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Summer Learning Programs, ELLs and the Achievement Gap

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

References:

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: http://www.theprofessionaleducator.org/

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 http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/28/opinion/28smink.html  

Related reading:

How to Create an Effective Summer Learning Program

18 Ways to Encourage Students to Read This Summer

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Categories: English Language Learners, Reading & Learning

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The Truth About Kids’ Screen Time and Language Delays

Screen time and language delaysChances 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.

References:

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

 

 

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Categories: Brain Fitness, Family Focus, Reading & Learning

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Is There Hope for English Language Learners in American Schools?

Working with ELL students

The number of English language learners (ELLs) in American schools is rising faster than that of any other student population. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) 2012 report, The Condition of Education, ELLs in US schools increased from 3.7 million in 2000-01 to 4.7 million in 2009-10, up from 8% to 10% of all students. In California, the state with the greatest increase, 29% of enrolled students in 2009-10 were ELLs.

Given these numbers, it’s clear that the challenges are enormous. There are more than 150 languages spoken by ELLs in the country’s schools. In some states, the vast majority of ELLs speak a single language—often Spanish—while in other states fewer than half of the students speak the top foreign language. Schools face a shortage of qualified bilingual teachers and, often, rigidity within the traditional school structure that impedes effective teaching of English learners.

It’s no surprise, then, that when it comes to ELL’s academic achievement, the data shows that our schools are failing to meet the Department of Education’s promise of “fostering educational excellence and ensuring equal access.”

Where’s the Excellence?

Consider the following data from the 2011 Nation’s Report Card:

Reading

 

4th Grade ELL

4th Grade

Non-ELL

8th Grade ELL

8th Grade Non-ELL

% Proficient or

Above

7%

37%

3%

35%

 

Math

 

4th Grade ELL

4th Grade

Non-ELL

8th Grade ELL

8th Grade Non-ELL

% Proficient or

Above

14%

44%

5%

36%

 

The non-ELL achievement levels are unimpressive, but the ELL results are downright depressing—especially for 8th graders who may be at risk of dropping out. For the vast majority of English learners, the language barrier remains unacceptably high.

School Success Stories

Despite these dismal statistics, some schools have done an exceptionally good job educating English learners. Take, for example, Coral Way Bilingual K-8 Center in Miami, FL, which started providing two-way bilingual education for all students in the 1960s in response to an influx of English learners from Cuba. Of the 70% of kindergarteners who enter the school with a Limited English Proficient (LEP) classification, most move out of the classification by 2nd grade.

On the West coast, a technology-based approach has made a big difference at a school formerly in Program Improvement. At Korematsu Discovery Academy in Oakland, CA, where the student population is 65% LEP, Principal Charles Wilson introduced the Fast ForWord online reading intervention program to help struggling learners move closer to proficiency. Within two years, the reading proficiency rate for 2nd – 5th graders increased from 17% to 41%. The math proficiency rate increased from 39% to 67% in the same period.

As a result of these gains, Korematsu received an award from Oakland Unified School District for the largest increase in the proficiency rate of English learners of all elementary schools in the district. According to Wilson, English learners who go through the program “are able to understand English more quickly, maintain their focus for a longer period of time, and are better at following directions.”

What’s Effective?

While the jury’s still out on which program model—two-way bilingual as used at Coral Way, late-exit bilingual, pullout ESL, etc.—is “the best” for helping English learners make strides academically, research shows that successful schools have typically made an effort to restructure for better learning. School restructuring can include a variety of elements, such as:

  • Organization of schooling (alternative student groupings, project-based or thematic instruction)
  • Productive uses of time (improving classroom management, creating block schedules, extending the school year)
  • Teacher collaboration (team curriculum development, high standards, shared instructional strategies)
  • Professional development (designed and planned by teachers to stay abreast of research on language development and acquisition)
  • School decision-making (teachers and administrators share responsibility for school operation and approaches to learning)
  • Parent and community engagement (parent involvement is valued and creatively encouraged)
  • Integrated services (ensure that students' health and social needs are met)

Many of the benefits of restructuring—such as greater parent involvement and teacher collaboration—extend beyond ELLs to the broader school community. With a more flexible structure in place, teachers have greater latitude to help all their students build the skills they need to succeed in reading, language arts, and all subject areas.

