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It’s not exactly news that there’s a relationship between auditory processing skills and reading disorders in children. But with research by scientists such as Elise Temple and Nadine Gaab helping to establish and confirm the connection, the mounting evidence points to just how strong the correlation is—especially for children with dyslexia.
In a recent study by Jane Hornickel and Nina Kraus published in the Journal of Neuroscience, the authors set out to determine whether inconsistency in the brain’s response to speech sounds is correlated with poor reading skills. The study evaluated 100 normal-hearing children from 6 to 12 years of age who were divided into 3 groups—good readers, average readers, and poor readers—based on their fluency scores.
The researchers asked the children to listen to the syllables “ba” and “ga” while measuring the children’s auditory brainstem response. They also measured the children’s brainstem response to a simple clicking sound for comparison.
The authors found that the auditory brainstem response was considerably more variable for poor readers than for good readers, but only when listening to the relatively complex speech sounds—not when listening to the simple click sound. They also found that the inconsistencies in brainstem response were more closely associated with the consonant portion of the syllable than the vowel portion.
The variability in brainstem response occurred intermittently throughout the testing rather than building over time, and was primarily seen among the poor readers rather than all three groups, indicating that neural fatigue was likely not a factor. The authors note that the more likely explanation for the intermittent variability is poor encoding of speech sounds in the brains of the struggling readers.
According to Kraus, it’s this inconsistency of brain response that prevents some children from making the crucial connection of sound to meaning that is the foundation of language and reading skills. Strong readers, on the other hand, typically make the connection with ease. The relationship between reading ability and auditory processing skills, she says, is “a highly significant relationship.”
Distinguishing between consonants can be particularly difficult for children with dyslexia, as this study shows, because they are spoken so much more rapidly than vowels. But consonants typically give meaning to words (think “cat” vs. “bat”), so that missing bit of information can make learning to read enormously difficult. The takeaway is that when children with normal hearing experience reading difficulty, auditory processing plays a role.
Fortunately, our students’ brains are highly adaptable and responsive, enabling dramatic improvements with appropriate intervention. When the auditory processing issues are corrected, children are then able to make the critical sound-to-meaning connections that lead to proficient reading and improved learning all around.
Attend one of our popular webinars with thought leaders in learning. Live and pre-recorded webinars are available. Register today!
This May 17th, we will be hosting our annual Visionary Conference for Fast ForWord Providers entirely online for the very first time.
Save on travel expenses, spend less time away, and learn just as much as in years past—maybe even more.
This year’s theme is Growing Together, and we’re thrilled to announce that our esteemed Visionary Conference presenters Dr. Paula Tallal and Dr. Martha Burns will be sharing exciting new research on the brain and learning.
Dr. Tallal will be reporting on the latest research with college students who used the Fast ForWord program and saw improvements in a number of skill areas.
Dr. Burns will present research from the Human Connectome Project (a project studying the connectivity of the human brain) and research on memory and attention disorders and interventions.
Additional sessions will review the latest Fast ForWord product updates, best practices for getting the most from the products, marketing resources, and professional development opportunities to help you thrive as a Fast ForWord Provider and help more children succeed.
Because this year’s conference is online, we’re welcoming any and all attendees, whether you’re a provider or not! There is no charge for any of the sessions, so you can attend one or attend them all. If you’ve been to past conferences then you already know…It’s the highlight of the year!
Attend one of our popular webinars with thought leaders in learning. Live and pre-recorded webinars are available. Register today!
In the nearly 25 years since Congress designated the 1990s “The Decade of the Brain,” educators have been flooded with information about how the brain learns. Some of the “brain myths” that educators have learned are actually right on target, while others are outright wrong. Some data is still open for debate and other inquiries are just getting under way.
We asked Dr. Bill Jenkins and Dr. Martha Burns for a little help in sorting fact from fiction for those of us with other things to do besides reading through the original research studies and teasing out our own conclusions. They presented a great live webinar on the topic, and here’s what we learned:
Myth #1: The Brain is Hardwired – True or False?
Until the 1990s, neuroscientists believed that the adult brain was indeed hardwired with fixed neural circuits. The Decade of the Brain revealed that this view is false—the adult brain is not hardwired and neither is the child brain. In fact, learning goes hand in hand with the re-wiring of brain circuits on the fly, a re-organizing ability that lasts throughout our lifetime.
