognized that human brain maturation is experience-dependent and one of the most important times for experience to mold the brain is from early childhood through the elementary school years.  It goes without saying that the less language a child is exposed to the fewer opportunities the brain has to develop language skills. But language function in the brain is not the only casualty of poverty; there are many other cognitive skills that are affected by low socioeconomic status.

    Kimberly Noble, an Associate Professor of Neuroscience and Education at Columbia University Teacher’s College, has been studying the effects of poverty on many aspects of cognitive development and brain structure for over a decade. As early as 2005, with M. Frank Norman and Martha Farah, she published research on the relationship between socioeconomic status and specific cognitive functions. Her findings show that children who come from homes of poverty have limitations in a range of cognitive skills, including the following:

    • Long and short term (working) memory
    • Visual and spatial skills
    • Executive functions like self-control
    • Ability to learn from reward

    What is the link between brain development and household income?

    More recently, Dr. Noble and Elizabeth Sowell, Professor of Pediatrics at The Saban Research Institute at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, have found compelling links between family income and brain structure as well, especially affecting those areas of the brain important for memory and attention, regions essential for academic success. In a recent article in the journal Nature Neuroscience they reported that increases in both parental education and family income were associated with increases in the surface area of numerous brain regions, including those implicated in language and executive functions. Family income, however, appeared to have a stronger positive relationship with brain surface area than parental education.

    What causes the correlation between poverty and brain development?

    The reasons for the effect of poverty on brain development are complex. Elizabeth Sowell has asserted that family income is linked to factors such as nutrition, health care, schools, play areas and, sometimes, air quality, all of which can affect brain development. Others, like Jack Shonkoff and Pat Levitt of the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child at Harvard, have emphasized the role of stress in brain development.   Stress is associated with the release of the hormone cortisol which, in the short term, activates the body to respond to problematic situations.  With chronic stress, however, the authors review research which indicates the sustained cortisol can have a toxic effect on brain architecture.  

    How can educators help reverse these effects?

    As educators, the new research begs the question, “Are children raised in poverty doomed to educational struggle, no matter how well we teach?”  The answer, fortunately, is that neuroscience has not only clarified the problems caused by poverty but provides solutions as well.  In a recently published report titled “Using Brain Science to Design Pathways Out of Poverty”, Dr. Beth Babcock, CEO of Crittenden Women’s Union, argues that because those areas of the brain affected by the adverse experiences of poverty and trauma remain plastic well into adulthood, neuroscience research offers promise for coaching and other methodologies that can strengthen and improve brain development and function.  In her report, Dr. Babcock advocates, in part, for the use of "computer games” designed to, “improve memory, focus and attention, impulse control, organization, problem solving, and multi-tasking skills [that] are now widely available and beginning to create positive outcomes” (page 13).

    The Fast ForWord programs, designed by neuroscientists at UCSF and Rutgers and tested for over a decade in many school districts with high poverty rates around the nation, have been repeatedly shown to increase academic performance in school districts with high levels of poverty. Read about the inspiring results at Highland View Elementary School, Hattie Watts Elementary School, and J.S. Aucoin Elementary School.

    The beginning levels of the Fast ForWord programs (Fast ForWord Language  and Fast ForWord Literacy) target attention, memory, processing and sequencing skills – core cognitive skills essential for learning.  The later level programs (Fast ForWord Reading Levels 1-5) add specific technological instruction in reading comprehension, spelling, phonological awareness,  and decoding while also building in components to continue to build attention and memory skills.  

    Research-proven: increased reading skills & neurological changes

    Neuroscience imaging research  conducted at Stanford and replicated at Harvard with students who exhibited reading disabilities and used the Fast ForWord programs for six weeks indicated not only significant improvements in reading skills on standardized testing, but also neurological changes in areas of the brain critical to reading success.

    The Reading Assistant programs, designed to improve oral reading fluency, incorporate speech recognition software to provide students with a one-on-one patient reading tutor/coach. Especially effective for students of poverty who may have little opportunity to read independently to an adult at home, Reading Assistant first provides a fluent oral reading model of every grade appropriate passage to be read, then, while the student reads aloud into the computer, the program corrects the student’s oral reading errors as they occur in real time. 

