13 Questions About The Build English Fast Solution

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

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. BrainPro online service, which combines the Fast ForWord program with the services of a professional consultant. Learn more about the BrainPro service.

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


Four Myths About Learning Disabilities

Tuesday, February 18, 2014 (All day)
  • Hallie Smith, MA CCC-SLP

myths about learning disabilities

Learning disabilities can be tough to talk about and even tougher to understand. Some parents and educators prefer to call them learning differences in order to avoid negative labeling that can affect self-esteem, but the term disability is tied to special education funding by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and is a requirement for identifying and qualifying learners to receive special education services.

Regardless of what we choose to call them, learning differences or disabilities are frequently misunderstood. Pinpointing a student’s precise learning challenges can be difficult, and individual outcomes can be hard to predict. What’s more, symptoms of specific learning disabilities can be complex and confusing, and may look more like behavioral problems than learning problems to some. But some of the most common myths about learning disabilities are easy to dispel with a look at the facts.

Myth #1:  Learning disabilities are intellectual disabilities.

First and perhaps most important to understand is that learning disabilities are communication differences that are completely separate from physical, developmental, and intellectual disabilities. In the same way that a hearing impaired student might need assistance in the form of a hearing aid, students with learning disabilities need assistance in the form of alternative learning methods.

When learning disabilities are identified early and dealt with effectively, students can function more or less on par with their peers in school and grow up to be self-reliant adults. Students with intellectual disabilities, on the other hand, have significantly reduced cognitive ability and usually need lifelong support from others.

Myth #2:  ADHD is a learning disability.

Perhaps surprisingly, ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) is notconsidered a learning disability, although it is estimated that 20-30% of people with ADHD have a learning disability as well. Learning disabilities include learning differences such as:

  • Dyslexia
  • Dysgraphia
  • Dyspraxia
  • Auditory Processing Disorder (APD)
  • Language Processing Disorder
  • Non-Verbal Learning Disability
  • Visual Perceptual/Visual Motor Deficit

It is possible to designate ADHD as a disability under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), making a student eligible to receive special education services. However, ADHD is categorized as “Other Health Impaired” and not as a “Specific Learning Disability.”

Myth #3:  Dyslexia is a visual problem.

Dyslexia is one of the more commonly misunderstood learning disabilities. Many people think of it as a vision-related disorder, but it is actually rooted in differences in how the brain hears and processes spoken language. The ability to read is dependent upon the reader making accurate letter-sound correspondences, so when the brain processes spoken language atypically, it can be hard for readers to make sense of the connections between printed words and the sounds they make. The good news is that some studies have shown dyslexia to be effectively remediatedby training the brain to process language more effectively.

Myth #4:  The incidence of students with learning disabilities in US schools is on the rise.

The incidence of students with learning disabilities has actually declined over the past 20 years. However, other learning differences that may qualify a student for special education - such as autism and ADHD - have risen during the same time period, for reasons that are not well understood.

Food for Thought

Students with learning disabilities make up a large portion of students receiving special education services in schools - education outcomes and employment prospects for many of these students are disappointing, to say the least. Twice as many students with learning disabilities drop out as compared with their peers, and only half as many go to college. They are also twice as likely to be unemployed as adults.

With statistics like these, it’s clear that more needs to be done. Students with learning challenges need to be identified early, diagnosed accurately, provided appropriate assistive technologies, and given the right targeted interventions to help them become the best learners they can be, ready to take on new challenges with the confidence that they can succeed.


Williams, D., Kingston This Week, [Letter to the editor]. Retrieved from: http://www.kingstonthisweek.com/2011/01/20/differences-between-learning-and-intellectual-disabilities

Learning disabilities and ADHD.  Retrieved from: http://www.girlshealth.gov/disability/types/learning.html

ADHD. Retrieved from: http://ldaamerica.org/types-of-learning-disabilities/adhd/

Dissecting Dyslexia: Linking Reading to Voice Recognition. Retrieved from: http://www.nsf.gov/news/news_summ.jsp?cntn_id=121226

Smith, H., Auditory Processing Skills & Reading Disorders in Children. Retrieved from:  http://www.scilearn.com/blog/auditory-processing-skills-reading-disorders-in-children.php

NCLD Editorial Team, Learning Disability Fast Facts.  Retrieved from:  http://www.ncld.org/types-learning-disabilities/what-is-ld/learning-disability-fast-facts

