10 Questions to Ask Your Child’s Teacher This Year (Don’t Forget Cognitive Skills!)

Tuesday, September 2, 2014 - 17:15
  • Norene Wiesen

It’s back to school…again! Your child is getting to know a new teacher and facing a host of new expectations. How can you be sure that you are prepared to help your child navigate the school year and get the most out of every day at school? It helps if you know what questions to ask. Here’s a list you can use as a starting point for talking with your child’s teacher.

Parent Night Questions

Many teachers provide a Parent Night handout or a website with detailed information about classroom expectations or procedures. See what your child’s teacher has prepared for you, and if it doesn’t answer the following questions, be sure to ask them yourself.

  1. Student Feedback & Support - How do you like to provide feedback to students? Are there any interventions to help children who need a little extra attention? When are you available if my child needs extra help?
  2. Home Support - How can I support you, as a parent, so that my child gets the most out of this school year?

Conference (or “As-Needed”) Questions

  1. Reading – When working in a small group with my student in reading, what is an area of strength or weakness that you notice? How is my child’s decoding? Fluency? Comprehension? Vocabulary?
  2. Writing – What are my child’s specific strengths and weaknesses in writing?
  3. Math - What are my child’s specific strengths and weaknesses in math?
  4. Cognitive Skills – How would you say my child is doing, as compared to peers, in these areas:
    1. Memory: How well does my child learn and remember new information? Does he or she require more or less support than peers? How easily is information retained?
    2. Attention: How is my child’s attention during different types of activities? One-on-one? Small group? Whole class?
    3. Processing: How well is my child able to “make connections” as compared to peers? In reading: decoding new words, making educated guesses about the meaning of a new word, using background knowledge, or predicting and inferring. In math: during computation (is it labored or slow?) or retrieval of simple number facts. In writing: able to generate coherent ideas without a lot of support and begin to put them into words (orally or on paper, depending on grade).
    4. Sequencing: How well is my child able to organize his thoughts for writing or explain his understanding of a new concept?
  5. Expression of Thoughts & Language Skills – How often do students have an opportunity to share their thoughts with the class (i.e., “think out loud”)? What do you notice when my child participates (or not)?
  6. Motivation – What does my child find motivating? What can I do to support this?
  7. Social Skills – How does my child do without direct supervision? How does my child handle conflict with other students? What one thing could my child do to improve his or her social skills?
  8. State Testing & Advancement – Do you have any concerns about my child’s ability to prepare for and take the state tests? Or his or her advancement to the next grade?

If you have concerns about your child’s cognitive skills or academic performance, don’t wait until conference day to let the teacher know. Use the teacher’s preferred method of communication to request a special meeting. For any area where extra help might be needed, or even if your child has reached proficiency, be sure to ask, “What can I do to support my child at home?” And then really do it. That school-home connection can make a huge difference in student achievement. Here’s to a great school year!

Related reading:

The Parent Trap: Getting Your Struggling Learner to Do Homework Independently

Instilling a Love of Reading: What Every Teacher and Parent Should Know

 

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

Tuesday, March 25, 2014 (All day)
  • Martha Burns, Ph.D

Neuroscience-based programs I am sure you have noticed that there are many technology programs out there that claim to “build,” or improve your brain function. Every week I receive emails from companies advertising brain games that promise to train attention and memory skills. You may have wondered, do “brain games” really work? A recent article in The New York Times entitled "Do Brain Workouts Work? Science Isn't Sure," actually asked that very question as well.

How would a memory brain game that I purchase from a website be different from a card or board game like “Concentration”? How is an attention game different or better than the concentration required to read a good book or play a card game that requires focused and sustained attention to cards played or discarded each round? Do good old fashioned paper pencil activities like crossword puzzles help with brain function? How about Bridge or Chess? Does watching Jeopardy on Television help your memory? Wouldn’t any challenging video game help us with attention if we had to stay focused for long periods of time to get to a new level?

The answers to the above questions are all “yes, to some degree.” The brain is the only organ of our body that changes each day based on our experiences. And if we do any activities that challenge memory or attention for extended periods of time it will likely be beneficial for improving those capacities. If I play bridge, for example, many hours a week, I will likely get better at the game and boost my short term (working) memory as well. But, neuroscientists who study brain plasticity, the way the brain changes with stimulation (or lack of stimulation), have determined there are ways to enhance the beneficial effects of brain exercises to maximize the efficiency and positive outcomes so that children or adults can specifically target some capacities over others in a short period of time. And, controlled research is showing these targeted exercises have benefits on other brain capacities as well.