    Summary: education is the key!

    Poverty is toxic to the developing human brain and thereby endangers academic success. Education offers the key to a path out of poverty.  However, increasing class sizes and limitations on teachers’ time to individualize instruction, especially in school districts with high poverty rates, limit the ability of teachers to be as effective as they might if they could work with students individually. Furthermore, even the best curriculum does not include courses to improve attention, memory or other underlying cognitive functions compromised by lives of poverty. Neuroscience now offers not only an explanation of the problem but low cost solutions that can change the brains of all students to enable learning so that teachers can then do what they do best: teach!

    References: 

    Babcock, E. (2014) Using Brain Science to Design Pathways Out of Poverty. Crittenton Women’s Union Report

    Hart, B. and Risley, T. (1995) Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children. Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.

    Noble, K., Norman, M.F., Farrah, M (2005) Neurocognitive correlates of socioeconomic status in kindergarten children. Developmental Science 8:1, pages 74-77.

    Noble, K. et al. (2015) Family income, parental education and brain structure in children and adolescents. Nature Neuroscience. Published online 30 March

    Shonkoff, F., Levitt, P., Bunge,s. et. al. (2014) Excessive Stress Disrupts the Architecture of the Developing Brain. National Scientific Council On The Developing Child, January.

     

    Carter’s Story: Diagnosing and Treating Dyslexia

    Tuesday, June 16, 2015 - 08:00
    • Hallie Smith, MA CCC-SLP

    “I knew there were leaves on trees, but had never really seen them.”

    Joanne Gouaux remembers when she was 8 years old, sitting in an ophthalmologist’s office, waiting to put on her first pair of glasses. As soon as she put them on, she looked out the window. She saw leaves clearly for the very first time.

    “I feel like that’s what’s happening with Carter and words. It’s like he knew words were for reading, but couldn’t quite make sense of them himself.” She went on to say “I knew leaves existed, but had never truly seen them.” Joanne is the mother of Carter, who was just recently diagnosed with dyslexia.

    Carter loves Legos, spy trap inventions, and 9-year-old humor. He’s always been a good problem solver, talkative, social and curious. But he was not learning how to read.

    Now, after Fast ForWord, things have changed. He’s reading signs outside and making jokes about them.                                                                                          

    “Mom, if you take the ‘gr’ off of that sign 'Keep off the Grass'…and he bursts into laughter.”

    ___________________________________________________________________

    Early clues

    When Carter started school, he attended an academically rigorous private school. By the spring of kindergarten, the teachers noted that he was experiencing a few problem areas:

    1. Connecting sounds and symbols
    2. Remembering things he had just written
    3. Struggling to read and write.

    His teachers suggested that Carter be withdrawn from private school and seek services in public school. The resource specialist also recommended that Carter receive specialized vision testing to rule out perceptual difficulties. Vision problems were ruled out by a neuro-ophthalmologist, and a developmental pediatrician was also able to rule out traumatic brain injury. The pediatrician did suggest the possibility of a ‘budding learning disability’.  Joanne explained, “She assured us that public school would have the best resources to support Carter.”


    Searching for the right school

    Carter-dyslexia

    Joanne enrolled Carter in a public school known for its high test scores. It was poor fit from the start. “His teacher refused to recognize his struggles as legitimate,” Joanne recalls. “She called him lazy in front of me, and took away recess time for not finishing his writing assignments quickly.” Carter went from loving school to feeling sad and anxious each morning. After just three months, Joanne transferred him to a school “more in line with his learning style” - an independent school with a kinesthetic learning curriculum.

    Carter made friends quickly at his new school, and his teachers appreciated his curiosity. But in the spring, Joanne was called into a meeting with Carter’s teacher, the resource specialist, and the head of the school to discuss Carter’s results on the Woodcock Johnson tests, which measure cognitive performance. “The scores clearly showed how little he was retaining from the classroom,” she says. At the time, Joanne was told it was just a stage and Carter would come through it with continued team effort.


    Almost held back

    But two weeks before the end of the year, she was called back for a team meeting with the recommendation that Carter be held back. Joanne was exasperated with the late notice.

