10 Ways to Help Your School-Age Child Develop a “Reading Brain”

Tuesday, May 31, 2016 - 08:00
  • Hallie Smith, MA CCC-SLP
reading brainAs children start their summers, it’s important to keep in mind that a number of activities can be done at home to help children develop a ‘reading brain’ and become more fluent readers. “We take reading for granted, and yet numerous statistics find that too many of our nation’s students, regardless of age and background, struggle with reading,” said Dr. Paula Tallal, a world-recognized authority on language-learning disabilities and a founder of both the Center for Molecular and Behavioral Neuroscience at Rutgers University and Scientific Learning. “What scientific research tells us is that the ability to read is one of the most complex skills we can learn in our lifetime. It also shows us that the brain can change and learn at any age and, in effect, be rewired for reading.” According to the National Institute for Child Health and Human Development, National Reading Panel, National Institute for Literacy and other research organizations, the reading skills of phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension as well as the cognitive skills of memory, attention, processing and sequencing are critical to reading fluently.
Dr. Tallal provides the following ten pointers on how parents can help their school-age children develop and fine-tune these essential skills at home:

1. Phonemic awareness

Phonemic awareness is the ability to hear, identify and manipulate the sounds of spoken language and to understand that words are made of sequences of phonemes, the smallest units of sound that make a difference in the meaning of words. Students with developed phonemic awareness skills can judge whether two words rhyme, for example, and are able to isolate and substitute the beginning, middle and ending sounds in a word.
How to work on phonemic awareness at home: By teaching rhymes, songs and short poems and playing simple word games (e.g. “How many words can you rhyme with sat?”).

2. Phonics

Phonics are the understanding that there is a predictable relationship between phonemes (the sounds of spoken language) and graphemes (the letters and spellings that represent those sounds in written language).
How to work on phonics at home: Parents should help younger children practice the alphabet by pointing out letters whenever they see them and teaching them their name and other everyday words. Playing games like, “How many words can you make using the letters in spaghetti?” works well with older children.

3. Fluency

Fluency is the ability to read a text accurately and quickly. Fluent readers can recognize words automatically and understand their meaning at the same time.

How to work on fluency at home: Children should be encouraged to read aloud to their parents and even re-read the same story several times. Parents should read to their children as well as have them follow along as they read.

4. Vocabulary

Vocabulary consists of the words readers must know to communicate effectively.
How to work on vocabulary at home: Parents can help children build a strong vocabulary by teaching them the meaning of important words and promoting the use of a dictionary. They can also teach their child how to use context clues while reading to figure out unknown words and learn base words and affixes to decode words.


5. Comprehension

Compehension is the ability to derive meaning from text. Good readers have a purpose for reading.
How to work on comprehension at home: Parents should help their children find time to read for pleasure and find interesting books that they want to read on their own. Parents who discuss with their children what they’re reading are also helping them read for meaning.


6. Memory

Memory is the ability to store information and ideas, which is essential for word recognition, comprehension of complex sentences and remembering instructions.
How to work on comprehension at home: Engaging children in memory games like ‘Concentration’ and encouraging them to re-tell stories help improve memory skills.

7. Attention

Attention is the ability to focus on information and tasks, while ignoring distractions. Fluent reading requires sustained and focused attention.
How to work on attention at home: To increase attention span, parents should have children set time goals for sticking to a task, like doing homework or reading quietly. Children should also learn to read or study in a quiet room, free from television, radio and other distractions.

8. Processing

In the context of reading, processing is the ability to distinguish and associate individual speech sounds with their corresponding letter and word forms.
How to work on processing at home: Listening games, such as identifying sounds in words that sound like something else (e.g., the 's' sounds like a hissing snake), help train the ear to capture and interpret sounds clearly and accurately.

9. Sequencing

Sequencing skills are used for maintaining order, such as the order of letters within words or words within a sentence.
How to work on sequencing at home: Creating picture stories in which the order of the images is used to tell the story is an effective way to develop sequencing skills in young children. For those learning how to spell, mixing up letter tiles and having them unscramble the letters to form a word also helps.

10. Early intervention

“The final and perhaps most important thing that parents can do to help their kids develop a reading brain is to recognize that reading problems require intervention,” Dr. Tallal added. “Early intervention is important, especially with the aid of scientifically-based reading intervention programs that target different areas of reading instruction, but it’s never too late to help children become better readers.”
Download a PDF of the 10 Ways Parents Can Help School-Age Children Develop a "Reading Brain" by clicking here.

3 New Research Findings on Fast ForWord

Tuesday, May 17, 2016 - 08:00
  • Kristina Birdsong

The prevalence of language and attention-based learning disorders (like dyslexia) among children remains one of the major obstacles facing education. But as new research illuminates their underlying neurological characteristics, the potential for overcoming these obstacles continues to grow. Three recent findings across multiple studies highlight the effectiveness of the Fast ForWord program in improving educational outcomes along with their deeper brain-based correlates through its computerized training.

