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

Neuroscience-based programsI 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. Below 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.

References

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

 

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Categories: Brain Fitness, Brain Research, Education Trends, Family Focus, Reading & Learning

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Teach More Vocabulary, Faster, Using the Power of Morphology

morphology

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 fluency as 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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Categories: English Language Learners, Fast ForWord, Reading & Learning, Special Education

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Four Myths About Learning Disabilities

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 not considered 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 remediated by 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.

References:

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

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Categories: Brain Fitness, Reading & Learning, Special Education

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Improved Auditory Processing With Targeted Intervention

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.

References:

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

 

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Categories: Brain Fitness, Brain Research, Education Trends, Fast ForWord, Reading & Learning, Special Education

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Why Auditory Processing Disorders (APD) are Hard to Spot

Why auditory processing problems can be hard to spotDoes 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 Otorhinolaryngology on 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.

References:

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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Categories: Brain Fitness, Brain Research, Fast ForWord, Reading & Learning, Special Education

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Building Better Writers (Without Picking Up a Pen)

better writer

When teachers think of teaching writing, they typically begin with the type of writing they want their students to compose—persuasive pieces, personal narratives, academic essays and the like. They think of following the steps of the writing process—prewriting, drafting, revising, editing, and publishing—and conduct mini-lessons during writers’ workshop. Others teachers begin diagraming sentences, discussing subject-verb agreement or distinguishing between nominative and objective case pronouns.

All too often, however, little attention is given to the cognitive skills of writing. And that’s a shame, because cognitive skills are the building blocks upon which writing depends.

The Cognitive Building Blocks of Writing

Cognitive skills such as memory, attention, sequencing, and processing speed underlie all composition. It is generally presumed that by middle and high school, students have mastered these basic cognitive skills, and, as such, mainstream writing curricula for secondary students rarely explicitly address the cognitive skills of writing. Nonetheless, research evidence is mounting that many middle and high school students who continue to struggle with writing have not mastered the underlying cognitive and linguistic skills on which written language depends (Berninger, Fuller, & Whitaker, 1996)

Memory

To write cohesive, readable, and understandable text, the writer must not only have a firm linguistic foundation in order to select the appropriate vocabulary and grammatical structure to convey the meaning intended, but must also hold the concepts, vocabulary, and grammatical form of sentences and paragraphs in working memory while formulating each new sentence.

The writing process itself places considerable demands on real-time verbal working memory, as writers construct and hold in mind the ideas they wish to express, inhibiting the irrelevant and attending to the relevant details of what they are presently writing. Simultaneously writers must keep in mind what they have already written, and plan for what they are about to write to complete their thoughts (Torrance & Galbraith, 2008).

Attention

Another cognitive skill that has been shown to affect writing is focused and sustained attention (Ransdell, Levy, & Kellogg, 2002). A writer’s full attention is consumed in thinking about what to say and applying correct spelling, punctuation, and syntactical rules to what is written. Sentence generation involves consciously reflecting on and manipulating knowledge that needs to be retrieved rapidly from long-term memory or actively maintained in short-term working memory.  Writers must toggle their attention between formulating their thoughts to be written and the transcriptional demands of actually recording these thoughts in written form, all the while inhibiting distractions from the environment.

Sequencing and Processing Speed

Writing also places heavy demands on both perceptual and motor sequencing. Writers must process their thoughts sequentially as they compose letters into words, words into sentences, and sentences into paragraphs that conform to the rules of any language. Applying language rules during writing—from recalling the correct sequence of letters within words, to recalling the proper order of words within sentences (such as, in English, nouns precede verbs and adjectives precede nouns), to building multiple paragraphs within a composition—also places particularly heavy demands on the writer’s sequencing abilities.

As the writer translates this mental process into a motor process of composing each word in a sentence, all preceding words in that sentence must be kept in working memory while words and sentences are strung into paragraphs. The writer needs to coordinate these cognitive tasks almost simultaneously, placing heavy demands on processing speed. The significance of processing speed is felt most heavily in the classroom, where students who cannot process rapidly enough are often times left behind.