So, for example, researchers have shown that when seven year olds do a simple computer-based exercise that targets working memory for just a few minutes a day for a few consecutive weeks they show improved working memory (we would expect that) but also improved reading comprehension compared with children in their classrooms who received reading instruction but did not do the working memory activities (Loosli, 2012). Or, aging adults in their 70's who did computer-based processing speed exercises a few minutes a day for six consecutive weeks so they could do things like react faster when driving showed improvements in processing speed (again we would expect that) but also in memory when compared to adults who did other exercises but not the processing speed exercises, and the improvements lasted for ten years without doing additional exercises (Rebok, 2014).

The question, then, is what are the critical active ingredients neuroscientists have found that need to be "built-in" so brain exercises effectively build targeted skills compared to the benefits we get from just using our "noggin" in everyday activities? And, more important, how is a parent or consumer to get through all the hype and determine which brain exercises have the important design features shown to be effective?

Fortunately, neuroscientists who have thoroughly researched this have published excellent summaries in respected scientific journals. Below are the key elements to look for in brain exercises:

  1. High & low - Exercises are most effective when they include challenging high-level tasks (like exercises that require a high degree of speed and accuracy) while also including low-level exercises that improve our ability to perceive similar sounds or images more distinctly (Ahissar et el, 2009). We might call this the Sherlock Holmes effect - you must see the details clearly to solve difficult problems.
  2. Adaptability - Exercises should increase or decrease in difficulty based on how you perform so they continuously adapt to your skill level (Roelfsema, 2010).
  3. Highly intensive training schedules - The relevant ‘skills' must be identified, isolated, then practiced through hundreds if not thousands of trials on an intensive (ie, quasi-daily) schedule (Roelfsema, 2010).
  4. Attention grabbing - In order to maximize enduring plastic changes in the cortex, the learner must attend to each trial or learning event on a trial-by-trial basis.
  5. Timely rewards - A very high proportion of the learning trials must be rewarded immediately (rather than at the end of a block of trials or on a trial-and-error basis) (Roelfsema, 2010).

So, parents may ask, ”This sounds fine for making our average brains work better but what about my child who has been diagnosed with a learning disability or other issues like autism spectrum disorder?” According to Ahissar et al. (2009), for our children (or adults) with learning issues, distortions or limitations at any level will create bottlenecks for learning and the changes we want from brain exercises. But, according to the authors, if the exercises have sufficient intensity and duration on specific sets of activities that focus on lower-level (perceptual) and middle-level stimuli (attention, memory and language) tasks, brain changes will enhance higher level skills and learning will be easier and more advanced.

So for parents, or anyone wanting to understand which brain exercises are worth the investment of valuable time and money, a rule of thumb would be to avoid products that advertise themselves as "brain games" - because that is what they probably are. Rather, seek out programs or products that contain "exercises" that focus on specific high and low level skills like language, reading, memory and attention, and those who have research evidence to support their value when used by children like yours.

References

Ahissar, M., Nahum, M., Nelken, I., & Hochstein, S. (2009). Reverse hierarchies and sensory learning, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, 364,285–299. doi: 10.1098/rstb.2008.0253

Loosli, S.V., Buschkuehl, M., Perrig, W.J., & Jaeggi, S.M. (2012). Working memory training improves reading processes in typically developing children, Child Neuropsychology, 18, 62-78. doi: 10.1080/09297049.2011.575772

Rebok, G.W., Ball, K., Guey, L.T., Jones, R.N., Kim, H.Y., King, J.W., . . . Willis, S.L. (2014). Ten-Year Effects of the Advanced Cognitive Training for Independent and Vital Elderly Cognitive Training Trial on Cognition and Everyday Functioning in Older Adults, Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, 62,16-24. doi: 10.1111/jgs.12607

Roelfsema, P.R., van Ooyen, A., & Watanabe, T. (2010). Perceptual learning rules based on reinforcers and attention, Trends in Cognitive Science, 14, 64–71. doi: 10.1016/j.tics.2009.11.005

Vinogradav, S., Fisher, M., & de Villers-Sidani, E. (2012). Cognitive Training for Impaired Neural Systems in Neuropsychiatric Illness, Neuropsychopharmacology Reviews,37, 43–76. doi: 10.1038/npp.2011.251

Related reading:

Brain Fitness Is Not A Game

Dopamine and Learning: What The Brain’s Reward Center Can Teach Educators

 

The Benefits of Downtime: Why Learners’ Brains Need a Break

Tuesday, December 17, 2013 (All day)
  • Hallie Smith, MA CCC-SLP

Downtime A friend of mine once described her brain as a washing machine, tumbling and tossing the requests and information that hit her at work from every direction. Many people I know feel the same way—overwhelmed by the onslaught of knowledge and to-dos that accompany the always-on smartphone era.