    “I did not believe that Carter needed another year of first grade,” she says. “He had a rich Kindergarten experience, and lots of reading support at home. I knew there had to be something else underneath that was preventing him from emerging as a reader and writer. Faced with possibility of being held back a year, Carter was heartbroken and discouraged.”


    Finding the right intervention

    Joanne decided to look for help elsewhere. Her mom, who is dyslexic, suggested that she contact the fraternal organizations, such as the Shriners. Joanne found the Scottish Rite Childhood Learning Clinic in Oakland, CA, and met with the director, Pamela Norton. Norton told Joanne about Fast ForWord, which, she said, could bring his grade level performance up one to two years. “I cried,” Joanne says. “I finally found someone who not only believed in Carter, but was also willing and capable of helping.”

    In June of 2013, Carter began using the Fast ForWord Language program, with weekly support from the Scottish Rite Childhood Learning Clinic. By August, Joanne says “he was within norms for second grade. Fast ForWord allowed him to enter second grade, rather than being held back and repeating first grade.”


    At last…The right diagnosis!

    Beginning that summer, when Carter was starting to catch up with his peers, Joanne pursued further testing at her own expense. After WISC testing and a battery of Woodcock Johnson assessments by a Developmental Pediatrician, Carter was finally diagnosed with dyslexia in September, 2013.


    Carter’s progress

    Currently, Carter has daily support through the school "learning center" (1/2 hour per day). He has an IEP which became effective last fall, 2014. Carter continues to struggle with writing and motor planning -- but his skills are emerging and accommodations like voice-to-text typing allow him to be a more independent learner.
     

    At Carter's last parent teacher conference his teacher and resource specialist noted mental focus and a desire to learn as major strengths. Carter is an avid audio book listener, which allows him to access some much needed academic stimulation, and supports the continued growth of his language skills. 

    Now that that he is in 4th grade, Carter is reading Level 2 readers and decoding words. His confidence has soared. “He no longer dreads opening a book,” his mother says, and “he's proud of himself when he writes. He still experiences bouts of frustration and discouragement like any student, only now he feels confident that he can break things down into smaller steps to accomplish his assignments and goals.”

     

    Can Auditory Training in Babies Impact Speech and Language Development?

    Tuesday, May 12, 2015 - 08:00
    • Hallie Smith, MA CCC-SLP

    Monitoring a baby’s speech and language patterns can yield important insights about the child’s possible developmental trajectory. Although some children simply acquire speech more slowly than others, delayed speech or atypical development of verbal skills may be signs of learning disabilities, hearing problems, language impairment, auditory processing problems or autism. There is new research that suggests that very early interventions can boost a baby’s auditory system, in the hopes that this will lead to accelerated speech and language development.

    Can We Intervene? New Insights Into Language Development in Infants

    Speech and language is an incredibly complicated process that requires us to distinguish auditory patterns only a few milliseconds in length. This allows us to understand individual speech sounds (e.g., “bay,” “bee”) and put them together into more complicated words (“baby”).  Very early on, an infant makes brain maps of the speech sounds of his/her language. These maps make it easier to piece sounds together to understand spoken language in a fast, effortless way.

    In infants, early exposure to certain sounds seems to help their brains to more effectively process auditory information. That is, hearing certain sounds may change brain pathways, making an “acoustic map” for the building blocks of speech. A recent study led by April Benasich, a researcher at Rutgers University, sought to find whether early intervention could improve this acoustic mapping ability.

    During the study, 4-month-old babies were presented with tones while hooked up to an electroencephalogram (EEG) machine, which records electrical activity from different brain regions. The babies were divided into two groups: an “active engagement” group that was rewarded for successfully discriminating between two sounds, and a “passive engagement” group that heard the same sounds but did not receive a reward. The researchers hypothesized that active engagement would encourage babies to pay attention to important sounds in the environment.

    All of the babies received six weeks of active or passive auditory training. The parents were asked to bring them back at 7 months of age to see whether the babies who received active training had more well-developed acoustic maps. They found that from 4 to 7 months of age, all of the babies showed better acoustic processing. However, those in the active engagement condition got an additional boost. These babies were faster and more accurate at detecting sound differences. Additionally, they showed differences in brain waves associated with acoustic maps.