What the Research Says

Because of the heavy cognitive demands that writing places on attention, sequencing, working memory, and processing speed, Robert T. Kellogg, a professor of psychology at Saint Louis University suggested (Kellogg, 2008) that explicit cognitive skills training programs—especially ones that emphasize deliberate practice—might prove particularly beneficial in improving student’s writing skills.

In two separate studies conducted by the author (Rogowsky, 2010; Rogowsky, Papamichalis, Villa, Heim, & Tallal, 2013) a significant improvement in students’ writing skills occurred after their participation in a computer-based cognitive and literacy skills training. In the first study, a pretest-posttest randomized field trial was conducted in a public middle school (Rogowsky, 2010). The study compared the writing skills of sixth-grade students who either did or did not receive individually adaptive, computer-based cognitive skills instruction (Fast ForWord) in conjunction with their standards-aligned comprehensive literacy curriculum for one school marking period (45 days). The writing skills of students who received the cognitive training, in addition to the standards-aligned comprehensive literacy curriculum, improved significantly more than those who received the standards-aligned comprehensive literacy curriculum alone, with a large between-group difference.

In a second study, Fast ForWord training was shown to improve college students’ writing (Rogowsky et al., 2013). College students with poor writing skills participated in 11 weeks of computer-based cognitive and literacy skills training, and were compared to a group of college students from the general population of the same university. Results from this study showed the group who received training began with statistically lower writing skills before training, but exceeded the writing skills of the comparison group after training. Although writing was not explicitly trained, the individually adaptive, computer-based training designed to improve foundational cognitive and linguistic skills generalized to improve writing skills in both middle school and college students.

What it Means for Writing Instruction

Based upon these two studies, there is clearly a link between writing and the foundational cognitive skills upon which writing exists. Learning to write is one of the most cognitively demanding academic activities a student must perform. It is not surprising that so many students struggle to perfect and improve their writing abilities throughout their academic years. In addition to the traditional writing methodologies, the future of writing instruction calls for the inclusion of cognitive skills training.

References:

Berninger, V.W., Abbott, R.D., Swanson, H.L., Lovitt, D., Trivedi, P., Lin. S., Gould, L., Youngstrom, M., Shimada, S., & Amtmann, D. (2010). Relationship of word- and sentence-level working memory to reading and writing in second, forth, and sixth grade. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools, 41, 179-193. doi:10.1044/0161-1461(2009/08-0002)

Berninger, V.W., Fuller, F., & Whitaker, D. (1996). A process model of writing development across the life span. Educational Psychology Review, 8(3), 193-218. doi: 10.1007/BF01464073

Kellogg, R.T. (2008).Training writing skills: A cognitive developmental perspective. Journal of Writing Research, 1(1), 1-26. http://www.jowr.org/articles/vol1_1/JoWR_2008_vol1_nr1_Kellogg.pdf

Ransdell, S., Levy, C. M., & Kellogg, R.T. (2002). The structure of writing processes as revealed by secondary task demands. L1-Educational Studies in Language and Literature, 2(2), 141-163. doi: 10.1023/A:1020851300668

Rogowsky, B.A. (2010). The impact of Fast ForWord® on sixth grade students’ use of Standard Edited American English. (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from ProQuest Digital Dissertations. (AAT 3432348)

Rogowsky, B.A., Papamichalis, P., Villa, L., Heim, S., & Tallal, P. (2013). Neuroplasticity-based cognitive and linguistic skills training improves reading and writing skills in college students. Frontiers in Psychology, 4, 137. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00137

Torrance, M., & Galbraith, D. (2008). The processing demands of writing. In C.A. MacArthur S. Graham, & J. Fitzgerald (Eds.), Handbook of Writing Research (67-80). New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Related reading:

Reading to Write: Fast ForWord Writing Improvement Among College Students

What Makes a Good Reader? The Foundations of Reading Proficiency

 

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The Neuroplasticity Revolution With Dr. Norman Doidge

brain plasticityLast week, Scientific Learning was pleased to host The Neuroplasticity Revolution, a webinar with Dr. Norman Doidge—psychiatrist, psychotherapist, researcher, and author of the New York Times bestseller The Brain That Changes Itself. The concept of brain plasticity—the brain’s ability to grow and change in structure and function in response to experience—is “the most important change in our understanding of the brain in 400 years,” Doidge told an audience of more than 3800 registrants.