For Further Reading:

Misunderstood Minds

Related reading:

Separating Brain Fact from Brain Fiction: Debunking a Few Neuroscience Myths

Remediation vs. Accommodation: Helping Students with Learning Disabilities Succeed


Improved Auditory Processing With Targeted Intervention

Tuesday, November 5, 2013 (All day)
  • Martha Burns, Ph.D

Improved auditory processing with targeted intervention

Last week’s blog post ended with the mention of a new (2013) peer-reviewed study showing that Fast ForWord Language v2 improved auditory processing in children with auditory processing disorders (APD). The study also provided evidence that the children’s brains rewired themselves during the eight-week study to more closely resemble typical brains. Today I want to go deeper into these findings.

To understand what brain changes the researchers found it is helpful to explain first how the brain actually goes about the task of perceiving speech. The first job the brain has to tackle when one person is listening to another person speak is to sort out the speech signal from the other sounds in the environment. That, of course, is the problem we have when listening to someone at a loud party. But that is also a challenge in most classrooms. Children, as we know, have trouble sitting perfectly still and younger children especially are often fidgeting and scooting their chairs around as well as whispering to children nearby. Add to that noise that comes from outside the classroom like hallway noise and playground noise, which even the best teacher cannot control, and a classroom can be a very noisy place. Part of maturation of the brain is the ability to learn to filter out irrelevant noises. But children must learn to do this and many with APD find that a real challenge.

It is not clearly understood why some children develop this capacity to filter speech from noise fairly easily and others do not, but audiologists do know that the problem can be traced to specific regions of the brain, especially regions of the brainstem. These regions can be tested through a process referred to as auditory brainstem response, or ABR. This test allows researchers to measure brain stem responses to sound through use of electrodes placed on the scalp. ABR is a critical measure of sound processing because it provides information about how well the auditory pathways to the brain from the ear have matured and how well they are functioning. In the study at Auburn University, a specific kind of ABR was used that has been shown to be especially helpful in diagnosing APD in children with language-based learning problems. It is called BioMARK. Using this procedure, the researchers could objectively measure whether a specific intervention not only improved listening skills but also whether it changed the brainstem response to speech.

To test whether auditory processing disorders can be improved though targeted intervention, the researchers at Auburn identified four children with APD using a battery of auditory processing, language, and intelligence tests that they administered before and after eight weeks of Fast ForWord Language v2.  They also used BioMARK testing before and after Fast ForWord to determine if the actual brainstem response was affected by the intervention.

Their results were very exciting. The children who completed all of the before-treatment tests, eight weeks of Fast ForWord Language training, and all the post-treatment tests plus BioMARK showed marked improvements in their auditory processing skills. For example, the children showed improvements in a test designed to assess listening to competing words (like we have to do when two people are talking to us at the same time) as well as deciphering words that are not very clear (like listening on a cell phone when there is a poor connection). They also improved in skills like listening for sound patterns and remembering complex sentences. And, important to teachers and parents, one of the children showed marked improvement in a measure of nonverbal intelligence as well as ability to follow complex directions.

Those results alone were remarkable after just eight weeks of intervention. But the most compelling part of the research was the finding that the BioMARK results also changed significantly in the children. And the changes were positive, meaning the children’s brain stem responses resembled typical children, those who do not have any evidence of auditory processing disorders affecting language skills and listening. In other words, the eight weeks of Fast ForWord resulted in what brain scientists call “neuroplastic” changes in brain function. And the changes occurred specifically in regions that are very specific to and important for accurate listening and language processing.


Abrams, D.A., Nicol, T., Zecker, S.G., &Kraus, N. (2006). Auditory brainstem timing predicts cerebral dominance for speech sounds. Journal of Neuroscience, 26(43), 11131-11137.

King, C., Warrier, C.M., Hayes, E., &Kraus, N. (2002). Deficits in auditory brainstem encoding of speech sounds in children with learning problems. Neuroscience Letters 319, 111-115.

Krishnamurti, S., Forrester, J., Rutledge, C., & Holmes, G. (2013). A case study of the changes in the speech-evoked auditory brainstem response associated with auditory training in children with auditory processing disorders. International Journal of Pediatric Otorhinolaryngology, 77(4), 594-604. doi: 10.1016/j.ijporl.2012.12.032

Wible, B., Nicol, T., Kraus, N. (2005). Correlation between brainstem and cortical auditory processes in normal and language-impaired children. Brain, 128, 417-423.