1. Processing  of “tone doublets” is impaired in children with language issues, and is improved following Fast ForWord training.

Previous research has suggested that many instances of language impairment in children may be rooted in low-level auditory processing disorders. One particular auditory deficiency frequently observed in language-impaired children is difficulty processing rapid sound changes. A recent study has demonstrated that this type of processing can be improved through Fast ForWord’s targeted audiovisual regimen (Heim, Keil, Choudhury, Friedman, Benasich, 2013); (Heim, Choudhury, Benasich, 2015).

In their initial visit, a group of children aged 6 to 9 formally diagnosed with language learning impairment (LLI) as well as a control group of similarly-aged children with no diagnoses were asked to identify sound changes in nonverbal ‘tone doublets’ consisting of a high and low tone played in rapid succession, as well as consonant syllables like ‘ba’ and ‘da’. As they did so, their brain activity was recorded through electroencephalogram (EEG) and event-related-potential (ERP) measurements.

Consistent with prior research, the language-impaired children took longer to identify sound changes and showed lower levels of brain activity. After participating in Fast ForWord’s phoneme identification exercises for an average of 32 days, this group was tested again in a second visit, where their measurements showed a significant increase in brain activity. Children in the control group, who did not undergo the Fast ForWord training, showed much slighter improvement on their second visit, suggesting that the improvement of the test group could not be attributed to practice or familiarization effects.

2. Language and reading assessments improved after Fast ForWord.

There is significant evidence that measurements of brain activity have a strong correlation with observed educational performance. In the aforementioned 2013 study, the language-impaired children also showed significant improvement in their performance on the standardized CELF (Comprehensive Evaluation of Language Fundamentals) language test, with their scores increasing by an average of 10% between the two assessments.

An earlier study in 2008 had demonstrated similar results (Stevens, Fanning, Coch, Sanders, Neville, 2008). Here, a sample group of elementary school-aged children diagnosed with specific language impairment (SLI) were tested alongside two control groups of children with typical language development. Children in all three groups completed the standardized CELF evaluation. They were then presented with audio of two narrated stories playing simultaneously and asked to pay attention to only one of them, while their responses to various verbal and non-verbal stimuli embedded within each story were recorded through ERP to measure selective auditory attention. As expected, both sets of scores were lower for the SLI group, with no significant difference between the two control groups.

After this first assessment, the SLI group and the first control group received Fast ForWord training for six weeks, while the second control group did not. All three groups then participated in another audio listening session before taking another CELF evaluation at the end of the study. The results were extremely promising. Not only did the language-impaired children improve by about 10% over their initial CELF score – the control group that received Fast ForWord training showed a smaller but significant improvement as well. A similar pattern was seen in the ERP measurements of selective auditory attention, suggesting that the two measurements were in fact correlated and that Fast ForWord training can enhance both auditory processing and language performance in language-impaired and typically developing children alike.

3. Fast ForWord training improves brain networks found in children with language learning impairment, specific language impairment or dyslexia.

Although dyslexia is a more specific disorder whose observed symptoms are commonly associated with reading, it is strongly believed to be rooted in phonological processing difficulties – the inability to hear distinct phonemes that can then be visually associated with written letters. Accordingly, a 2003 study found that, compared to non-dyslexic children, those with dyslexia showed lower levels of brain response in their brain’s audio processing areas when asked to look at a succession of written letters and select the ones that rhyme. This was indicated by functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans of brain activity, with the sharpest differences observed in the temporal left region. After a period where Fast ForWord intervention time was included as part of their regular school day, not only did the dyslexic children’s performance scores improve, but their fMRI scans began to more closely resemble those of the typically developing children, suggesting that the training was actively rewiring their brains' networks to function more effectively in language processing.

Furthermore, a 2015 review of similar studies showed that phonological training improved brain functioning in children with conditions ranging from dyslexia to SLI and general reading difficulties. Of 20 studies surveyed, four used Fast ForWord as their training content. Across all studies, improvements included increased activation of certain brain regions, stronger and faster neural responses, and even an increase of white matter. Follow-ups conducted in several studies also showed that these improvements were maintained even a year after the original intervention. These results suggest that phonological and auditory intervention has the potential for actively rewiring neural networks to function more effectively in language processing, leading to lifelong gains in behavior and educational performance.


Ylinen, S. & Kujala, T. (2015). Neuroscience illuminating the influence of auditory or phonological intervention on language-related deficits.  Frontiers in Psychology, 6. 

Heim, S., Choudhury, N. & Benasich, A. A. (First online: 15 December 2015). Electrocortical Dynamics in Children with a Language-Learning Impairment Before and After Audiovisual Training. Brain Topography.

Heim, S., Keil, A., Choudhury, N., Thomas Friedman, J. & Benasich, A. (2013). Early gamma oscillations during rapid auditory processing in children with a language-learning impairment: Changes in neural mass activity after training.  Neuropsychologia, 51, 990-1001.

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.