    Implications of the Research

    This research suggests that very early interventions may significantly change the brain patterns and acoustic maps of developing infants. This is crucial, because early sound discrimination lays the foundation for speech and language development throughout childhood.  Dr. Benasich has not investigated whether the active engagement intervention continues to boost sound discrimination in children over 7 months of age. However, other scientific evidence suggests that children who go on to develop reading disabilities, language impairments or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder may exhibit early deficits in auditory abilities. Thus, it is possible that early interventions that boost auditory processing may support speech and language development and in turn, prevent the onset of some learning problems. More research is needed to develop the links between early auditory interventions and later academic outcomes.

    Further Reading:

    Plasticity in Developing Brain:  Active Auditory Exposure Impacts Prelinguistic Acoustic Mapping

    Study Shows Benefits of Building Baby's Language Skills Early

    Related Reading:

    Overcoming Language and Reading Problems:  The Promise of Brain Plasticity

    Language-Based Learning Disabilities and Auditory Processing Disorders

    4 New Research Findings About Autism

    Tuesday, April 21, 2015 - 08:00
    • Martha Burns, Ph.D

    Autism AwarenessWith approximately 1 in 68 children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in the United States, millions of families are looking for research progress in this area. For Autism Awareness Month, we’ve compiled 4 of the latest research findings.

    1.  Autism is in the Genes

    One of the most exciting recent developments in ASD research stems from large, genome-wide studies that have identified genes and genetic mutations that may contribute to ASD. Two such studies have uncovered 60 genes that have a greater than 90 percent chance of contributing to ASD among 500 or more genes associated with ASDs overall  [Ronemus et al, (2014) Nature Reviews Genetics 15, 133-141].  More investigation is needed to dig deeper into the roles of these genes and how they affect the developing brain, but those data are emerging.

    For example, a recent review of the genetic research published by Michael Ronemus and his colleagues has specified de novo mutations (that is, new mutations) in 12 genes that show strong causality of ASDs among boys.  In another recent study, conducted by researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, the authors reported on the impact of the gene CNTNAP2 on brain function. CNTNAP2 is associated with ASD and has been implicated in impaired language and thinking abilities. Scientists performed functional magnetic resonance imaging scans to compare brain function in carriers and noncarriers of the genetic risk factor. The study demonstrated that the nonrisk group had significantly lower activity in the medial prefrontal cortex during a task requiring processing of reward information. Additionally, there was increased and more diffuse functional brain connectivity in carriers of the genetic risk factor. Although higher connectivity may seem like a good thing, it may actually reflect an inefficient, immature profile of brain functioning. New research just published this month identified a gene that is very important to the development of neurons in utero, CCNND2, associated with ASD in girls found in families in which two or more females are diagnosed with ASDs. [Turner et al., (2015) Loss of δ-Catenin Function in Severe Autism. Nature 520, 51-54)].

    2.  Problematic Brain Pruning May Contribute to ASD

    To understand exactly how these genetic mutations affect brain maturation, neuroscientists are also investigating what happens differently in the brains of children who have been diagnosed on the autism spectrum.  From this perspective, researchers have begun investigating how the process of brain cell pruning may go awry in children with ASD. Pruning is the process by which a brain weeds out unimportant connections and strengthens the important ones, based on experience. In a recent report published in Neuron, the scientists reported that ASD may be associated with higher levels of a molecule that may impair the ability of brain cells to get rid of dysfunctional cell components.

    3.  White Matter Fiber Tracts Differ in Children with ASD

    Another area of investigation of brain differences in children with ASDs has investigated white matter tracts,  the superhighways of the brain  that allow efficient information transfer between brain regions. Scientists at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill studied the development of white matter tracts in infants who later went on to be diagnosed with ASD. They found that at 6 months of age, infants with ASD had higher fractional anisotropy (FA) in key white matter tracts. FA is a measure of the directionality of white matter fibers, with higher FA signaling better microstructural organization. However, those infants with ASD had a slower change in FA over time, such that they had much lower microstructural organization by 2 years of age. This suggests that the trajectory of white matter development may be abnormal even a few months following birth in those who go on to receive an ASD diagnosis. In simple terms, the superhighways of the brain are not working as efficiently in children with ASD as they are for typically developing children. 