The Fast ForWord online reading intervention program used at Korematsu Discovery Academy is easier to implement than school restructuring and can provide rapid results within traditional or restructured learning environments. The program helps ELLs learn to hear the critical differences between similar sounding English phonemes so that so they can make sense of the English language. Once they can hear the sound differences, the “code” is broken and they can accelerate their acquisition of reading and language skills. It’s this unique intervention approach that makes it possible for ELLs to achieve significant academic gains in just a few months.

The demographic changes in American schools are demanding that educators demonstrate the same globally competitive skills that their students are expected to develop—the ability to innovate, implement effective technologies, work collaboratively to solve pressing problems, and communicate cross-culturally with parents and the broader community. There are schools like Coral Way and Korematsu Discovery Academy that have demonstrated what’s possible. Who’s up for the challenge?

Related reading:

Language Skills Increase 1.8 Years After 30 Days Using Fast ForWord

68% of Students Improve MEPA Proficiency Significantly after Fast ForWord®

 

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Categories: Education Trends, English Language Learners, Fast ForWord, Reading & Learning

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

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Exclusive Webinars with Experts on the Brain and Reading

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 2nd for 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. Burns will 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 Rasinski is 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 and you’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

 

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Categories: Brain Fitness, Brain Research, Education Trends, English Language Learners, Fast ForWord, Reading & Learning, Reading Assistant, Special Education

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Help Your Young Child Build Literacy

early literacy developmentDuring 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.

What You Can Do

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.

Reference:

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)

 

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Categories: Brain Fitness, Family Focus, Reading & Learning

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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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Categories: Fast ForWord, Reading & Learning, Reading Assistant

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

language-based learning disabilities

For decades, most child language scientists have believed that human beings possess an innate capacity to learn the language spoken to them during the first few years of life. Indeed, the vast majority of children worldwide are never “taught” their mother tongue; rather, they acquire it naturally, just by living in a world where people are speaking the language. 

Parsing Speech Sounds

Child language specialists have a word for the ability to tease out the sounds within words—they call it “parsing”. When children are first learning their native language they must also “parse” words into sounds so that they can figure out all the sounds in a word as well as the sequence of those sounds. All children have to learn to do this.

Children’s speech errors, like saying “top” for stop or “aminal” for animal, often reflect trouble children have with parsing. Language learning also requires parsing to learn grammatical forms like plural or verb tenses. The difference between the words rock, rocked and rocks necessitates the ability to distinguish all the sounds in each word. But for children with language-learning disabilities, it turns out that this problem parsing words into sounds is particularly difficult, and it affects not only language learning, but also reading and other school achievement.

Audiologists (hearing specialists) and brain researchers have long been interested in how the brain is able to parse words into relevant speech sounds and why some children struggle so much with that task. New research centering on the electrical brain signals picked up by electroencephalogram (EEG) is clarifying the relationship between auditory processing—specifically the ability to parse sounds in words—and language learning.

Brain wave oscillation bands—sometimes thought of as differing brain wave patterns—appear to be a major mechanism coordinating billions of nerves across different brain regions to perform even basic cognitive tasks such as paying attention to someone who is talking and understanding what they are saying. These bands are grouped by their frequency; so-called alpha bands, beta bands, gamma bands and theta bands all refer to brain oscillations of different frequencies. 

Brain scientists have discovered ways to use features of these oscillations bands to “see” how different parts of the brain work together. Katia Lehongre and colleagues have found that in humans, gamma bands are especially important for parsing words into sounds. Significantly, in children with language-based learning disabilities (including dyslexia) and children with aspects of language learning disabilities—poor auditory working memory and rapid naming—language and reading problems appear to be related to specific differences in brain oscillation patterns in the areas of the brain important for learning language. 