Remediation Training Improves Reading Ability of Dyslexic Children


Pay Attention! Why It's Not as Easy as You May Think

Tuesday, April 19, 2016 - 08:00
  • Martha Burns, Ph.D

Pay Attention!How often do you say to your child, “Pay attention?”  Or, how often does a teacher reprimand a student for “not paying attention?” We tend to think that attention is something simple, either you are paying attention or you are not. But, it is actually much more complex than most people realize.  For example, do you ever find yourself distracted enough when walking into a room to get something that you forget what you came into the room for? Or, have you ever been listening to an audio book only to realize that you stopped paying attention several pages back?

In fact, trying to figure out exactly what attention is, and why some children have more trouble attending than others, especially in school, has been the focus of psychologists for years.  As adults, we realize that the ability to attend carefully to a task, ignore distractions and stick with it, is something that takes time for children to develop. But, what exactly is attention? Why is some information easier to attend to than other kinds? What is an attentional disorder? And, perhaps most important, are there ways to improve our attentional skills?

What is attention?

Perhaps the first attempt to define "attention" was made in The Principles of Psychology by William James. He wrote, "Everyone knows what attention is. It is the taking possession [in] the mind...of one....of several simultaneous objects or trains of thought." (James, The Principles of Psychology, 1890, page 403). But knowing what we think attention involves doesn't help us understand how this ability develops in children or why is it so difficult for all of us some of the time -  and for some, a lot of the time. The fields of cognitive psychology and cognitive neuroscience have begun to help us understand how very complicated something that seemed so simple to William James, really is.

Attention redefined

Neuroscientists like Dr. Michael Posner Attention impacts different neural networksand his colleagues have helped us understand that attention isn't just one thing. There are several types of attention. To begin with, there are different components of attention that correspond to different connected brain areas (networks). Dr. Posner and colleagues have identified three of these: alerting, orienting and executive.


You know that when you are alert you feel wide awake and responsive to what is going on in the world around you. An alert state is very important for performing any task well and we all know what it is like when we are groggy and mentally foggy, perhaps when we first wake up in the morning. There is a chemical, norepinephrine, that modulates alertness largely in frontal and parietal brain regions. Alertness can be triggered by warning signals of any kind which rapidly allow us to change from a resting state to being more receptive to a new stimulus; a good example is the yellow light on a traffic signal that prepares us for when the light changes to red.


The second component of attention is orienting. When you are oriented, you know where you are, who you are with, the day and time and most important, what is needed to perform the relevant task at hand. We rely on orientation to efficiently navigate a large airport during a connection, for example. Our senses are very important for orientation, allowing us to take in visual, auditory and tactile information from the world around us and use it to figure out what is the most relevant information to accomplish a task. Navigating an airport during a tight connection requires looking for appropriate signage and maps, asking officials if necessary, noting the boarding time and figuring out how quickly we need to move to get to the correct gate on time.


The third component  of attention that Dr. Posner and colleagues have studied involves the executive network. This is tied to our goals and helps us resolve competition for our attention when there are distractions or conflicts.  We can think of this level of attention as akin to self-control, maintaining attention in a regulated and purposeful way to accomplish a goal. The areas of the brain involved are complex and distributed widely through the brain. The executive attention network enhances activity in brain regions related to our goals and inhibits conflicting activity. This control requires coordination of our executive functions (goals, priorities, organization), emotions and other cognitive functions like memory and knowledge so that irrelevant feelings or thoughts don't interfere with getting a job done. This kind of effortful control and self-regulation takes time to mature, and can be quite variable from person to person (and task to task).  Executive attention (sometimes referred to as cognitive control) is highly correlated with success in school and later life.

Selective attention

One facet of executive attention known to be critical for academic success is selective attention. Dr. Courtney Stevens and her colleagues have studied the relationship between selective attention and academics over the past decade. Selective attention, depending on the activity, can involve one sense more than or in combination with others. For example, listening to an audio book or a newscast on the radio requires auditory selective attention while photography or drawing would require visual selective attention. When watching a newscast on TV we can use the visual information to augment our auditory attention. Dancing and athletics often require selective attention to movement and bodily senses, as well as visual and spatial attention to those moving nearby. For each of our senses, children need to learn to selectively attend. Dr. Alison Gopnik and her colleagues have studied the maturation of selective attention in young children as well as adults when they are in new environments. She has found that young children, as well as adults in a new stimulating environment (like a first trip to Paris during an exciting time like a honeymoon), are often global attenders - taking in many sights and sounds at once.  That makes for a fun day at the park or vacation, but to get a job done or accomplish a goal, we need to be selective about what we pay attention to (and ignore).

What is an attention deficit disorder?