    4.  Early Intervention Helps!

    Scientists using the Early Start Denver Model (ESDM), a behavioral intervention, previously showed that this treatment significantly improved IQ and language abilities in toddlers with ASD. Researchers also investigated whether the intervention changes brain functioning. They used electroencephalography to assess electrical activity in the brain during a task involving looking at faces versus objects.  Children who completed the ESDM intervention had faster neural response and higher cortical activation when looking at faces compared to objects. Those who received treatment as usual (a common community intervention) showed the opposite pattern.  Additionally, higher cortical activation during face-viewing was associated with better social behavior. This suggests that the ESDM intervention may cultivate brain changes that result in higher IQ, language abilities and social behaviors.

    Together, these exciting findings highlight the excellent work that is being done by scientists around the world to combat autism. From understanding the impact of individual molecules on brain cell structure to constructing more effective interventions, researchers continue to answer important questions about autism and give loved ones hope for the future of ASD care.

    Further Reading:

    Loss of mTOR-Dependent Macroautophagy Causes Autistic-like Synaptic Pruning Deficits

    Early Behavioral Intervention Is Associated With Normalized Brain Activity in Young Children With Autism

    Dozens of Genes Associated with Autism in New Research

    Altered Functional Connectivity in Frontal Lobe Circuits Is Associated with Variation in the Autism Risk Gene CNTNAP2

    Differences in white matter fiber tract development present from 6 to 24 months in infants with autism

    The role of de novo mutations in the genetics of autism spectrum disorders

    Related Reading:

    Understanding Autism in Children

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

     

    Alternatives to Medication in the Treatment of ADD

    Tuesday, March 24, 2015 - 08:00
    • Martha Burns, Ph.D


    In this op-ed in the New York Times, Richard A. Friedman, Professor of Clinical Psychiatry and Director of the Psychopharmacology Clinic at the Weill Cornell Medical College, discusses the urgent need to address the needs of students with attention problems.  Given the dramatic recent increase in the prevalence of ADHD diagnoses in school-aged children [according to the Centers for Disease Control, the lifetime prevalence in children has increased to 11 percent in 2011 from 7.8 percent in 2003 — a whopping 41 percent increase], Dr. Friedman argues for a need to find more natural (non-medical) ways to help these students. In his op-ed he states, “In school, these curious, experience-seeking kids would most likely do better in small classes that emphasize hands-on-learning, self-paced technology-based assignments, and tasks that build specific skills.”

    Whereas many parents and educators consider medication as a first approach to management of disorders of attention, the recent dramatic increase in the incidence and the call for consideration of non-medical interventions for school-aged children is important for parents and teachers to consider when managing learning issues within the classroom. One important type of attention disorder that has been treated successfully without medication is auditory attention disorders associated with some types of learning disabilities. Research conducted by Courtney Stevens and her colleagues at the Brain Development Lab at the University of Oregon has shown that children with specific language learning disorders have problems with auditory attention. Parents and educators rarely use the term “auditory attention”; however, the Stevens et al. research is increasingly supportive of its important role in learning.

    We all recognize students who have problems with auditory attention: those who cannot stay focused on listening long enough to complete a task or requirement (such as listening to a class discussion in school). In fact, when educators use the term “listening skills,” they are referring to auditory attention.  It is virtually impossible to imagine a classroom where paying attention to the teacher for sustained periods of time is not critical to academic success.  According to the International Listening Association (www.listen.org), 45 percent of a student’s day is spent listening, and students are expected to acquire 85 percent of their knowledge through listening. Auditory attention skills mature over time, and like many other skills important for learning (memory, thinking skills), students vary in their ability. Children with ADHD have a known diagnosis of significant auditory (and visual) attention problems. However, according to the Stevens et al. research, even across typical learners there is a variation of ability ranging from those with average auditory attention skills to those with excellent auditory attention skills. And like with other cognitive skills, independent controlled research indicates that Fast ForWord training can significantly improve auditory attention and/or reading skills in a variety of students:  typical students and those with specific language impairment.