Doidge reviewed concepts of brain and mind in history—dominated until very recently by the idea that the adult brain is hard-wired and therefore fixed in ability—and explained why it took scientists such a long time to observe and accept the brain’s plasticity. He then told the story of a woman named Cheryl, who was fortunate to find herself in need of brain rehabilitation after that old notion had been put to rest.

Cheryl had a balance problem. Her sense of balance had been so damaged by the antibiotic gentamicin that she couldn’t stand up without feeling that she was falling. Physician-neuroscientist Paul Bach-y-Rita treated Cheryl with “sensory substitution,” a therapy he developed that provided corrective sensory feedback from a motion sensor through electrodes to Cheryl’s tongue. The technique immediately helped Cheryl gain her bearings and she found that she could maintain her balance for a period of time after removing the training gear. This residual effect gradually lengthened, and over the course of a year, Cheryl regained the ability to stand normally without using the device at all.

Cheryl was able to regain normal function, said Doidge, despite having 97.5% damage to her vestibular apparatus—the semicircular canals in the ear that connect to the brainstem and help to orient us in space. He noted that often, but not always, there’s some kind of neural workaround even in severe cases. Cheryl’s recovery not only seems miraculous, but also points to the fact that her brain changed itself to heal—by recruiting dormant pathways or making new pathways for the corrected sensory information to travel.

Cheryl’s, story, said Doidge, is just one example of how the brain learns. He went on to discuss “conventional learning” and learning disorders in the classroom, walking his audience through Dr. Michael Merzenich’s research demonstrating the neural underpinnings of brain plasticity and learning.

Dr. Merzenich conducted a series of experiments in which he rearranged the wiring of the nerves connecting a monkey’s fingers to its brain. He expected to see the brain maps for these fingers become distorted or jumbled, but instead found that they turned out fairly normal. He realized that the brain was able to adapt to the structural changes by taking timing into account. The thumb usually initiates movement, for example, followed closely in time by the index finger. The middle and ring finger behave in a similar way. And Merzenich realized that the monkey’s brain used the timing intervals to determine which fingers were adjacent to one another and map them accordingly. These experiments finally converted the brain plasticity skeptics.

A recording of the full webinar is now available on the Scientific Learning website. Watch and learn:

  • What are the 6 epochs of plasticity across the lifespan?
  • Why does true immersion work so well for language learning?
  • Why do 5-10% of preschool age children have trouble learning to read, write, and follow instructions?
  • How does the Fast ForWord program help normalize the brains of dyslexic learners?
  • And perhaps most intriguing of all, what does Freud have to do with any of this?

Related reading:

Overcoming Language and Reading Problems: The Promise of Brain Plasticity

Auditory Processing Skills & Reading Disorders in Children

 

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Overcoming Language and Reading Problems: The Promise of Brain Plasticity

overcoming language and reading problems“There is an endless war of nerves going on inside each of our brains. If we stop exercising our mental skills, we do not just forget them: the brain map space for those skills is turned over to the skills we practice instead. If you ever ask yourself, ‘How often must I practice French, or guitar, or math to keep on top of it?’ you are asking a question about competitive plasticity. You are asking how frequently you must practice one activity to make sure its brain map space is not lost to another.”

-Norman Doidge in The Brain that Changes Itself

The Critical Period

From our very earliest days, our brain begins to map itself to the world as we experience it through our senses. The mapping is vague at first, lacking detail, but the more we interact with the world, the more well-defined our brain maps become until they are fully formed and differentiated.

“The critical period” is the name given to the time in infancy and early childhood during which our brain is so plastic that its structure is easily changed by simple exposure to new things in the environment. Babies, for example, learn the sounds of language and words effortlessly by listening to their parents speak. Inside the brain, what this learning looks like is the brain actually rewiring itself to change its own structure.