Selective auditory attention may be especially challenging, especially in today's world, where we are bombarded with rapidly changing information and frequent technological interruptions. For many children, moving from the world of multi-sensory experiences in play, sports and media (especially tablets and television) to sitting still and selectively attending to a teacher in a classroom can be particularly difficult.  For some children, there appears to be a physiological limitation, beyond that expected for their age, on their ability to listen and learn on demand - this is referred to as an attentional deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) if the difficulty involves both selective attention and behavioral control, or ADD if there is not a problem sitting still. Although ADHD and ADD are considered medical diagnoses and often treated with medication, there is evidence that attentional skills are malleable.

The good news: attention is trainable!

In fact, many scientists including Drs. Posner, Stevens and their colleagues have found that attentional skills are amenable to training. Dr. Stevens and colleagues found that a short (six week) period doing exercises in the Fast ForWord Language program, that train selective auditory attention in several different contexts (language listening tasks, two-tone rapid sequencing tasks, speech-sound discrimination tasks) resulted in improved auditory selective attention for listening to stories read aloud, among both language impaired and typically learning second graders compared to students who had a regular classroom curriculum but did not participate in the specific auditory attention exercises.  

In an article reviewing the research on the relationship between selective attention and academic achievement, Dr. Stevens and her colleague Daphne Bavelier conclude, “there may be large benefits to incorporating attention-training activities into the school context” (page S44).  Luckily, neuroscience-based interventions are now available to help educators build attentional skills in their students, to free them up so they can focus on covering curriculum content.

How did you do? Did you scan the page, get distracted by your phone (alerting attention), or stop mid-stream to think about your next vacation? Or did you maintain selective and executive attention all the way through the article?  Let us know in the comments!


Posner, M., Rothbart, M., Sheese, B and Voelker, P. (2014) Developing Attention: Behavioral and Brain Mechanisms. Advances in Neuroscience Article ID 405094.

Posner, M., Rueda, R. and Kanske, P. (2007) Probing the Mechanisms of Attention. In J.T. Caciopo, J.G. Tassinary & G.G. Berntson (eds), Handbook of Psychophysiology. Third Edition. Cambridge U.K.: Cambridge University Press (pp 410-432).

Stevens, C. and Bavelier, D. (2012) The role of selective attention on academic foundations: A cognitive neuroscience perspective. Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience  25:S30-S48.


13 Questions About The Build English Fast Solution

Tuesday, September 15, 2015 - 08:00
  • Carrie Gajowski, MA

Build English Fast with ELLs

Are you faced with more English language learners in your class, school or district? You may not know that Fast ForWord® is the top-ranked intervention for English Language Development on What Works Clearinghouse. Our unique Build English FastTM solution incorporates the power of both Fast ForWord and Reading Assistant to accelerate English language development. In one of our most popular webinars this year, Dr. Martha Burns fielded the following questions from educators like you!  Click here to view the full webinar.

Q: What is the best age for teaching a second language to benefit the development of the second language?

A: Birth to seven is generally the time when it is easiest to learn and become proficient in a second language. However, that period of time is extended in people who are bilingual, such that bilingual people can learn additional languages extraordinarily well, even at older ages. It seems that just being exposed to two languages when you are young makes your brain more flexible for learning languages in general.

The general rule is that the best time to learn an additional language is before age seven -- but that rule can be broken by lots of different things, including bilingual proficiency.

Q: Does the Fast ForWord program help with native language delays?

A. The Fast ForWord program helps build the whole language network in the brain.  In doing so, it improves the brain’s ability to process language and thereby can help the development of both the native language and any second language (such as English).

Q: What about special needs students who are second language learners?

A: The Fast ForWord program was originally designed for use with children with special needs but has been found to be extraordinarily effective with ELL students. The original group of study participants included students with developmental language problems of one kind or another that could be associated with autism spectrum disorder, developmental delays, and specific language impairments. All these groups of children benefited from the Fast ForWord program. The only caveats are that the child needs to have language skills in their native language of at least a three-year-old, and the child must be able to use a computer or iPad with headphones.

Q: What age range is the Fast ForWord program good for?

A: For English language learners, the program can be started as early as age five.  There is no upper age limit for program use.

Q: What about kids without basic literacy?

A: Students can benefit even if they are not reading in either their native or their second language. Two of the products that are particularly appropriate for English language learners (Fast ForWord Language for students in elementary schools and Fast ForWord Literacy for students in secondary schools) focus on sounds and oral language, and have no written letters.  These are appropriate starting points for students who are not yet literate.

Q: Is there progress monitoring and data to support the program?

A: Yes. A great strength of the Fast ForWord program is the ability of educators to monitor each student’s strengths and weaknesses. Every grammatical error the student makes is recorded, as well as every error in speech sound discrimination, vocabulary, or listening/reading comprehension.  Each student’s responses on every item are included in a report.

Q: Is there a pre-test that can be administered to know where to begin?

A: When the program is used in a school setting, there is an assessment called Reading Progress Indicator that typically runs automatically when students initiate use (although it can be turned off during enrollment).  This assessment evaluates a student’s early reading skills and determines whether the student has a reading discrepancy.  Coupled with the student’s current grade level and education classification, this determines where in the program the child should start.  As long as the auto placement option has been selected, the program will place the student at that point and continue to move them onto the next product within the Fast ForWord program as appropriate.    