    For those interested in the specifics of the Stevens et al. study, she and her colleagues examined whether six weeks of Fast ForWord Language training would influence neural mechanisms of selective auditory attention previously shown to be deficient in children with specific language impairment (SLI). Twenty 6-8 year old students received Fast ForWord Language training, including 8 students diagnosed with SLI and 12 students with typically developing language skills. An additional 13 students with typically developing language received no specialized training but were tested and retested after a comparable time period as a control group.  Before and after training, students received a standardized language assessment as well as a highly objective electrophysiological neural measure of attention using Event-Related Potentials (ERP).

    Compared to the control group, students receiving Fast ForWord Language training showed increases in standardized measures of receptive language as well as an improved effect of attention on neural processing. No significant change was noted in the control group. The enhanced effect of attention on neural processing represented a large effect size (Cohen’s d = 0.8, indicating that the average child in the experimental group is comparable to the child at the 79th percentile of the comparison group). These findings indicate that the neural mechanisms of selective auditory attention, previously shown to be deficient in children with SLI, can be remediated through training and can accompany improvements on standardized measurements of language development.

    Other controlled research, presented by Deutsch et al. at a CHADD conference several years ago, also showed improvement in attention among those students with a diagnosis of ADHD or ADD plus language impairment. In fact, if one considers Dr. Friedman’s finding that children with attention disorders benefit from “self-paced technology-based assignments and tasks that build specific skills,” there are no better designed self-paced e-learning programs than the Fast ForWord and Reading Assistant solutions. The Fast ForWord Reading products and Reading Assistant tasks are self-paced online tasks that require sustained auditory attention.  The tasks in Reading Assistant especially require activities that include listening to modeled reading, reading aloud while receiving corrective feedback through listening, listening to your own reading, and then answering questions about what was read.  Answering “think about it” comprehension questions further exercises both auditory memory and executive function skills.

    In conclusion, the effort to find more natural, non-medical ways to help students with attentional disorders is at hand.  Self-paced technology programs like the neuroscience-based Fast ForWord series provide one proven alternative for improving attentional skills in students with language-based learning issues as well as those diagnosed with ADD and ADHD. 

    Further Reading:

    Stevens, C., Fanning, J., Coch, D., Sanders, L., & H Neville (2008). Neural mechanisms of selective auditory attention are enhanced by computerized training: Electrophysiological evidence from language-impaired and typically developing children. Brain Research, 1205, 55-69.

    Students Show Improved Auditory Attention and Early Reading Skills After Fast ForWord Intervention

    Related Reading:

    Improved Auditory Processing With Targeted Intervention

    Why Auditory Processing Disorders (APD) are Hard to Spot

     

    How Learning A New Language Actually Rewires the Brain

    Tuesday, February 17, 2015 - 08:00
    • Hallie Smith, MA CCC-SLP
    English language learners know that mastering a new language is mentally taxing. Until recently, however, less was known about what actually happens inside the brains of those learning a second language. New research findings reveal that the brain undergoes a powerful reorganization in bilingual individuals.
     
    Impact of Phonological Competition on Thinking Abilities
    In a recent report from the journal Brain and Language, researchers from Northwestern University and the University of Houston studied brain activity of monolingual and bilingual participants. In particular, the researchers were studying a phenomenon known as phonological competition. This is the process through which we determine what word is being spoken, meaning that effective resolution of phonological competition is critical to language comprehension.
     
    Our brains engage in phonological competition thousands of times each day. When listening to spoken English, auditory cues from the beginning of a word -- for example, “p-r-o” -- lead to activation of several possible target words (“process,” “project,” “progress,” etc.). Each of these possible targets competes for selection. As more auditory information is received, the competition becomes lower as the correct word is selected.
     
    On a neural level, previous research suggests that each of the possible target words are activated in the brain at the same time. The brain must suppress the incorrect items to allow the correct word to be selected. Although both monolingual and multilingual individuals do this, people who know more than one language have more potential words to suppress. For example, someone bilingual in Spanish and English has significantly more words beginning with “p-r-o” to compete for selection (“progreso,” “pronombre,” etc.). Thus, bilingual children become great at suppressing incorrect information when presented with several competing choices. This translates into stronger cognitive control in math, logical reasoning, and other areas of functioning.
     