The situation is not that different for most kids these days, with high expectations in the classroom, fewer opportunities to unwind with recess and the arts, busy social calendars, and a seemingly limitless supply of extracurricular activities—like circus arts and robotics—that weren’t available to previous generations. That’s unfortunate, because research shows that time off-task is important for proper brain function and health.

Going Offline

The idea that the brain might be productively engaged during downtime has been slow in coming. Because of the brain’s massive energy consumption—using as much as 20% of the body’s energy intake while on-task—most scientists expected that the organ would default to a frugal, energy-saving mode when given the chance.

Recently, however, brain researchers have discovered sets of scattered brain regions that fire in a synchronized way when people switch to a state of mental rest, such as daydreaming. These “resting-state networks” help us process our experience, consolidate memories, reinforce learning, regulate our attention and emotions, keep us productive and effective in our work and judgment, and more.

The best understood of these networks is the Default Mode Network, or DMN. It’s the part of the brain that chatters on continuously when we’re off-task—ruminating on a conversation that didn’t go as well as we’d hoped, for example, or flipping through our mental to-do list, or nagging us about how we’ve treated a friend.

Many of us are culturally conditioned to think of time off-task as “wasted” and a sign of inefficiency or laziness. But teachers and learners can benefit from recognizing how downtime can help. In addition to giving the brain an opportunity to make sense of what it has just learned, shifting off-task can help learners refresh their minds when frustrated so they can return to a problem and focus better.

The Productive Faces of Idleness

SLEEP

Sleep is the quintessential form of downtime for the brain. All animals sleep in some form, and even plants and microorganisms often have dormant or inactive states. Sleep has been shown in numerous studies to play a major role in memory formation and consolidation.

Recent studies have shown that when the human brain flips to idle mode, the neurons that work so hard when we’re on-task settle down and the surrounding glial cells increase their activity dramatically, cleaning up the waste products accumulated by the neurons and moving them out via the body’s lymphatic system. Researchers believe that the restorative effects of sleep are due to this cleansing mechanism. Napping for 10-30 minutes has been demonstrated to increase alertness and improve performance.

Teachers might consider reminding parents of the importance of adequate sleep for learning in the classroom – especially if learners are visibly sleepy or have noticeable difficulty focusing in class. As many as 30% of K-12 learners don’t get enough sleep at night.

AWAKE, DOING NOTHING

Idleness is often considered a vice, but there’s growing evidence that there are benefits to “doing nothing.” Electrical activity in the brain that appears to solidify certain kinds of memories is more frequent during downtime—as when lying in the dark at bedtime—than it is during sleep.

Meditation is another way of giving the brain a break from work without fully surrendering consciousness. Research has shown that meditation can refresh our ability to concentrate, help us attend to tasks more efficiently, and strengthen connections between regions of the DMN.

Experienced meditators typically perform better than non-meditators on difficult attention tests, and may be able to toggle more easily between the DMN and those brain networks that we use when we’re actively on task.

There’s evidence as well that the brain benefits from going offline for even the briefest moments—as when we blink. Every time we blink, our DMN fires up and our conscious networks take respite for a moment, giving the conscious mind a bit of relief.

Some schools are taking note and introducing meditation into the classroom.Getting the buy-in needed to launch a meditation program takes work, but benefits can be substantial.

MUNDANE ACTIVITY

It’s not uncommon to experience a sudden flash of insight while engaged in mundane activities like doing a crossword puzzle or cleaning the house. There’s a famous anecdote about Archimedes, a prominent scientist in classical Greece, solving a problem in just this way.

Archimedes needed to determine whether the king’s new crown was made entirely of the gold supplied to the goldsmith, or whether inferior metals like silver had been mixed in—and he had to do it without damaging the crown. He puzzled over how to solve the problem, without luck. Then, as he stepped into a bathtub one day and saw the water level rise, he realized in an instant that he could use the water’s buoyancy to measure the density of the crown against a solid gold reference sample. He conducted the experiment and found that the crown was less dense than the gold sample, implicating the goldsmith in fraud.

Scientists who research “unconscious thought” have found that activities that distract the conscious mind without taxing the brain seem to give people greater insight into complex problems. In a study of students who were asked to determine which car would be the best purchase, for instance, the group that spent their decision-making time solving an unrelated puzzle made better choices than the group that deliberated over the information for four minutes.

Brief windows of time spent on routine, mundane activities in the classroom—like feeding the class pet, putting books back on a bookshelf, or rearranging desks—can give learners a much-needed break from the sustained concentration required for academic time on-task.