Q: Does it work on all modalities – reading, writing, listening and speaking?

A. The Fast ForWord program and Reading Assistant software work directly on reading, speaking and listening. Although there are no actual writing exercises that use pen and paper, research has shown improvement in writing. For information on this specific research, please see the blog post on our website "Building Better Writers (Without Picking Up a Pen)" by Dr. Beth Rogowsky.

Q: Is this a program people can access at home or just at school?

A: You can access the Fast ForWord program at home or school. The three ways through which the program can be accessed are:

  1. School district that is using the Fast ForWord program;
  2. Clinical professional who is trained on the Fast ForWord program and using it, such as a speech and language pathologist.  Trained professionals can be found on the Search for a Provider page; or
  3. Fast ForWord Home online service, which combines the Fast ForWord program with the services of a professional consultant. Learn more about Fast ForWord Home.

Q: Can this program be compared to other ESL programs?

A: Many other programs teach language through sentence structure. A student sees a picture and hears a word or sentence that goes with the pictures. They do not have specific training in speech sound discrimination by itself. The Fast ForWord program complements these other programs by developing some of the necessary foundational skills, including the ability to discriminate between sounds and the ability to identify specific phonemes. 

Q: Is the Reading Assistant program helpful for strengthening literacy?

A: Yes, the Reading Assistant program is a literacy product. Students start working with real text leveled around mid-first grade. Initially, students have the stories or the content read to them while they look at a printed page and see the words and phrases highlighted as they are read by the computer. The students then read aloud the text themselves. In order to use the Reading Assistant program, children must be able to correctly read 25 words per minute.  For students who use it, Reading Assistant is a wonderful tool for building fluency, reading vocabulary, and comprehension.

Q: How many minutes do you need to use the Fast ForWord program to get the most benefit?

A: ELL students, who have average native language skills, should use the products at least thirty minutes, three times a week. For students whose native language skills are not at age level, the minimum is thirty minutes, five times a week. These protocols are appropriate for both the Fast ForWord Language (elementary school students) and the Fast ForWord Literacy (middle or high school students) products and can be completed in anywhere from 12 to 27 weeks based on the abilities of the student and whether the students use the  products thirty minutes for three or five days a week.  Students can also use the products for more minutes each day, and thereby reach completion in fewer weeks.

Q: If a child starts in the Reading Assistant program at the first grade level, does it adjust to match the student’s level as he/she does the activity?

A. The Reading Assistant program has many different levels of difficulty, becoming more difficult as students progress.  In order to use the software, students must be able to correctly read at least 25 words per minute, which corresponds to a mid-first grade reading level.  However, difficulty ranges up through high school with content that aligns with the interest and content material for the corresponding grade levels:  K-3, 4-5, 6-8, and 9-12. 

Not all students start at the same level.  Teachers can select the appropriate level of reading for each student, or students can take the Reading Progress Indicator assessment and be automatically placed in to the appropriate level of the Reading Assistant program.



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!


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.


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


Dyslexia – How Far We’ve Come!

Tuesday, August 5, 2014 - 17:30
  • Martha Burns, Ph.D

For most of the 40-plus years that the term “dyslexia” has been in existence, and although the diagnosis has long been considered a “learning disability,” it has been based on comparisons with average readers. Simply put, a child has been diagnosed with “dyslexia” if he or she is shown to have an IQ in the “normal” range but falls at or below the 10th percentile on standardized tests of reading for a specific age group. The cut-off has been arbitrary, often varying considerably from one setting to another. As a result, a child who falls at the 12th percentile might be considered a poor reader while a child falling at the 10th percentile would be diagnosed with dyslexia.

The technical term for that diagnostic approach is called “discrepancy criteria.” Stanislas Dehaene, in his book Reading in the Brain, succinctly explains that the diagnosis of dyslexia has thus depended “on the setting of an arbitrary criterion for ‘normality’ … [which] might lead to the erroneous conclusion that dyslexia is a purely social construction.”

Certainly, for those parents among us who have a child diagnosed with dyslexia, it is obvious quite early in the educational process that our bright child is not just behind in reading but dumbfounded by the written word. A child with dyslexia seems to struggle at every turn.

Psychologists, neurologists, and special educators have understood that as well and since the 1970s have assumed dyslexia has a neurological basis. In fact, the term “dyslexia” actually stems from the Greek alexia, which literally means “loss of the word” and was the diagnostic term used when adults lost the ability to read after suffering a brain injury. Dyslexia was a term adopted to confer a lesser (though still neurologically based) form of reading impairment seen in children. However, determining the neurological basis has been elusive until relatively recently.

The Search for a Neurological Basis

In the early attempts at researching the underlying causes of dyslexia in the 1970s there were no technological medical procedures available to study brain processes that might be involved in reading normally or abnormally. As a result, although the term implied that there was a neurological cause, the exact nature of the brain differences in children with dyslexia could not be determined.