    Novel Research Findings About Brain Structure in English Language Learners
    The brain is plastic, meaning that it changes its structure and function in response to learning. Learning a new language is associated with increased brain volumes in the left parietal lobe, which is the brain’s language center. Additionally, in line with the improved cognitive control observed in bilingual people, areas of the brain that control attention and the ability to ignore distracting information also grow in size.
     
    In conjunction with studies looking at the size of certain brain regions, researchers use functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to identify brain activity during a task. Functional MRI is a method of measuring the amount of blood flow to a brain region while a person performs a particular task. More blood flow is thought to reflect greater activation in that region compared to the rest of the brain. This allows researchers to identify which brain areas control certain abilities.
     
    In fMRI studies, bilingualism is associated with increased activation of a network of regions throughout the brain, including the frontal, temporal, and parietal lobes. This includes the brain’s language centers, which grow larger in response to learning a new language. The network also includes regions thought to help with executive control, which allows the brain to reduce interference between the two languages being activated at a given time.
     
    Interestingly, bilinguals show lower activation than monolinguals in the anterior cingulate cortex and left superior frontal gyrus, regions associated with executive control. This lower activation reflects improved efficiency in bilinguals; their stronger executive control abilities means that they do not need to exert as much cognitive effort to complete a task. Thus, they are better at choosing which language to use and which to ignore during a specific task.
     
    Similarly, a study examining neural activity in native English speakers who learned Chinese for six weeks scanned the brains of participants before and after their language learning. The investigators focused on network-level differences in brain activity, which reflect the exchange of information throughout numerous brain areas. They found that successful learners had more integrated brain networks than non-learners, particularly in language-related regions. More integrated brain networks translate to faster, more efficient flow of information. This means that bilingual individuals may have structural and functional brain differences that make it easier for them to process new information. 
     
    What This Means for Instructors of English Language Learners
    • English language learners aren’t necessarily slower than their monolingual counterparts (and may actually be faster!). In the study published in Brain and Language, there was no difference in reaction time between monolinguals and bilinguals. Although educators sometimes perceive that English language learners take longer to master certain tasks, this may not be the case. Bilingualism may actually make the brain more efficient at complex tasks, particularly those that involve ignoring irrelevant information.
    • Increased executive control may translate to other domains of life. Numerous studies have shown that bilingual people have stronger executive control compared to monolinguals. In fact, they show larger brain volumes and more integrated brain networks in areas associated with executive abilities. This may translate to other classroom areas. For example, when presented with a math word problem that contains pieces of irrelevant information, a bilingual child may be better at ignoring distractors and finding the correct answer. English language learners may also tune out classroom distractions more effectively than their monolingual counterparts. Studies have found robust effects in which bilingual individuals outperform monolinguals across verbal and nonverbal tasks.
    • Successful language use transforms the brain to a greater degree. When it comes to English language learning, the quality of education matters. An experienced educator is likely to achieve better results. Students’ successful learning results in significantly better efficiency of language networks in the brain. These efficient brain networks also improve functioning in other areas of life. This highlights the importance of investing in good educators and training programs for English language learners.
    • Learning a new language results in lifelong changes to the brain. This area of brain research is relatively young, but evidence suggests that the brain changes resulting from learning a new language may last a lifetime. Thus, fostering strong abilities among English language learners may translate into a lifetime of higher cognitive control. 

     

    Further reading:

    Learning a Second Language:  First-Rate Exercise for the Brain

    Related reading:

    Educating ELLs:  4 Trends for 2015

    5 Things You May Not Know about ELLs

     

    Unlocking Potential and Inspiring Outcomes – Register for Visionary Conference 2015 Today!

