This is Your Child's Brain on TV

Tuesday, March 22, 2016 - 08:00
  • Kristina Birdsong

Key Points:

  • Limiting exposure to television may Child watching televisionbe one of the best ways to help kids succeed in school.
  • Despite the number of educational programming geared towards toddlers, it’s unknown if kids under age 2 can actually learn from TV.
  • The negative effects of watching television have a long term impact on academic success.
  • Watching television interrupts activities that promote cognitive and social development.

What are the risks of watching too much television from a young age?

For children and students who have trouble finding creative ways to solve problems, difficulty reading and seem delayed in understanding socially acceptable behavior, television could be to blame.

We’ve worried for decades about the effects of television on kids. But volumes of research on the issue are often inconclusive and contradictory and that may be one reason that Americans – instead of watching less television – are watching more and more.

The facts: America's favorite pastime

Today, Americans have more televisions in their homes than people who reside in them and children, even toddlers, spend more time than ever in front of their TV sets.  Televisions are on nearly seven hours a day in most American homes and television plays each day in 70 percent of our day cares.  We download more television programs than we check out books from libraries. And, we own more televisions than ever – 2.24 TVs per household with 66 percent of us owning three sets or more.

It’s likely that your students watch 1,680 minutes a week, probably a lot more time than they spend studying. On average, American youth spend 900 hours a year in school and 1,500 hours watching television.

Seventy-five years after television was first introduced to American homes, we still don’t know all the answers about how TV affects child development. But research is clear on one general idea: Television causes problems because kids who watch excessively are NOT doing other things that we know will help them become academically successful.

TV viewing replaces reading, doing homework, pursuing hobbies and getting enough sleep. It displaces creative activities, discourages exercise, creates demand for material goods and increases aggressive behavior in some children.

Watching television is a passive activity, a one-way street, points out an expert on child brain development and television viewing. Television displaces other important activities that promote cognitive and social development, Dr. David Perlmutter wrote.

“When a child is watching television, he or she is not involved in play, not socializing with other individuals and most importantly, not receiving feedback as to the actions or consequences of his or her behavior,” Perlmutter, a neurologist and author, wrote in “Brain Development: How much TV Should Children Watch?” (Huffington Post, December, 2010).

Children who watch too much television are likely to:

  • Forego fantasy play, which is critical to brain development because it helps kids understand symbolism, the foundation of reading.
  • Fail to question and develop alternative understanding and explanations which leads to creative problem-solving.
  • Develop weaker language skills because television offers no feedback that helps them modify their understanding of words.
  • Have a diminished “EQ,” or emotional quotient, which is critical to the development of social skills and understanding that actions have consequences. Children with compromised EQ fail to learn how to vary their responses to social experiences.

Of particular concern are the results of one study that show the negative effects of television viewing are long term, according to the University of Michigan’s medical website. “The study found that watching TV as a child affected education achievement at age 26,” the site says. “Watching more TV in childhood increases the chances of dropping out of school and decreased chances of getting a college degree, even after controlling for confounding factors.”

The risk of television delaying learning in infants is so great that the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that babies under the age of 2 be banned from watching altogether. Parents, however, are increasingly asking for toddler-friendly shows and television producers are happy to comply. Television shows aimed at educating toddlers are on the rise and nearly three-quarters of all infants and toddlers have watched television before age 2.  By their second birthdays, 43 percent of all 2-year-olds watch television every day.  Programing aimed at babies claims to promote early language and it’s tempting to believe it can. But experts say it’s too early to know if kids under age 2 can actually learn from TV.

One leading researcher on the topic, Dr. Patricia Kuhl dismisses the idea that babies can learn language from television, even though children as young as 18 weeks can listen to vowel sounds and then look at the correct corresponding lip shape on a video monitor. Kuhl, co-author of the 1982 seminal study “Bimodal Perception of Speech in Infancy,” published in Science, elaborated on her results in a 2010 TED talk.

Children require face-to-face contact from caretakers who provide verbal and non-verbal clues to kids that television – no matter how kid-friendly – cannot, Kuhl concluded. In analyzing Kuhl’s work, author and early intervention speech-language pathologist Saran Andrews Roehrich explained that caretaker interaction is critical to a baby’s ability to talk and later on, to read. “Over time, by listening to and engaging with the speakers around them, babies build sound maps which set the stage for them to be able to say words and learn to read later on.  In fact, based on years of research, Kuhl has discovered that a baby’s ability to discriminate phonemes at 7 months-old is a predictor of future reading skills for that child at age 5 to 7.”