New Research Questions

Scientists postulate that some children’s brains may be inefficient for learning language, but very efficient for certain other aspects of learning—perhaps visual processing or even aspects of sound processing important for musical learning. What might cause differences in brain oscillation patterns is largely unknown and open to speculation, but for parents and teachers who work with struggling learners, the question to ask is:

Does remediation of the brain wave patterns improve language skills in children with language problems?

A study published in January 2013, addressed that question and found that the answer is “yes”.

Sabime Heim and colleagues at the Center for Molecular and Behavioral Neuroscience, Rutgers University, examined whether oscillations in the gamma band range of the auditory cortex of children with specific language impairments (SLI) change after a specific kind of audio-visual training (Fast ForWord Language), and if that change resulted in improved gamma band efficiency as well as language skills among those children. Study details:

  • Twenty-one elementary school students diagnosed with language learning impairment (LLI) underwent the intervention for an average of 32 days.
  • Pre- and post-training assessments included standardized language/literacy tests and EEG recordings.
  • A control group of twelve children with no language difficulties received the same testing, but no intervention was given.

Questions

The ability to efficiently perceive and sequence two non-speech sounds presented as quickly as speech sounds are in words is often referred to as Rapid Auditory Processing (RAP).

Heim et al wanted to know:

  1. In children with language learning problems who have problems parsing words into sounds, could their difficulty with RAP be seen in the efficiency measure of the gamma band oscillations?
  2. Does intervention with the Fast ForWord Language program, designed in part to improve RAP, improve gamma band efficiency measures and if so…
  3. Does an improvement in gamma band efficiency correlate with improvements in language?

Answers

EEG measures made by the authors before Fast ForWord Language showed what they expected— reduced efficiency components of the oscillations in the gamma-band range (29–52 Hz) among the children with LLI. The reductions occurred where the scientists expected, on the second of two rapidly presented tones. Some answers to the questions above:

  1. In short, the answer is yes. The children with language-based learning disabilities did in fact have a reduction in brain activity associated with sounds that occur as rapidly as speech sounds do during normal talking.
  2. In answer to the second question—do the brain efficiency measures and language skills improve after training?—the authors found that yes, there was an improvement in gamma band efficiency. Amplitude, one of the two efficiency measures, was no longer reduced on the second tone after Fast ForWord training.
  3. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, improvements in gamma band efficiency did – in the majority of cases- correlate with language improvements on standardized tests. The children with language-based learning disabilities who had used Fast ForWord Language showed improvements in core language skills, expressive language skills, and receptive language skills (as measured by the CELF-4).

The authors concluded that measures of brain wave efficiency are not only correlated with auditory processing problems in children with language-based learning disabilities, but that the Fast ForWord Language program improves at least one measure of the brain wave efficiency and that is in turn correlated with improvements both in RAP accuracy and also language skills.

References:

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

Lehongre, K., Ramus, F., Villiermet, N., Schwartz, D., & Giraud, A. (2011) Altered Low-Gamma Sampling in Auditory Cortex Accounts for the Three Main Facets of Dyslexia. Neuron, 72, 1080–1090.

Siegel, M., Donner, T., & Engel, A. (2012) Spectral fingerprints of large-scale neuronal interactions. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 13, 121-131.

Related reading:

Fast ForWord® Language Series Has Greatest Impact of Any Intervention Listed by NCRTI

Language Skills Increase 1.8 Years After 30 Days Using Fast ForWord

 

 

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

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Underachieving Students: Why They Struggle and How Educators Can Help

student underachievementHow early does environment begin to shape children into successful students or underachieving students? The answer has to do, in part, with how early babies start acquiring the skills needed to learn to read.

Watching Beth Connelly’s recent webinar, Breaking the Cycle of Underachievement, I was surprised to learn that children as young as four days old can distinguish the vowel sounds of the language in their natural environment. Four days old.

I couldn’t stop thinking about the implications of that timeframe. Suppose one child grows up in an enriched (typically high-SES) environment with a lot of stimulation and adult interaction, while another child grows up in a low-stimulation, low-interaction (typically low-SES) environment.