Myth #2: There are Multiple Intelligences – True or False?
When I first heard about the idea of multiple intelligences, I responded to it immediately. I’m a visual learner! I thought. Of course. And I know I’m not alone.
The truth is more complicated. The construct of multiple intelligences falls under the category of “still open for debate” and may depend as much on our frame of reference as anything else. Regardless, what’s important for teachers is to understand individual students’ strengths and weaknesses and not evaluate students along one dimension of Smart vs. Not Smart.
Myth #3: There’s a Critical Period for Language Learning – True or False?
The widely held belief that language learning must be mastered early is an example of a fact being taken too far. True, it is typically easier to learn a new language before age 7, but we retain the ability for language learning throughout life.
In fact, intensive language training can produce large gains in oral language and reading skills even in older children who are not yet fluent. This includes in-person training or computer programs such as the Fast ForWord Language and Reading programs. They key is an individualized and intensive approach that influences brain organization through mechanisms of neural plasticity.
Further, learning a new language later in life can be good for the brain—better than, say, Sudoku or crossword puzzles.
Get the Facts About 10 More Brain Myths
Drs. Jenkins and Burns had much more to say about fact vs. fiction in how the brain learns. Watch their on-demand webinar on Brain Myths in Education and get answers about these brain myths and more:
Attend one of our popular webinars with thought leaders in learning. Live and pre-recorded webinars are available. Register today!
What would it be like if you went to a cocktail party – or a rock concert or even your quiet corner coffee joint, for that matter – and you didn’t have the ability to filter out one voice or sound from the sea of other sounds around you? This ability is called “selective hearing” and is a computational function in your brain that enables you to focus in on your companion’s voice in the midst of the endless sound waves coming from ceiling fans, ambient music, and other people’s voices bouncing off the walls. Your ability to focus in on that single selected voice is impressive.
Doctoral candidate Bridget Queenan of Georgetown University Medical Center is figuring out how we humans are able to perform this difficult feat by studying bats. She has found that certain neurons in bats’ brains can “quiet” other neurons, allowing the bat to prioritize certain sounds over others. In short, through “turning up the volume” on certain neurons, bats can zero in on the most important sounds, such as their own echolocation sounds, and allow other sounds to fade into the background. (2010)
Researchers at UCSF recently published an article in the journal Nature that describes how they have actually seen this process take place in humans. Using a sheet of 256 electrodes placed on the brain, they can see which neurons activate at the sound of certain voices through the use of sound samples played simultaneously. They could then “decode” the data from the electrodes to find out what the patient heard without talking to the patients themselves. (2012)
When you consider that a bat must hunt, gather, and navigate through spaces populated with thousands and thousands of other bats, it’s easy to see why a brain function like selective hearing is essential to survival. Humans have depended on selective hearing throughout our history for much the same reason.
Although most modern humans are no longer engaged in hunting and gathering activities, our world would look very different were it not for selective hearing. Imagine living in a city – or even a moderately sized suburban town, for that matter – with its ambient atmosphere combining traffic, voices, weather sounds such as wind or rain, and the rest of the cacophony of daily life that we simply don’t think about from moment to moment. Were it not for selective hearing, we would drown in an overwhelming sea of noise, unable to focus on any one sound well enough to effectively evaluate its importance. Considered in that context, the neurological capability that we call selective hearing has played a significant role in defining how we function as a species.
You can also see how this ability would be important in the real-world context of the classroom. Without it, students who are already easily distracted would simply be swallowed by the noise. Independent research has shown that students’ selective auditory attention improves after they use the Fast ForWord program for as little as six weeks. (2008)
So the next time you find yourself unable to focus on someone’s voice at a party, or you encounter a student who is having a hard time paying attention in a noisy classroom, take a moment. Appreciate your ability to use your selective hearing. And have patience while that other person works to engage theirs.
Bardi, J. (2012). How Selective Hearing Works In the Brain. Retrieved from the University of California San Franciso website: http://www.ucsf.edu/news/2012/04/11868/how-selective-hearing-works-brain.
Mallet, K. (2010). Bat Brains Offer Clues As to How We Focus on Some Sounds and Not Others. Retrieved from the Georgetown University Medical Center: http://explore.georgetown.edu/news/?ID=54075&PageTemplateID=295.