Use It or Lose It: Training the Brain to Form New Maps

Just a few decades ago, the prevailing scientific view held that the brain was a finely tuned machine that operated within a fixed scope of ability once the critical period had passed. But in the 1990s, through a series of experiments with monkeys, Dr. Michael Merzenich discovered that our brains can change well past the critical period—and indeed throughout our lives. But learning that takes place after the critical period is no longer effortless, and children and adults must work hard to pay attention to the new information that they wish to absorb and master.

The maxim commonly used to describe the phenomenon of neural learning is “neurons that fire together wire together,” and it’s this “wiring together” that results in the corresponding structural changes in the brain. Timing is key to the process, with neurons that fire simultaneously wiring together to create a map.

The space allocated to a neural map evolves over a number of stages. When learning is taking place, a relatively large space is allocated to the map. Once a skill is established, the mapped neurons become so efficient that fewer are needed—allowing some of the map space to be reallocated again for new learning. It’s a practical use-it-or-lose-it process that allows us to continue picking up new skills without bumping into space limits in the brain. Taking up a musical instrument such as violin, for example, causes more map space to be allocated to the playing fingers, and consequently, less space is allocated where there is lower demand.

As we develop mastery of a skill, our neurons not only grow to be more efficient, but they also begin to process faster. With that faster processing they tend to fire together more readily as well, creating more groups of neurons that send out clearer signals. The clarity of those signals has a great deal to do with how well the brain learns and remembers what the neurons have processed. The clearer the signal, the more clearly the brain remembers.

But what if there are gaps or inefficiencies in the maps that have been established?

From the Lab to the Learner

Dr. Merzenich had become interested in the work of Dr. Paula Tallal at Rutgers University. Dr. Tallal was interested in understanding why some children have more trouble than others when it comes to learning to read. Her research had shown that auditory processing problems were causing the “fast parts” of speech—common combinations of consonants and vowels that are pronounced very quickly—to be problematic for children with language difficulties.

Dr. Merzenich believed the problem was a matter of the children’s auditory processing speed lagging behind the speed of the speech sounds, resulting in an inability to distinguish differences between similar sounds or to perceive the correct sequence of sounds when they occurred in rapid succession.

Another known contributing factor was that of neural readiness. After processing a sound, neurons require a rest period before they can fire again. Normally this rest period is about 30 milliseconds, but for most children with language impairments it takes at least three times as long for the neuron to recover. The result is that a lot of critical language information is simply missed during the rest period.

Merzenich and Tallal believed they could combine forces to effectively help children who struggled to read. In 1996, Merzenich and his colleague Dr. Bill Jenkins teamed up with Tallal and her colleague Dr. Steve Miller to develop a real-world application of the science of neural plasticity by creating a product that could help struggling readers rewire their brains. From this union, Scientific Learning was born.

Fast ForWord

The partnership between Merzenich, Jenkins, Tallal, and Miller resulted in the software product that today we call Fast ForWord. Fast ForWord was carefully designed in the guise of a video game that could challenge and develop cognitive skills like memory, attention, processing speed, and sequencing as well as language and reading skills from phonemic awareness to decoding and comprehension.

Merzenich and Jenkins wanted Fast ForWord to trigger the children’s brains to secrete dopamine and acetylcholine—neurotransmitters that help lock in learning. Because the brain secretes these neurotransmitters when it gets rewarded, a generous supply of entertaining animations was built into the product to play spontaneously when a child achieved a goal.

From the very beginning, Fast ForWord elicited remarkable results. Children who participated in the initial field trial boosted their language development by 1.8 years, on average, in just six weeks. A subsequent study at Stanford University, dyslexic children’s brains showed increased activity in several areas after Fast ForWord, bringing them more in line with the patterns seen in typical readers’ brains. The dyslexic children’s brains had shown different patterns of activity before Fast ForWord (as revealed by fMRI).

In the 14 years since the field trial, Fast ForWord has been used by more than 2.7 million children around the world, with achievement gains of up to two years in as little as three months. During this time, school-based results—such as those at St. Mary Parish Public School System in Louisiana—have demonstrated that Fast ForWord can improve test scores across subject areas. And many additional research studies have corroborated the effectiveness of the Fast ForWord program for building cognitive, language, and reading skills.