Some of the early researchers believed that the cause was visual-spatial. Samuel Orton had originally thought that reading disorders in children were similar to “word blindness” in adults, caused not by a specific brain injury, but representing a maturational disorder based on delayed cerebral development of left hemisphere dominance. However, his theory could not be tested empirically and he and others became more aware over time that many children with reading problems seemed to have specific problems with other non-visual aspects of reading – specifically, sounding out of words.

Because of the inability to determine the neurological cause(s) of dyslexia, in some educational circles especially, it became synonymous with "developmental reading disorder" and the cause (neurological or perhaps otherwise) was deemed not important. Rather, the goal was to develop and test interventions and measure their outcomes without an effort to relate the interventions to underlying causation.

The problem with that approach, from a scientific standpoint, is that it is symptom based. Rather than getting at the root of the problem or distinguishing one child’s problem from another’s, the non-causative approach assumes that the solution to dyslexia depends on a specific teaching method. An analogy in medical science would be trying to treat all skin rashes with calamine lotion – it might make a person feel better no matter the cause, but it would be wholly inadequate for prevention of a virus like measles or treatment of a bacterial rash like impetigo.

Fortunately, just as medical science advanced our understanding of viral and bacterial causes of skin infections to allow for effective medical treatment, advances in neuroscience, buttressed by neuroimaging and brain electrophysiological technology starting in the late 1990s, have led to an emerging consensus about the causes of dyslexia and the most effective methods for remediating those causes. This neuroscience research has been accumulating from a variety of disciplines and is beginning to reveal a few underlying factors in brain development that can cause reading to be problematic. And the best news is that all of those processes are amenable to carefully designed training approaches.

What Happens in the Dyslexic Brain – and Why

In the early to mid-2000s, much of the available research on the underlying basis of dyslexia pointed to a primary problem with the phonological processing of speech sounds. The early research by Shaywitz (2003), Ramus (2003), and Vellutino, Fletcher, Snowling, & Scanlon (2004) – summarized in Stanislas Dehaene’s Reading in the Brain – identified problems with phonological awareness, the ability to segment words into their component speech sound components.

More resent research has delineated why that problem exists. For example, in 2012, Boets et al., using neuroimaging technology, found that in adults with dyslexia the brain connections between areas that represent speech sounds and a part of the left frontal lobe that is important for higher level processing of speech sounds is significantly hampered. In other words, they found that dyslexia is a problem accessing intact representations of speech sounds. Other recent neurophysiological research has indicated that disrupted timing of auditory processing, particularly in the range relevant to speech sounds, is a core deficit in dyslexia.[1]

Retraining the Dyslexic Brain

These consistent findings have led to an emerging consensus, well summarized by Jane Hornickel and Nina Kraus in the Journal of Neuroscience in 2012: namely that dyslexia is primarily an auditory disorder that arises from an inability to respond to speech sounds in a consistent manner. This underlying problem with perception of speech sounds, in turn, causes problems relating a speech sound to the written letter. Therefore, reading interventions for dyslexia should be most effective if they combine auditory perceptual training of speech sounds with exercises that require relating speech sounds to the written letter. And, in fact, neuroscience research bears that out.

The Fast ForWord Language and Reading interventions contain neuroscience-based exercises. They have been empirically tested in independent neuroscience laboratories and shown to have a rapid and significant impact on children and adults with dyslexia. The exercises have been shown to have a positive effect on the neurological processes that support reading and language as well.[2]

Our understanding of dyslexia has come very far in the past 40 years, with neurophysiological models developed in just the past five years explaining why letter-sound correspondence is so difficult for these children. Fortunately, treatment options have kept pace with the research, and children with dyslexia today have the potential to train their brains to overcome the learning difficulties that earlier generations were destined to carry with them for a lifetime.


Boets, B., Op de Beeck, H.P., Vandermosten, M., Scott, S.K., Gillebert, C.R., Mantini, D., Ghesquière, P.  (2013). Intact but less accessible phonetic representations in adults with dyslexia, Science, 342, 1251-1254. doi: 10.1126/science.1244333

Burns, M.S. (2012). Application of Neuroscience to Remediation of Auditory Processing, Phonological, Language and Reading Disorders: The Fast ForWord® and BrainPro Programs. In D. Geffner & D. Swain (Eds.), Auditory processing disorders: Assessment, management and treatment (2nd ed.). San Diego, CA: Plural Publications.

Dehaene, S. (2009). Reading in the brain: The science and evolution of a human invention. New York, NY: Viking Press.

Gabrielli, J. (2009). Dyslexia: A new synergy between education and cognitive neuroscience. Science, 325, 280-283. doi: 10.1126/science.1171999

Hornickel, J. & Kraus, N. (2013), Unstable representation of sound: A biological marker of dyslexia. The Journal of Neuroscience, 33, 3500 –3504. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.4205-12.2013


[1] See Billet & Bellis (2011), Goswami (2011), and Lehongre, Ramus, Villermet, Schwartz, & Giraud (2011) summarized by Burns (2012).