As Hart and Risley noted in their landmark study, the first child will be exposed to 42 million more words than the second child by age four. That difference in language exposure plays a big role in establishing the achievement gap that—without effective intervention—continues to widen as learners progress through school and then out into the world.

When I think about how babies as young as four days old are extracting information from the words they hear—distinguishing sounds and learning the building blocks of language—it is easy to understand how a child’s ability to learn can increase or decrease depending on the degree of stimulation in the learning environment.

It’s not just the richness of the learning interactions that influences learning ability, however; babies with frequent ear infections or fluid in their ears can also have trouble extracting accurate information about language sounds, as can babies and toddlers growing up in environments with a lot of background noise.

In her webinar, Connelly covers a wide range of research that often surprises. For example:

  • When babies are only six months old, what can researchers predict about their future reading ability?
  • What are the greatest differences in ability between low- and high-SES learners, and what is the connection to brain differences?
  • To what extent do our genes determine our academic destiny?
  • How do educators transform students’ ability to succeed?

That last point is especially important, because—as Connelly discusses—educator impact can be huge, influencing the actual biological processes that determine how successful learners are in the classroom.

Watch the full webinar and discover the critical importance of classroom teachers and technology in preparing all of our students—and especially our most vulnerable students—for life after K-12.

 

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

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

dyslexia

I remember the early years with my children and the dreams I had for their success. Of course, my dreams and theirs didn’t exactly end up being the same. But what happens when a mother realizes that her dreams for her child may be shattered because that child struggles with auditory processing issues, dyslexia, or other challenges never imagined? That’s exactly what Irene experienced with her daughter, Maria.

Attending school proved difficult for Maria. As she advanced from grade to grade and the work became progressively more difficult, anything presented in auditory form was especially challenging. By sixth grade, Maria had been diagnosed with dyslexia and Auditory Processing Disorder and was labeled with a language impairment. 

For obvious reasons, Maria struggled in school. Because of this, she was shy around other students, avoided reading, and required extensive help at home. Her family considered sending her to a private school, but Maria was unable to pass the entrance exams. 

By the middle of sixth grade, Maria had attended several different schools and the last was a disaster. It was then that one of her mother’s friends suggested Bridges Academy, a private school that specializes in serving students with learning challenges. Upon enrollment, Maria’s life began to turn in a new direction. When she got into her mother’s car after school she often said, “Mom, they understand me here!”

At Bridges Academy, Maria’s dyslexia and auditory processing issues were analyzed further and the Fast ForWord program was recommended in addition to Maria’s coursework and intervention regimen. Jacky Egli, the Director at Bridges Academy, explained to Maria’s mother that she personally researched every program thoroughly and only used programs that were scientifically based. Irene trusted Jacky and felt it was important to follow her recommendation, so Maria gave Fast ForWord a try.

Maria’s reading level was at least three to four years below grade level when she entered Bridges.  She also had struggled in other subjects, because every subject—even math—requires reading. But that soon began to change and, in time, Maria made significant improvements. Maria’s comprehension level increased more than two full grade levels last year. This improvement aligned with her participation in the Fast ForWord Reading and Reading Assistant programs.  Over the last 6 years, despite the odds, Maria improved on the Woodcock Reading Mastery Test 7.3 grade levels.   Because of this significant improvement, she no longer receives remedial instruction.  

Irene sought the best for her daughter and found it in the caring attitude of the staff at Bridges Academy and the innovative programs they use to make a difference for struggling students. “Jacky walks the walk and talks the talk of the school’s mission,” says Irene.

Maria has transformed from a shy, struggling child to a vibrant, engaged student who participates in class, reads aloud to her peers and conducts presentations for content area classes in front of her classmates. She is an ambassador for the school who greets and escorts new students and parents through the campus as she participates in open house and school events.

And, most exciting of all, Maria has been accepted into a local college and is thrilled about rising to meet a challenge and a future that once seemed entirely out of reach.

Related reading:

What Makes a Good Reader? The Foundations of Reading Proficiency

The Essential Nature of Developing Oral Reading Fluency

 

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

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