The early interaction from caretakers is also important to long-term development, Roehrich wrote. “Since brain circuits organize and reorganize themselves in response to an infant’s interactions with his or her environment, exposing babies to a variety of positive experiences (such as talking, cuddling, reading, singing, and playing in different environments) not only helps tune babies in to the language of their culture, but it also builds a foundation for developing the attention, cognition, memory, social-emotional, language and literacy, and sensory and motor skills that will help them reach their potential later on.”

Babies familiar with their caretakers’ voices learn sound patterns and speech sounds that allow them to understand the “edges” of sound, one missing link for children with dyslexia and auditory processing problems.  Eventually, the research on babies and speech could have important implications for special needs kids.

What can we do?

For now, limiting exposure to television may be one of the best ways to help kids succeed in school. Otherwise, we’re likely to see more kids struggle to learn, according to Dr. Bob Sornson, founder of the Early Learning Foundation.

“If we allow children to have poor quality language experiences, substituting entertainment devices for real human language experiences, there will be casualties,” Sornson wrote. “If we allow our children to become socially isolated and distracted by a constant barrage of video entertainment options, there will be casualties.”


Kuhl Constructs: How Babies Form Foundations for Language

Kuhl, P. (April 3, 2012.) Talk on “Babies’ Language Skills.” Mind, Brain, and Behavior Annual Distinguished Lecture Series, Harvard University.

TV and Kids Under Age 3

More than Half the Homes in U.S. Have Three or More TVs

Brain Development: How Much TV Should Children Watch?

Television and Children

Who's Looking Out for the Children?


13 Questions About The Build English Fast Solution

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

Build English Fast with ELLs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Q: What about kids without basic literacy?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



5 Things You Might Not Know About English Language Learners

Tuesday, May 27, 2014 (All day)
  • Norene Wiesen

Interesting Facts and Classroom Strategies for ELLs

It’s no secret that the number of EnglishEnglish Language Learners ELLs Language Learners (ELLs) in the United States is booming. By 2025, nearly one out of every four public school students is expected to be an English learner. And ELL populations are soaring in places where they were historically lower – Southern states like North Carolina, Virginia and Georgia have all seen growth rates topping 200% in recent years.

So…how much do you know about English learners? Peruse these 5 facts and find out:

1. More than half of today’s ELLs were born in the U.S.

According to a 2008 NEA policy brief, 76% of the ELLs in elementary schools and 56% of the ELLs in secondary schools are American-born. Being born in the U.S. gives these learners some advantages over first-generation immigrants – a big one being easier acculturation. But the advantages of being second-generation are not enough. In the 2005 National Assessment of Educational Progress only 29% of ELLs scored at or above the “basic” level in reading, compared with 75% of non-ELLs. What’s more, the academic performance levels of ELLs are significantly below those of their peers in nearly every measure of achievement.

2. ELLs are an extremely diverse group.

Although most speak Spanish, ELLs represent numerous languages, cultures, ethnicities, nationalities and socioeconomic backgrounds. In fact, six of the top ten languages spoken by ELLs are notbased on the Latin alphabet: Chinese, Korean, Hindi, Arabic, Russian and Miao/Hmong!

3. The ELL achievement gap is complex and difficult to measure.

Unlike other subgroups specified in No Child Left Behind (e.g., economically disadvantaged or racial groups), a primary goal for ELLs is to transition out of ELL status by demonstrating English proficiency. Students who reach proficiency more quickly get reclassified, which skews performance statistics downward for learners who retain ELL status past third or fourth grade. In addition, not all states agree about which students qualify as ELLs, although there are efforts currently underway to establish a common set of criteria for federal funding purposes.

4. ELLs drop out at a higher rate than any other student population.

The longer ELLs remain classified as English learners, the more likely they are to abandon school. English learners who drop out are much more likely to end up unemployed, and even those who are able to find a job should expect relatively low earnings over their lifetimes – as much as $200,000 less than their peers who complete high school and $1 million less than those who graduate from college. Dropouts are more likely to become teenage parents, live in poverty, struggle with addiction, commit suicide and commit crimes that land them in prison. The cost to society is high – taxpayers foot the bill of up to $350 billion in lost wages, taxable income, health, welfare and incarceration costs. 