Stevens,C., Fanning, J., Coch, D., Sanders, L., & Neville, H. (2008). Neural mechanisms of selective audiory attention are enhanced by computerized training: Electrophysiological evidence from language-impaired and typically developing children. Brain Research. 1205, 55 – 69. doi: 10.1016/j.brainres.2007.10.108.
On November 5th, Dr. Martha Burns and Mr. Charles Wilson, principal of the Korematsu Discovery Academy in the Oakland Unified School District, presented a live webinar that explained the research behind the Fast ForWord program and how it took Korematsu from NCLB Program Improvement (PI) status to achieving double-digit learning gains -- and emerging from PI status in only two school years!
Dr. Burns focused on the neurophysiology of learning, specifically the importance of several key left hemisphere pathways. Dr. Burns noted that these pathways appear to be originally founded in object naming networks but gradually expand to symbolic representation systems. She described how information is moved from perceptual/comprehension regions in the rear of the brain to the anterior regions of the frontal lobe, where the learner can utilize the information in useful ways.
This process is particularly important in reading. Reading represents one form of symbolic processing in which the visual symbol corresponds initially to speech sounds and ultimately to words and sentences. Fast ForWord is particularly designed to activate and strengthen speech perception, comprehension and production regions and those key pathways that enable processing for struggling learners by:
The best testament to Fast ForWord’s capabilities is real-world success, which is exactly what Mr. Wilson provided in his section of the webinar. Korematsu is a heavily disadvantaged school with a 95% free lunch rate and a high percentage of ELL students. Korematsu found itself in NCLB Program Intervention status due to not meeting AYP requirements, at which point Wilson and his staff adopted Fast ForWord. In the subsequent school year, the Academy experienced double-digit gains on the CSTs and was named the Alameda County English Learner School of the Year.
Those of us who have worked in a low-performing school understand the immense challenge it is to improve student achievement, especially in the midst of record budget cuts. A lot can be learned from Mr. Wilson, a man who has achieved such great success for students in one of the most challenging educational environments. With a mix of leadership, determination, innovation, and inspiration, Mr. Wilson shows us that anything is possible.
On October 30th, noted neuroscience researcher and co-founder of Scientific Learning, Dr. Paula Tallal, conducted a live webinar titled “What do Neuroscientists Know About Learning That Most Educators Don’t?” In her presentation, Dr. Tallal discussed her original research on auditory processing, its relationship to language development, and the far-reaching effects that deficiencies in those areas can have on learning.
Research continues to support the hypothesis that difficulty discriminating between small changes in sound is at the heart of learning problems both in students who have a diagnosed difficulty and those who do not. Dr. Tallal described how oral language is the foundation for learning and for most successful educational outcomes, adding that oral language itself is dependent on the brain’s ability to discriminate and process auditory information. Children who have difficulty perceiving the many subtleties of language find the deck stacked against them in their educational careers. They can experience a variety of impediments to learning, including:
Students with this subtle level of auditory processing problem need specific differentiation that is not possible in most classrooms. The good news, as Dr. Tallal describes, is that modern technology can be used to address the difficulties these children face and help bridge these skill gaps. In fact, it is this level of research and development that informed the development of Scientific Learning’s software programs, including Fast ForWord.
To close, Dr. Tallal took questions from the educators relating to how these insights can be used to improve educational outcomes in all classrooms. Teachers left this insightful webinar with practical strategies that can be used to help learners of all abilities.
In a recent webinar for Scientific Learning titled “Teaching With the Brain In Mind”, Eric Jensen discussed the newest concepts in brain research and how they relate to teaching and classroom strategies. Jensen is the author of 24 books on brain research and is a former educator himself.
It turns out that almost everything that educators assume to be correct about the development of the brain in children and adolescents is mistaken. Mr. Jensen summarized what current research tells us about the childhood brain in three simple points:
1. Brains are far more variable than previously thought
It turns out that “normal, healthy brains” only exist in about 10% of the population. For the other 90%, plenty of internal and external factors have affected their development. This finding supports teachers’ intuition, that educational differentiation is just as important as they have always suspected.