In a 2010 study at Wilkes University in Pennsylvania, Beth Rogowsky found that Fast ForWord significantly improved students’ grammar skills as measured by the Written Expression Scale from the Oral and Written Language Scales (OWLS). A subsequent study by Dr. Rogowsky published in 2013 showed that college students who used Fast ForWord increased their reading and writing skills significantly more than students in a comparison group as measured by the Gates MacGinitie Reading Test and the OWLS.

The Brain That Changes Itself

Our current understanding of how the brain changes itself in response to experience opens the door to mind-bending possibilities. With the development of newer, smaller, and faster technologies, there’s no telling how Merzenich’s revolutionary discovery of brain plasticity past the critical period will impact the future of education.

What is certain is that true brain-based learning has arrived, that it’s available today, and that children around the world are overcoming language and reading problems that not long ago were often considered insurmountable.

References:

Doidge, N. (2007). The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science. London: Penguin Books.

Related reading:

What Educators May Not Know about the Neuroscience of Learning

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

 

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Reading to Write: Fast ForWord Writing Improvement Among College Students

Fast ForWord college writingHave you wondered what the effect of the Fast ForWord program is on older students, or how it develops other skills besides reading? Many studies conducted on Fast ForWord primarily concentrate on reading results among K-12 students, but the program helps with other skills and with other students as well. 

In a peer-reviewed study entitled, “Neuroplasticity-Based Cognitive and Linguistic Skills Training Improves Reading and Writing Skills in College Students,” published in Frontiers in Psychology, Beth Rogowsky, et al, documented the effects that the use of Fast ForWord had on college students’ reading and writing skills.

Study Details

  • Quasi-Experimental Design: The study included Experimental and Control groups, but the assignment of students to each group was non-randomized in order to study the effect of Fast ForWord on students struggling with writing.
  • Experimental Group: 25 college students who demonstrated poor writing skills and who received Fast ForWord training.
  • Comparison Group: 28 students who did not receive Fast ForWord training and were selected from the general college population at the same university as the experimental group.
  • Fast ForWord Training: Daily training for 11 weeks with Fast ForWord Literacy and upper levels of the Fast ForWord READING Series (Levels 3–5).
  • Assessments: At the beginning and end of the spring college semester, both the training and comparison groups took:
    • Gates MacGinitie Reading Test (GMRT)
    • Oral and Written Language Scales (OWLS) Written Expression Scale.

Results

Results from this study showed that the training group made a statistically greater improvement in both their reading and writing skills than the comparison group. In addition, the group who received training began with statistically lower writing skills before training but ended up exceeding the writing skills of the comparison group after training.

  • Gates MacGinitie Reading Test: After training, the Fast ForWord group increased their reading score by 4 points, while the comparison group’s reading score decreased by 1 point.
  • Oral and Written Language Scales Written Expression Scale: After training, the Fast ForWord group increased their writing score by 24.8 points, while the comparison group’s writing score decreased by 2.5 points.

 

To give you an idea of the type of change that took place in students’ writing, here’s an example of a piece of writing by one student before and after Fast ForWord training. The student was asked to examine a table that listed the percentages of books read by 5th and 9th grade male and female students and write a paragraph that described the information.

Before: “As children advance in grades we see a clear increase in the number of books they have to study or carry. We also can notice that more boys in both 5th and 9th grades tend to carry more books.”

After: “The table shows that in the 5th and 9th grades, girls are more likely to read 2 or more books than boys are. In the 5th grade; 70% of boys read 1 book or less and only 30% of boys read 2 or more books.  In the 9th grade more boys, 50%, start to read 2 or more books. Overall in both 5th and 9th grades girls beat boys when it comes to reading books.”

Meeting the Need for Writing Proficiency

Writing is both what you write and how you write it. Besides getting the facts correct in the post-Fast ForWord example, the student writes with more “texture,” adding much more detail and using more variety in sentence constructions and grammatical conventions, and even adding a nice colloquial touch at the end that adds a bit of spice to the paragraph.