5. Building skills in a student’s home language facilitates English acquisition.

A growing body of evidence shows that some key language skills (e.g., phonemic awareness) generalize to other languages – so when students make progress in their first language, their English improves, too. Studies also show that bilingual learners have a cognitive advantage over monolingual learners. In addition, research supports dual-language instruction as a highly effective model for helping both ELLs and native English-speakers become biliterate high achievers. Dual language programs are especially recommended at the preschool level to prepare ELLs for mainstream kindergarten programs.

How to Help: Classroom Strategies for ELLS

The challenge of educating the nation’s English learners is a huge one – and it’s growing. But there are ways to make a difference:

  1. Communicate effectively in the classroom. Remember that ELLs are faced with a difficult task in absorbing content instruction while simultaneously learning a new language.
  2. Teach parents how they can support their children’s language learning at home by speaking, singing, playing language games and reading all kinds of texts with children in their home language.
  3. Give ELLs access to well-designed summer programs throughout the K-12 years to keep up language exposure and development even while school is out of session. There’s evidence that summer learning loss is responsible for half of the achievement gap or even more. Those are serious implications for ELLs.

Above all, we must pay attention to the burgeoning population of ELLs, understand their needs, and implement effective strategies for helping them meet or exceed proficiency measures, graduate from high school, and continue on to college. We can’t continue to fail them – the stakes for all of us are much too high.


Center for Great Public Schools. (2008). English Language Learners Face Unique Challenges. Retrieved from:

Migration Policy Institute. (2010). Top Languages Spoken by English Language Learners Nationally and by State. Retrieved from:

National Education Association, (n.d.). A New Look at America's English Language Learners, Retrieved from:

Reynolds, C.W. (2011). The Influence of Dual Language Education Upon the Development of English Reading Skills of Kindergarten Through Grade Two Students, Seton Hall University Dissertations and Theses (ETDs). Retrieved from:

Sanchez, C. & Wertheimer, L. (2011). School Dropout Rates Add to Fiscal Burden.Retrieved from:

Related reading:

Language Skills Increase 1.8 Years After 30 Days Using Fast ForWord

68% of Students Improve MEPA Proficiency Significantly after Fast ForWord


Top 10 Tips for Working With ELL Students

Tuesday, May 13, 2014 (All day)
  • Hallie Smith, MA CCC-SLP

English-language-learners2 English language learners (ELLs) in the classroom are faced with a difficult task—absorbing content instruction while their English skills are still being developed. How can you help your ELL students participate more fully in the classroom so they can achieve to the best of their ability? Try these 10 tips for supporting English learners in improving their language skills and subject knowledge in tandem:

1. Be self-aware.

Know your audience and take time to reflect on the nature of the language you use. Do you use many terms that could be considered jargon? Do prepositional phrases pop up often in your speech? Do you speak fast? Do you emphasize important concepts?

2. Balance content and language complexity.

Keep language simple to help learners grasp complex content, and use more complex language when content is simple. This approach helps learners grasp difficult material more easily, reserving challenging language structures for times when English comprehension is a surer thing. Imagine how it might be to study calculus as a Mandarin language learner versus learning to count to ten.

3. Check for understanding.

After you give the class an assignment, provide opportunities for students to tell you or their peers how they plan to approach it. Including this step can help students stay on the right track by confirming that they understand what is expected.

4. Have them practice speaking English.

The more your ELL students get to practice their spoken English, the better. Provide opportunities for authentic practice (e.g., “tell a neighbor what you did at recess”) and practice through play or performance (e.g., “let’s pretend we’re the characters in this book”).

5. Make language natural.

Provide opportunities for children to express their thoughts and feelings aloud by using open-ended questions that challenge students’ reasoning. To promote discussion, offer a natural, open-ended topic that’s relevant to your learners, such as, “Adam sure was sneaky in this book, always hiding toys from his sister. I wonder what all of you think about hiding toys from your siblings or friends…?” To encourage debate, ask students to choose between one of two opinions. For example, “In The Little Yellow Chicken, do you think the chicken should have invited his friends even though they didn’t want to help? Why or why not?”

6. Create opportunities for contextual word learning.

Whenever possible, let the text deliver the meaning of words on its own. Look for texts with strong supporting visuals or with a rich and meaningful story—or both. Avoid  pre-teaching vocabulary when possible. Providing definitions doesn’t yield the same sticking power as letting the word “teach itself” to the student.