2. Brains have the ability to change more than previously thought
An idea that gives hope to teachers everywhere, Mr. Jensen detailed research on brain plasticity, or a brain’s ability to change throughout life. A “plastic” brain thrives when in an optimal educational setting , but the converse is also true. High-performing students in the hands of low-performing teachers can and often do regress rapidly.
3. Every cognitive skill can be taught
Skills previously thought to be inherent or genetic, like attention span or capacity for responsibility, are actually teachable. This finding obviously has revolutionary implications for classroom management strategies. When paired with the previous two findings, one can conclude that every child has the ultimate potential for success when met with the proper strategies and support.
Throughout the webinar, Mr. Jensen tied the above guiding principles to real-world examples in a classroom. He touched on the efficacy of products like Fast ForWord and Reading Assistant, which are leaders in utilizing these guiding principles to make reading gains.
The professional educator leaves this talk not only with new insights into the workings of the childhood brain, but also with practical strategies that can be used the next day with students.
Have you ever wondered why some children seem to learn to read so effortlessly and others struggle? Have you ever seen a child who memorizes poems, math facts, and the alphabet without even trying? Yet at the same time you might have also known another child who had trouble just remembering their own phone number or address. There are all sorts of reasons that learning—and reading—is easy for some children and hard for others, and believe it or not, it rarely has anything to do with intelligence.
Just as some children are good athletes from the time they are very young, others are great at music or art. We tend to think of art, music and athletics as skills or talents. But actually there are underlying cognitive abilities that enable those talents. For athletics, good hand-eye coordination and quickness can be keys to success. For music, certainly the ability to perceive tones is essential. For art, excellent visual memory is helpful.
It turns out that learning to read also requires some underlying cognitive skills. Children are not born good readers, of course; reading has to be taught. And for a child to be able to learn to read, four core cognitive capacities are needed: memory, attention, sequencing, and processing efficiency (speed and accuracy). It is helpful to tease out each one of these and explain the importance in learning to read.
Memory – Scientists refer to the kind of memory that is important for learning to read as “working memory.” It is the kind of short term memory that enables you to read this blog and remember what was written a few paragraphs earlier. When children have problems with working memory, reading can be very difficult. A child might have trouble remembering what sounds the letters of the alphabet stand for when they are first starting to read and so have a devil of a time learning to decode. Later in school the child with working memory problems might have trouble remembering what they read just a few sentences earlier and so re-read the same passages over and over again. How do you know if a child has working memory problems? Look for trouble following commands or remembering details of instructions or stories.
Attention – Learning of any kind requires good attentional skills. A student needs to be able to pay attention when the teacher is talking and ignore random noises in the room. A student also needs to learn to pay attention during reading. In learning to read, students need to pay attention to the letters and attend carefully to the sounds they represent. Later in school, students who have trouble attending are often those who can’t stick with a reading assignment. What to look for: the child reads a few sentences or paragraphs and then looks around the room, drops a pencil, or gets up out of a chair. It can take a child who has problems sustaining his attention a very long time to finish reading assignments.
Sequencing – Reading requires the ability to sequence letters into words (“saw” versus “was”) and grammatical endings (“the boy runs” versus “the boys run”), and words into sentences (“the dog chased the boy” versus “the boy chased the dog”). It is easy to see that when children have trouble sequencing, they will misunderstand what they read. Some children find sequencing things they hear very hard because the information is so fleeting.
Processing speed and accuracy – Scientists refer to the way the brain handles information as “processing.” Parents may have heard the terms “auditory processing” or “visual processing”. Those terms refer to the way the brain perceives and attaches meaning to information coming in from hearing or vision. Some students are inherently good at processing visual information. Those students seem to learn well visually and are very good at perceiving visual cues, like picking up on facial expressions or remembering how words look when they are spelled. However, some of those students may not process auditory information as well. They might frequently misunderstand words spoken to them or “tune out” when people talk to them. Students with auditory processing inefficiencies might also seem “slow” to respond when others are talking to them. Certainly, if a child has trouble hearing the difference between the vowels in “bit” and “bet,” it makes sense that learning the correspondence between letter and sound will be difficult. In fact, there is a great deal of research indicating that children with auditory processing inefficiencies find learning to read very difficult.
We tend to think that reading is a visual skill that depends primarily on linking letters to sounds. That has led us to expect that reading problems must be due to either difficulties with recognizing the letters or matching those letters to their appropriate sounds. However, we now know that a core set of underlying cognitive skills: memory, attention, processing speed or accuracy, and sequencing underlie the ability to learn to read and later to read to learn.