For further reading:

Learn more about BioMARK

Related reading:

Dyslexia, Auditory Processing Disorder, and the Road to College: Maria’s Story

What Makes a Good Reader? The Foundations of Reading Proficiency


Why Auditory Processing Disorders (APD) are Hard to Spot

Tuesday, October 29, 2013 (All day)
  • Martha Burns, Ph.D

Why auditory processing problems can be hard to spot Does this ever happen to you? You ask your child to do something simple, and he or she says, “huh?”  For example, you might say something like, “Chris, time to get ready for school: go upstairs, get your shoes, grab your homework (we worked really hard on that last night) and shut your window because it looks like rain.” And your child acts as though he didn’t hear a word. 

Often teachers describe a child like this as having poor listening skills because the same thing will happen in class—except that in school the child misses important assignments, fails to follow instructions on tests, or is unable to learn information when it is presented orally. What is going on here?

Parents or teachers may assume that a child is deliberately ignoring them when they ask to have instructions repeated or miss important information in school. But audiologists, who are specialists in hearing, have identified a specific reason for these listening problems. They refer to them as auditory processing disorders, or APD for short.

APD is not a hearing loss and not an attentional problem, although it can often seem as though the child is not paying attention. Rather, with APD a child has trouble figuring out what was said, although it sounds loud enough. All of us suffer from this problem when we are trying to listen to someone talk in a very noisy room, like at a party where a band is playing very loudly. We know the person is speaking—we can hear their voice—but we can’t easily discern what they are saying. Sometimes we try to read the person’s lips to figure out what they are talking about. But after a while it gets so hard to listen we just tune out or leave the situation. Now, imagine you are a child and speech always sounds muddled like that. The child’s natural instinct, just like yours, is just to stop listening. As a result, children with APD often achieve way under their potential despite being very bright. And in some cases, the children may have speech and/or language problems as well.

Audiologists have been able to diagnose auditory processing problems for many years. The recommendations for school intervention with children with this disorder have been largely compensatory, such as “seat the child at the front of the class, right in front of the teacher” or “amplify the teacher’s voice with a microphone and provide the child with a listening device to hear the teacher’s amplified voice more clearly than other noises in the room.” Specific, targeted interventions like Fast ForWord are a more recent development.

Although Fast ForWord Language and later Fast ForWord Language v2 were specifically developed to treat temporal sequencing problems associated with specific language impairment, and the programs have been successfully used as a clinical intervention for auditory processing problems for fifteen years, specific peer-reviewed case studies on auditory processing benefit from these programs has been lacking. That changed in April of this year (2013) when researchers at Auburn University, a leader in the study of APD, published controlled research in International Journal of Pediatric Otorhinolaryngologyon the benefits of intervention with children diagnosed with APD. The researchers not only found that Fast ForWord Language v2 improved auditory processing skills, and in one child language and cognitive skills as well, but they found evidence of what scientists call “neuroplastic” brain changes in the children with APD after the program as well. This means that the children’s brains were rewiring themselves and getting better at auditory processing at the same time.

I will discuss the study in detail in next week’s blog post. If you’re not already a subscriber, you can sign up here to have the next blog post delivered to your inbox.


Abrams, D.A., Nicol, T., Zecker, S.G., &Kraus, N. (2006). Auditory brainstem timing predicts cerebral dominance for speech sounds. Journal of Neuroscience, 26(43), 11131-11137.

King, C., Warrier, C.M., Hayes, E., &Kraus, N. (2002). Deficits in auditory brainstem encoding of speech sounds in children with learning problems. Neuroscience Letters 319, 111-115.

Krishnamurti, S., Forrester, J., Rutledge, C., & Holmes, G. (2013). A case study of the changes in the speech-evoked auditory brainstem response associated with auditory training in children with auditory processing disorders. International Journal of Pediatric Otorhinolaryngology, 77(4), 594-604. doi: 10.1016/j.ijporl.2012.12.032

Wible, B., Nicol, T., Kraus, N. (2005). Correlation between brainstem and cortical auditory processes in normal and language-impaired children. Brain, 128, 417-423.

Related reading:

Auditory Processing Skills & Reading Disorders in Children

What New Brain Wave Research Tells Us About Language-Based Learning Disabilities



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