7. Provide a model when students get stuck.

If students struggle to formulate English sentences, provide a cloze sentence, (e.g., “You can say… ‘I thought the characters in this book were…’”). Write it on the board for extra support.

8. Recast with higher-level grammatical structure.

When a student makes a simple statement, reformulate it using more complex grammar, e.g., Student: “I like John. He is funny.” Teacher: “Oh, you enjoyed the main character because you thought he was funny.”

9. Make figurative language explicit.

Don’t assume that ELL students know the implied meanings of figurative language. When you use a figure of speech, follow it up with the same idea stated in plain language. For example, “It was a piece of cake; it was easy.”

10. Have students practice reading aloud.

All children need to practice reading out loud repeatedly. Reading aloud is a great way for ELL students to exercise their speech mechanism and reinforce the sound of English without the added cognitive burden of formulating words and sentences. One option for more read-aloud practice is to use Reading Assistant, an online reading tool that uses speech recognition to correct and support ELL students as they read aloud, helping to build fluency and confidence with the help of a supportive listener. It’s a great “twofer”—learners can get in more speech practice and build reading skills like phonemic awareness, decoding and fluency at the same time.

What’s great about most of the above strategies is that they benefit non-ELL students as well—especially other struggling learners.

Related reading:

Teaching Reading in Science Class: A Common Core Trend?

The Essential Nature of Developing Oral Reading Fluency


Summer Learning Programs, ELLs and the Achievement Gap

Tuesday, February 25, 2014 (All day)
  • Hallie Smith, MA CCC-SLP

Deliberate practice

Close the achievement gap. Fix learning problems. Solve all our education problems! Educators are faced with increased responsibility and pressure – like never before.  It’s no wonder that summer learning loss becomes another challenge that’s rarely addressed sufficiently.

The role that summer learning loss plays in the achievement gap is borne out by decades of research. According to research by Karl Alexander and colleagues at Johns Hopkins University, the disparity in summer learning opportunities is responsible for more than half of the achievement gap. More than half.That should mean that we could improve the problem by at least half by providing equal access to summer learning opportunities for disadvantaged students – and yet the creation of effective summer learning programs for lower-income students has not been a significant focus of literacy efforts in the U.S.  Let’s look at some of the latest facts on summer learning loss:

  • Low-income students lose more than two months in reading achievement during the summer, while high-income students, on average, see reading gains during the summer.
  • Low- and high- income students lose math skills at more or less the same rate over the summer months.
  • Lower-income students have less access to books at home and around the neighborhood, a “disability” of sorts that compounds year over year, resulting in a divide between advantaged and disadvantaged students that increases over time.
  • The problem of the summer slide is compounded for ELL students, who may lose all access to fluent English modeling and speaking opportunities over the summer months resulting in loss of language skills.
  • ELLs benefit from book reading, writing, and differentiated learning opportunities offered by summer learning programs. They also benefit from the social support that is critical to their academic success.

While federal programs are not yet making summer reading programs a focus in addressing the achievement gap, it makes sense that districts should. The research has shown that at-risk students need affordable access to significant and effective summer learning opportunities with an emphasis on reading books that interest students, at the correct reading level.

Districts can take steps today toward applying a known solution to fix a known problem, or can wait for federal policy to catch up with the research and take the lead. The thing is, as long as students are not involved in effective summer learning programs, the summer learning gap – and as a result, the achievement gap – isn’t going away. Even if disadvantaged students make great progress during the academic year. It’s really a no-brainer.

How should districts pay for it? Here are some sources that can help get district-driven summer learning programs going:

  • 21st Century Community Learning Centers
  • Title I Supplemental Education Services
  • The Child Care and Development Fund
  • Temporary Assistance for Needy Families


Alexander, K.L., Entwisle, D.R., Olson, L.S. (2007). Lasting Consequences of the Summer Learning Gap, American Sociological Review, 72, 167-180. doi:10.1177/000312240707200202

Hur, J.S., & Suh, S. (2010). The Development, Implementation, and Evaluation of a Summer School for English Language Learners. Professional Educator, 34(2). Retrieved from:

Vanderhaar, J.E., & Munoz, M.A. (2005). Limited English Proficient Intervention: Effects of a Summer Program in Reading and Mathematics. Retrieved from ERIC database. (ED491400)

Smink, J. (2011, July 27). This Is Your Brain on Summer. [Op-Ed]. The New York Times.Retrieved from  

Related reading:

How to Create an Effective Summer Learning Program

18 Ways to Encourage Students to Read This Summer

The Truth About Kids’ Screen Time and Language Delays

Tuesday, September 24, 2013 (All day)
  • Norene Wiesen

Screen time and language delays Chances are, you’re doing something else at the same time you’re reading this blog post—at least partially. Divided attention is just part of the program in today’s “always-on” environment, and being constantly connected usually means spending a lot of time in front of a screen.