    Tuesday, December 16, 2014 - 08:00
    • Carrie Gajowski

    2015 Visionary Conference“The limits of my language means the limits of my world.” – Ludwig Wittgenstein

    It’s that time again! Open your calendar and mark February 26-28 with the highlight event of the year – the 2015 Visionary Conference! This year’s conference theme is “Unlocking Potential and Inspiring Outcomes.” Are we talking about your clients’ potential and outcomes, or that of your business? Both! Attend the conference in person in Chandler, Arizona, or join in online as a virtual attendee. Either way, you won’t want to miss it.

    Inspiring Minds Want You to Know

    Scientific Learning co-founder Dr. Steve Miller returns to the Visionary Conference in 2015 after several years away, and attendees are in for a real treat. Dr. Miller’s keynote presentation, “A Neuroscience eLearning Revolution,” will look at e-learning and the brain through the lens of the latest neuroscience research. Come prepared to learn what neuroimaging and behavior research has to say about early neurolinguistic skills and future academic performance.

    Dr. Paula Tallal, also a co-founder of Scientific Learning, will dive deep into the early years of language development with her keynote, “Early Precursors to Language Development: Implications for Literacy,” exploring the relationship between language and literacy.

    Dr. Marty Burns will present the final keynote on the neuroscience of language differences and remediation from a Speech Language Pathologist perspective. Expect to hear all about the latest research and walk away invigorated and inspired to make a difference in the lives of your clients.

    Learn It Today, Use It Tomorrow

    Additional conference sessions will cover a wide range of topics, so whether you’re a newbie or a seasoned Fast ForWord veteran, there’s something new for you. Find out how to integrate Fast ForWord and Reading Assistant in your practice and maximize your results, get your product questions answered at our Ask-An Expert round table, and take a peek at what’s in store for Scientific Learning products in 2015!

    ASHA CEUs will be available for a number of sessions, including Dr. Burns’ keynote.

    Summer is Around the Corner

    Attending the 2015 Visionary Conference is the perfect way to jump start your plans for the busy summer season. Build your confidence and competence or take your mastery to a higher level so you can inspire dramatic outcomes and unlock potential throughout the year!

    Related reading:

    Dyslexia – How Far We’ve Come!

    5 Things Every Parent and Educator Should Know About Early Childhood Brain Development

     

     

    Reading to Learn: Do We Expect Too Much of Fourth Graders?

    Monday, November 10, 2014 - 08:00
    • Norene Wiesen

    Reading to LearnElementary school teachers are about to get re-schooled in one of the tenets of reading development: that fourth grade marks the turning point between learning to read and reading to learn. A new study in Developmental Science by Dartmouth Associate Professor of Education Donna Coch has revealed that the transition to mature reading skills isn’t as clear-cut as many educators have been taught.

    According to the “reading-shift” theory that has dominated teacher education in recent years, students experience a significant transition toward reading automaticity in fourth grade. This shift supposedly gives fourth graders the adult-like ability to read to learn. But Coch’s study, which uses brainwaves to measure the automaticity of different types of processing, doesn’t support the timing behind the theory. Instead, it shows that some aspects of reading automaticity are established before fourth grade while others are still developing past fifth grade.

    Specifically, Cook found that phonological processing (“the ability to discriminate and detect differences in phonemes and speech sounds”) and semantic processing (encoding a word’s meaning and making connections between the word and other words with similar meanings) are well established by third grade. However, the brainwave measure of fifth graders’ orthographic processing (using the visual look of a string of letters to quickly understand whether or not those letters make up a word) still resembled that of younger readers more than college students.

    If reading automaticity takes years to fully develop, and if we don’t know when the process is complete for most learners (the study did not look at students between 5th grade and college age), what do these results mean for educators and learners?

    The takeaway, according to Coch, is that teachers should have realistic expectations of their students’ abilities and not expect them to be reading with full word automaticity in fourth and fifth grade. What makes more sense, says Coch, is for fourth and fifth grade teachers to begin thinking of themselves as reading teachers. That may be a shift for many, but it fits well with the Common Core trend of incorporating reading tasks in subjects beyond ELA. Is your school taking this research into account and changing its approach to teaching upper grade learners?

    Related reading:

    Teaching Inference as a Reading Strategy: The What, the How, and the Why

    Why Prosody Matters: The Importance of Reading Aloud with Expression

     

     

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