[2] See Dehaene (2009) and Gabrielli (2009) for excellent summaries of the research on the Fast ForWord interventions for dyslexia.

Related reading:

Auditory Processing Skills and Reading Disorders in Children

How Learning to Read Improves Brain Function




How to Tell When Neuroscience-Based Programs are Well-Developed

Tuesday, March 25, 2014 (All day)
  • Martha Burns, Ph.D

 5 key elements to look for in brain exercisesNeuroscience-based programs

I am sure you have noticed that there are many technology programs out there that claim to “build,” or improve your brain function. Every week I receive emails from companies advertising brain  games that promise to train attention and memory skills. You may have wondered, do “brain games” really work? A recent article in The New York Times entitled "Do Brain Workouts Work? Science Isn't Sure," actually asked that very question as well.

How would a memory brain game that I purchase from a website be different from a card or board game like “Concentration”? How is an attention game different or better than the concentration required to read a good book or play a card game that requires focused and sustained attention to cards played or discarded each round? Do good old fashioned paper pencil activities like crossword puzzles help with brain function? How about Bridge or Chess? Does watching Jeopardy on Television help your memory? Wouldn’t any challenging video game help us with attention if we had to stay focused for long periods of time to get to a new level?

The answers to the above questions are all “yes, to some degree.” The brain is the only organ of our body that changes each day based on our experiences. And if we do any activities that challenge memory or attention for extended periods of time it will likely be beneficial for improving those capacities. If I play bridge, for example, many hours a week, I will likely get better at the game and boost my short term (working) memory as well. But, neuroscientists who study brain plasticity, the way the brain changes with stimulation (or lack of stimulation), have determined there are ways to enhance the beneficial effects of brain exercises to maximize the efficiency and positive outcomes so that children or adults can specifically target some capacities over others in a short period of time. And, controlled research is showing these targeted exercises have benefits on other brain capacities as well.

So, for example, researchers have shown that when seven year olds do a simple computer-based exercise that targets working memory for just a few minutes a day for a few consecutive weeks they show improved working memory (we would expect that) but also improved reading comprehension compared with children in their classrooms who received reading instruction but did not do the working memory activities (Loosli, 2012). Or, aging adults in their 70's who did computer-based processing speed exercises a few minutes a day for six consecutive weeks so they could do things like react faster when driving showed improvements in processing speed (again we would expect that) but also in memory when compared to adults who did other exercises but not the processing speed exercises, and the improvements lasted for ten years without doing additional exercises (Rebok, 2014).

The question, then, is what are the critical active ingredients neuroscientists have found that need to be "built-in" so brain exercises effectively build targeted skills compared to the benefits we get from just using our "noggin" in everyday activities? And, more important, how is a parent or consumer to get through all the hype and determine which brain exercises have the important design features shown to be effective?

Fortunately, neuroscientists who have thoroughly researched this have published excellent summaries in respected scientific journals.

Here are the key elements to look for in brain exercises:

  1. High & low - Exercises are most effective when they include challenging high-level tasks (like exercises that require a high degree of speed and accuracy) while also including low-level exercises that improve our ability to perceive similar sounds or images more distinctly (Ahissar et el, 2009). We might call this the Sherlock Holmes effect - you must see the details clearly to solve difficult problems.
  2. Adaptability - Exercises should increase or decrease in difficulty based on how you perform so they continuously adapt to your skill level (Roelfsema, 2010).
  3. Highly intensive training schedules - The relevant ‘skills' must be identified, isolated, then practiced through hundreds if not thousands of trials on an intensive (ie, quasi-daily) schedule (Roelfsema, 2010).
  4. Attention grabbing - In order to maximize enduring plastic changes in the cortex, the learner must attend to each trial or learning event on a trial-by-trial basis.
  5. Timely rewards - A very high proportion of the learning trials must be rewarded immediately (rather than at the end of a block of trials or on a trial-and-error basis) (Roelfsema, 2010).

So, parents may ask, ”This sounds fine for making our average brains work better but what about my child who has been diagnosed with a learning disability or other issues like autism spectrum disorder?” According to Ahissar et al. (2009), for our children (or adults) with learning issues, distortions or limitations at any level will create bottlenecks for learning and the changes we want from brain exercises. But, according to the authors, if the exercises have sufficient intensity and duration on specific sets of activities that focus on lower-level (perceptual) and middle-level stimuli (attention, memory and language) tasks, brain changes will enhance higher level skills and learning will be easier and more advanced.

So for parents, or anyone wanting to understand which brain exercises are worth the investment of valuable time and money, a rule of thumb would be to avoid products that advertise themselves as "brain games" - because that is what they probably are. Rather, seek out programs or products that contain "exercises" that focus on specific high and low level skills like language, reading, memory and attention, and those who have research evidence to support their value when used by children like yours.