Not surprisingly, our kids’ screen time is increasing along with our own. As a result, language delays due to excessive screen time are becoming a cause for concern.

Too Much, Too Young

When children spend a lot of time in front of a screen—especially when that screen serves as a virtual babysitter for the child—it makes sense to expect that there’s going to be an impact.

One study published in Acta Paediatrica (Chonchaiya & Pruksananonda, 2008) found that children who started watching television before their first birthday, and who watched more than two hours per day, were six times more likely to have language delays than children in a control group.

The Dwindling Art of Two-Way Conversation

What seems to matter even more than the amount of screen time is the degree of adult involvement and interaction with that screen time. Both the Chonchaiya & Pruksananonda study and another study published in PEDIATRICS (Zimmerman, et al., 2009) have shown that when adults guide a child’s screen time and engage the child in two-way conversation about it, the detrimental effect on language development can be neutralized.

Children require conversation to develop robust language skills, and they need adults to invite and shape that conversation in ways that help them think about the world and formulate the language that expresses their thoughts. Even reading to children and telling them stories—both of which are important—are not enough by themselves to support healthy language development.

Connected vs. Connection

In some cases, it may actually be parents’ screen time that’s the problem. For a variety of reasons—including job pressures and shifts in culture—parent screen time has started to encroach upon family time, displacing adult-child interaction.

In her book, The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age, Catherine Steiner-Adair shares the stories of children and teenagers who are sidelined by their parents’ use of technology and who long for their undivided attention. The overwhelming message from the kids is that “it feels ‘bad and sad’ to be ignored.”

If kids aren’t getting the attention they want from their parents, how likely is it that they’re getting enough of the conversation that they need to develop important life skills—including language skills?

Language isn’t just a tool used to communicate at the dinner table or in the classroom; it’s a living part of who we are, and comes to life and grows in our relationships, our conversations, and in caring for—and being cared for—by others.

As hard as it can be to manage the competing demands of work and family—or to break the habit of being “always on”—there’s no substitute for listening, asking questions, and being interested in kids’ lives.


Chonchaiya, W., & Pruksananonda, C. (2008). Television viewing associates with delayed language development. Acta Paediatrica, 97(7), 977-982. doi: 10.1111/j.1651-2227.2008.00831.x

Steiner-Adair, C. (2013).  The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age . New York, NY: Harper.

Zimmerman, F.J., Gilkerson, J.,  Richards, J.A., Christakis, D.A., Xu, D., Gray, S., & Yapanel, U. (2009). Teaching by Listening: The Importance of Adult-Child Conversations to Language Development. Pediatrics,124(1), 342-349. doi: 10.1542/peds.2008-2267

Related reading:

Help Your Young Child Build Literacy

3 Tips for Encouraging Verbal Communication in Young Learners



Overcoming Language and Reading Problems: The Promise of Brain Plasticity

Wednesday, September 11, 2013 (All day)
  • Martha Burns, Ph.D

Author Norman Doidge 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.


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


Exclusive Webinars with Experts on the Brain and Reading

Tuesday, August 13, 2013 (All day)
  • Carrie Gajowski, MA

2013 education webinars

I’m so excited to announce our webinars for this fall!  We are honored to have Dr. Norman Doidge, the well-known author of The Brain That Changes Itself, join us October 2ndfor a webinar. This is a rare opportunity that educators, clinicians and parents alike won’t want to miss. Dr. Tim Rasinski, one of our favorite presenters, is returning to speak about the role of fluency in comprehension, and Dr. Marty Burns will be speaking on meeting the needs of the rapidly changing diverse student populations.  

8/19 - Using Brain Science to Close the Achievement Gap

Dr. Martha S. Burnswill discuss what the latest brain science says about the true learning potential of ELLs, struggling readers, and students with ADHD. Find out how today’s powerful intervention technologies can help build foundational reading and cognitive skills for a variety of student populations—and help students improve their ability to learn.