Berninger, Virginia. et al. Relationship of Word- and Sentence-Level Working Memory to Reading and Writing in Second, Fourth, and Sixth Grade. Language, Speech and Hearing Services in Schools, vol. 41, 179–193. 2010.
Bishop, Dorothy and Snowling, Margaret. Developmental dyslexia and specific language impairment: same or different? Psychological Bulletin, vol. 130, 858-886. 2004.
Burns, Martha. Auditory Processing Disorders and Literacy. In Geffner, D and Swain, D. Auditory Processing Disorders. Plural Publications.
Caretti, Barbara. et al. Role of working memory in explaining the performance of individuals with specific reading comprehension difficulties: A meta-analysis. Learning and Individual Differences, vol. 19, 246–251. 2009.
Gaab, Nadine. Neural correlates of rapid auditory processing are disrupted in children with developmental dyslexia and ameliorated with training: An fMRI study. Restorative Neurology and Neuroscience, vol. 25, 295–310. 2007.
Stevens, Courtney et al. Neural mechanisms of selective auditory attention are enhanced by computerized training: Electrophysiological evidence from language-impaired and typically developing children. Brain Research, vol. 1205, 55-69. 2008.
Stevens, Courtney et. al. Neurophysiological evidence for selective auditory attention deficits in children with specific language impairment. Brain Research, vol. 1111-1. 2006.
Why are there more patients coming to my office with complaints of memory problems? Great question, and the typical answer is stress! In the course of human development, our brain developed the acute stress response that promoted survival when we were being chased and threatened by large animals—and it uses the same stress response to react to stressful events in everyday modern life.
A stressor triggers the amygdala in our brain that sets off the alarm bells for the body to prepare to fight or flee. Norepinephrine floods the brain generating a state of hyper focus, the pituitary sets off the adrenal glands and adrenaline cascades through the body. This causes the lungs to expand for more oxygen, the blood flow to increase to large muscles, digestion and reproduction to halt, and processing speed to increase. We are prepared to fight for our survival.
If this beneficial response to life-threatening stressors does not shut off appropriately, it becomes a chronic response that can damage the structure and function of the brain’s hippocampus. The hippocampus is the neighbor of the amygdala and the critical structure for memory and new learning.
The body generates steroid hormones known as glucocorticoids when under stress, and over time these hormones can do structural and functional damage to the hippocampus. This is the reason why chronic stress can cause memory problems. It is common, for example, to see memory deficit in those with Post-traumatic Stress Disorder.
The good news is we do have some control over our perceptions and our body’s ability to regain a balanced and relaxed state.
In my practice, I spend time working with patients to first explain with pictures the neuroanatomy and neurophysiology of stress and the brain. This provides a visual to the person. We then identify what the stressors are in the person’s life that are setting off the alarm bells in the brain. Using visualization, relaxation, meditation, and self-talk the person can connect with their amygdala and cool the alarm bells by triggering the “rest and digest” system, also known as the parasympathetic nervous system.
Consider the following tips as a means of cooling the amygdala, thereby promoting hippocampal function and enhancing memory:
Paul Nussbaum, Ph.D., is a board-certified clinical psychologist specializing in neuropsychology. He is a Fellow of the National Academy of Neuropsychology and American Academy of Clinical Psychology and an adjunct Professor in Neurological Surgery at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. Learn more about Dr. Nussbaum at: www.paulnussbaum.com or email him at: email@example.com.
One of my favorite webinar presenters here at Scientific Learning, Dr. Martha Burns, recently gave a webinar called “BrainPro: Preventing Summer Brain Drain.”
Dr. Burns covered a number of points related to learning and retaining information
Following Dr. Burns, we heard from Jenny, a parent from Florida who had her teenage daughter use the BrainPro program to help her pass the FCAT (the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test). Her daughter has a very high GPA and takes AP and Honors classes, but had difficulty in passing the FCAT reading test two years in a row. After she went through the BrainPro program, she took the FCAT for the 3rd time and passed with a near perfect score on the test.
View the webinar to for more detail and visuals about how the brain learns, and find out how the BrainPro program can help learners stay sharp over the summer break.