Ahissar, M., Nahum, M., Nelken, I., & Hochstein, S. (2009). Reverse hierarchies and sensory learning, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, 364,285–299. doi: 10.1098/rstb.2008.0253

Loosli, S.V., Buschkuehl, M., Perrig, W.J., & Jaeggi, S.M. (2012). Working memory training improves reading processes in typically developing children, Child Neuropsychology, 18, 62-78. doi: 10.1080/09297049.2011.575772

Rebok, G.W., Ball, K., Guey, L.T., Jones, R.N., Kim, H.Y., King, J.W., . . . Willis, S.L. (2014). Ten-Year Effects of the Advanced Cognitive Training for Independent and Vital Elderly Cognitive Training Trial on Cognition and Everyday Functioning in Older Adults, Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, 62,16-24. doi: 10.1111/jgs.12607

Roelfsema, P.R., van Ooyen, A., & Watanabe, T. (2010). Perceptual learning rules based on reinforcers and attention, Trends in Cognitive Science, 14, 64–71. doi: 10.1016/j.tics.2009.11.005

Vinogradav, S., Fisher, M., & de Villers-Sidani, E. (2012). Cognitive Training for Impaired Neural Systems in Neuropsychiatric Illness, Neuropsychopharmacology Reviews,37, 43–76. doi: 10.1038/npp.2011.251

Related reading:

Brain Fitness Is Not A Game

Dopamine and Learning: What The Brain’s Reward Center Can Teach Educators


Teach More Vocabulary, Faster, Using the Power of Morphology

Tuesday, March 4, 2014 (All day)
  • Norene Wiesen


You can teach your students 10 vocabulary words the usual way – one at a time – or you can teach them 100 vocabulary words with little extra effort. The second approach seems like the obvious choice, and in Dr. Tim Rasinski’s recent webinar, Comprehension – Going Beyond Fluency, he makes the case for greater adoption of the accelerated approach.

Going Beyond Fluency

Rasinski is known as a passionate advocate for teaching fluencyas a bridge to reading comprehension. But there’s more to comprehension than just fluency. Vocabulary plays a big part as well, and Rasinski talks about how to teach students “the meaning of words,” knowledge that is not only practical for everyday and academic life, but is also required by the Common Core.

Teaching Morphology

Morphology is a technical term that refers to the part of a word that carries meaning. It’s the Latin root “spect,” for example, in words like “introspection” or “spectacle,” that signals not only a commonality in spelling but also a kinship in meaning.

Knowing that “spec” means “look” makes it relatively easy for a student to understand (or figure out) that “introspection” means “to look inward” and “spectacle” means “an eye-catching occurrence.” The list of words built on the root “spec” is long, and by learning just one root, a student knows or can more easily interpret the meanings of many new words.

Rasinski calls this the “generative” or “multiplier” effect of morphological vocabulary study: the fact that Latin and Greek roots, prefixes, and suffixes have a one-to-many correspondence that dramatically increases access to vocabulary. And it’s not just Rasinski’s opinion that this approach gets results. Research has shown that during the early grades, morphological knowledge is a better predictor of reading comprehension than vocabulary levels.

Faster Learning

The more you do something the better you get at it. It’s how the brain works – practicing a skill rewires the brain to perform that skill more efficiently and effectively the next time. The online Fast ForWord®intervention program has the capacity to give students much more intensive, targeted practice in most aspects of reading – including morphology – than other programs or methods. That’s because Fast ForWord delivers nearly 35,000 learning “trials” in the same amount of time that other software programs deliver just over 5,000 trials. The result is often significant learning gains for even the most struggling students.

Rasinski hands the webinar over to Cory Armes, who demonstrates Hoof Beat, an exercise in Fast ForWord Reading 4 that develops morphological skills such as recognizing and understanding Greek and Latin roots, suffixes, and prefixes. It also works on word analysis, synonyms, antonyms, analogies, and more. With a fun video game style format that keeps students engaged while challenging them with in-depth practice.

Armes goes on to present statistically significant results from several studies of students using the Fast ForWord program, including increased reading achievement for elementary learners, improved comprehension for secondary learners, and over 2 years of improvement in reading grade level for ELLs.

The Nitty Gritty

Check out the full webinar and get all the rich details:

  • How many words students can learn weekly by traditional direct instruction;
  • How many words students can learn over the course of their K-12 education by traditional direct instruction;
  • How many words are in the English language (HINT: it’s probably more than you think);
  • How Fast ForWord develops vocabulary through morphology (see the product in action);
  • How – and in what grade – teachers can start teaching morphology to accelerate vocabulary learning; and
  • The details of Rasinski’s 5-day plan for using morphology to teach vocabulary.

If you’re not yet using roots, prefixes, and suffixes as a mainstay of vocabulary instruction – or if you’d like to explore how technology can help – don’t hesitate to watch the webinar. Your students will thank you…someday.

Related reading:

5 Fluency and Comprehension Strategies That Every Reader Can Use

Squelching Curiosity: How Pre-Teaching Vocabulary Stifles Learning



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