With only 27% of 12th grade students achieving a writing score of “Proficient” in the National Assessment of Educational Progress (2011), and only 45% of students meeting SAT writing benchmark proficiency, American students show a clear need for something that will help them improve their writing skills. 

Most writing programs train or concentrate specifically on writing skills; the proposition borne out by Rogowsky’s study is that writing can be improved by training the complexities of the language and cognitive skills upon which writing depends. One could say that high school and college students not only need to “read to learn” but also “read to write.” When they read and process information accurately, they get the facts right, which is always a boon in conducting research.  And reading increasingly complex materials – such as students encounter as they move through the higher levels of Fast ForWord – models correct and highly textured writing for students.

As brain plasticity research has taught us, people are never too old to learn. This study shows how strengthening foundational cognitive skills in the context of listening and higher level reading tasks can help older students who are in college and how this kind of training can significantly improve not just students’ reading but also their writing skills.

Reference: Rogowsky BA, Papamichalis P, Villa L, Heim S and Tallal P (2013) Neuroplasticity-based cognitive and linguistic skills training improves reading and writing skills in college students. Frontiers in Psychology, 4(137)1 – 11.

Related reading:

How a Low Performing School Achieved Double-Digit Gains on the California Standards Tests (CSTs)

5 Reasons Why Your Students Should Write Every Day

 

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Categories: Brain Fitness, Fast ForWord, Reading Assistant

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June 2013 Office Hours With Dr. Martha Burns: Which Product Should You Assign?

June 2013 Office Hours Dr. BurnsDr. Martha Burns has recently begun holding monthly Office Hours via webinar for private and international providers of Fast ForWord and Reading Assistant software. During her June Office Hours, Dr. Burns answered questions sent in by providers as well as a few questions posed live by attendees. Much discussion centered on the question of when it’s appropriate to use each of the different products—Fast ForWord Language v2 versus Fast ForWord Literacy versus Fast ForWord Reading Level 1-5—and/or the Reading Assistant program.

In answer, Dr. Burns first reminded us that Reading Assistant can always be used simultaneously with any Fast ForWord product as Reading Assistant primarily targets reading fluency through assisted oral reading—so there is not an either/or choice needed when considering Reading Assistant. With mild reading problems, Dr. Burns advised that there is "still a reason" for the struggle—even when the cause is not immediately apparent—so she recommended starting with either Fast ForWord Language or Fast ForWord Literacy and using the program itself to help determine whether it is necessary.

Since all Fast ForWord products are included in the yearly license fee, there is no additional cost incurred by trying Fast ForWord Language or Fast ForWord Literacy for a few days to determine if there is a mild processing, working memory, attentional and/or language problem that could be affecting reading. If a client soars through Fast ForWord Language or Fast ForWord Literacy in the first few days, then moving on to the appropriate Fast ForWord Reading product makes sense. But if any exercise progresses significantly more slowly, keep the client on Fast ForWord Language or Fast ForWord Literacy until completion (80% completion on five of seven exercises in Fast ForWord Language v2 or four of five exercises in Fast ForWord Literacy).

Another question centered on appropriate clinical usage of Reading Progress Indicator (RPI).  In reply, Dr. Burns reiterated that RPI is not designed to be a diagnostic tool for clinical use.  She recommends turning RPI off in clinical settings.

For the next question, a provider asked for a simple way to explain Fast ForWord to parents. Because of the sophisticated nature of the Fast ForWord products and their effects, Dr. Burns recommends customizing the sample PowerPoint presentations for parents, available in the SciLEARNU tab of MySciLEARN.

Finally, Dr. Burns discussed attentional issues and reminded providers about Dr. Courtney Stephens’ research on the use of Fast ForWord Language  to treat attentional problems in children with SLI as well as typical learners.

The full Office Hours Webinar was recorded if you would like to listen to it yourself. The next Office Hours Webinar is scheduled for July 29, 2013 at 10am Pacific time/1pm Eastern Time. Submit your questions ASAP to ensure that we are able to include them!

 

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