9/11 - Reading Fluency: The Neglected (but Necessary) Goal of Your Reading Program

Dr. Timothy Rasinskiis a vocal proponent of teaching reading fluency as a means of helping students build better comprehension. In our September webinar, Dr. Rasinski will talk about fluency as a predictor of reading comprehension, present the research on fluency, and substantiate fluency as an essential component of any successful reading program (National Reading Panel). All this andyou’ll gain a better understanding of how to teach fluency so your students can start getting more from their reading.

10/2 - The Neuroplasticity Revolution: New Ways to Improve Learning

For 400 years, the brain was thought to be a more-or-less fixed piece of machinery after infancy.Dr. Norman Doidge, author of The Brain That Changes Itself, will talk about the recent discovery that the brain retains the ability to change its own structure and function in response to experience through the latest years of our lives. Learn how this discovery was made, how it turns our understanding of learning on its head, and how it radically alters the was we think about student potential—especially for students with learning challenges or disorders. And, discover the online interventions that have grown out of the science and learn how they work to help students overcome reading and language difficulties.

Related reading:

Why Dr. Timothy Rasinski Thinks Reading Fluency Should Be “Hot!”

Brain Plasticity: A New Frontier For Education and Learning


How to Help Your Young Child Build Literacy

Tuesday, July 30, 2013 (All day)
  • Beth Connelly, MS CCC-SLP

Reading at home Strategies to Help Children Build Language Skills

During the earliest years of life, the brain sets up for learning through the development of language. This foundation has been shown to be the bedrock of school learning and the roadblock to success for many students.

Language is a complex, multidimensional system that supports decoding and comprehension as children learn to read. The formal skills necessary to create mental models of text not only for reading but for following instructions, interpreting stories and content and other higher order skills depend upon language abilities that have been developing since birth.

Baby talk

Talking to children from infancy is key to building language skills. “Baby talk,” aka “ parentese,” is a singsong way of talking to children while exaggerating facial expressions. It is spoken around the world—not just in English-speaking countries—and is stimulating to infants as they map the key sounds and patterns of language.

Daily talk

Parents and caregivers teach children what words mean (“doggie”, “cup”, etc.), how to make new words (i.e. happy, happier, unhappy), how to put words together (i.e. “Ryan went to the corner store” rather than “Ryan went to the store corner”) and what combinations work best in different situations (“May I please have a toy” rather than “Give me that!”- also referred to as pragmatic skills). 

Talking to children about daily activities, such as about how things are the same and different (fun to try at the grocery store), enhances communication skills. Reviewing the days’ activities with children builds language and memory skills as well as sequencing skills. Rhyming and word play help children to begin to break words into sounds which will build into reading skills later on.

Reading with expression

It is important to read to children with expression from an early age. Six-month-old babies can enjoy picture books while they build vocabulary and language comprehension. Pre-school children, age 5, were studied by Mira and Schwanenflugel at the University of Georgia (2013), who found that the degree of expressiveness of the reader has an impact on how much of the story children are to able recall. This affects language processing so necessary for school success.

7 Strategies to work on at home and in pre-school

Parents and early childhood educators can help young children build language skills with simple and fun activities that fit naturally into the day:

  1. Use parentese with very young children in the home and classroom
  2. Talk to children during daily events and activities to build vocabulary and language structure
  3. Play! Initiate and encourage active engagement with the environment
  4. Model reading with expression
  5. Read age-appropriate texts aloud on a regular basis
  6. Engage children in discussion and provide opportunities for problem solving
  7. Model turn-taking and discourse, essential pragmatic skills for social and academic success

Avoid or reduce exposure to TV—even educational programming—in favor of person-to-person interaction. Helping young children build strong language skills is fun, and it’s also one of the most important things parents and educators can do to establish the necessary foundation for success in school and in life.


Mira W.A., & Schwanenflugel P.J. (2013). The impact of reading expressiveness on the listening comprehension of storybooks by prekindergarten children. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools. 44(2), 183-94. doi: 10.1044/0161-1461(2012/11-0073)

Related reading:

The Speech and Language Connection: The Nursery Rhyme Effect (Part 1)

The Speech and Language Connection: The Nursery Rhyme Effect (Part 2)


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

Tuesday, June 25, 2013 (All day)
  • Hallie Smith, MA CCC-SLP

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 v2versus Fast ForWord Literacyversus Fast ForWord Reading Level 1-5—and/or the Reading Assistantprogram.

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’ researchon 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 recordedif 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 ASAPto ensure that we are able to include them!



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