Standing Up for Downtime

With so much to do and so little learning time in a school year—fitting in downtime is easier said than done. But take heart. Even closing your eyes, taking one deep breath, and exhaling can help to refresh the brain and takes practically no time. Offering more downtime in moment-sized bites might be just the thing for keeping ourselves, our students and our children on schedule and giving our brains that little bit of freedom to turn off for just a minute.

Holiday breaks and vacations are a perfect time for all of us take a break. I’ll be finding some time to unplug, unwind, and turn off. Will you?

References:

2004 Sleep in America Poll. (2004). Retrieved December 8, 2013, from  http://www.sleepfoundation.org/

Braun, D. (2009, August 6). Why do we Sleep? Scientists are Still Trying to Find Out. Nationalgeographic.com. Retrieved December 2, 2013, from http://newswatch.nationalgeographic.com/2009/08/26/why_we_sleep_is_a_mystery/

Insufficient Sleep Is a Public Health Epidemic. (2013).  Retrieved December 8, 2013 from http:www.cdc.gov/features/dssleep

Jabr, F. (2013, October 15). Why Your Brain Needs More Downtime. Scientificamerican.com.Retrieved November 30, 2013, from http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=mental-downtime

Sabourin, J. Rowe, J.P, Mott, B.,W. & Lester, J.C. (2011). When Off-Task is On-Task: The Affective Role of Off-Task Behavior in Narrative-Centered Learning Environments. Artificial Intelligence in Education, 6738, 534-536. doi: 10.1007/978-3-642-21869-9_93

Welsh, J. (2013, October 17). Scientists Have Finally Found The First Real Reason We Need To Sleep. Businessinsider.com. Retrieved December 2, 2013, from http://www.businessinsider.com/the-first-real-reason-we-need-to-sleep-2013-10

Related reading:

Sleep: An Essential Ingredient for Memory Function

Stress and The Human Brain

 

 

How I Became an Early Reader

Tuesday, November 12, 2013 (All day)
  • Timothy Rasinski, Ph.D

early reader

Do you recall how you learned to read? Were you an early reader, someone who learned to read before starting school? I was an early reader and so were my brother and sister. Yet, we didn’t learn to read in the way that most early readers learn.

According to Dolores Durkin’s landmark study of early readers, most children who start school knowing how to read were read to on a regular basis by their parents. My family was lower middle-class and I cannot recall my parents reading to or with me in the traditional sense—sitting next to me with a children’s storybook. Indeed, after reading Durkin’s study, I had to ask my mother how I learned to read.

When I chatted with my mother about this, she reminded me that my father was a musician who played in his band on weekends at local clubs. Although his day job was as a factory worker, he would regularly come home from work, take his shower, and come into the living room with his saxophone or clarinet in hand. For a half hour to an hour several days a week he would rehearse for his upcoming gig (big band songs popular from the 1940s and 50s) while my mother, brother, sister, and I would often sit with him and sing along with the songs that we had heard him play and heard on the radio throughout our childhoods. We also had songbooks in front of us so we could follow along with the words after my mother’s lead. The rhythmic and melodic nature of these old songs made them easy to learn and remember. As we sang them week after week, we apparently began to match the words that we were singing with the printed words in the songbooks. I never thought of this as reading, but in retrospect it clearly was one of my initiations into reading the printed word.

I also remember my mother regularly reading poetry to me after I had said my nighttime prayers and before I went to sleep. Mom often had a favorite child’s poem or prayer that she would read once or twice while I would listen. After a minute or two to chat about the poem I was off to sleep.  Over the course of the next several days she would bring in the same poem and invite me to join in the recitation, eventually reaching the point where I could often recite the entire text on my own. Later, she would show me the poem in the printed form and I found I could read it to her. Although my “reading” was mostly a matter of memorization of the poem, the fact that I was matching the words I recited to the words on the page was an early form of reading. Interestingly, when my mom took me in for first grade screening (we didn’t have kindergarten in my school), I read for the teacher and found myself spending time in the second grade classroom for reading instruction.    

Now years later as I reflect on how I learned to read, I realize that many of the things my parents had done to introduce me into reading were much the same methods that have been advocated for building phonemic awareness, phonics, and fluency—the Common Core foundations for reading. My parents exposed me to short, highly rhythmic and melodic texts that were enjoyable, easy to learn, and played with the sounds of language. Before I recited the songs and poems on my own, my parents modeled the texts by reading or singing them to me. Later we engaged in a form of assisted reading by reading them together as a family or with one of my parents. And then, once I had learned the songs and poems, I found myself reciting them over and over again—I had a hard time getting them out of my head. Although my parents may not have known the term “repeated reading,” that was exactly what they were providing for my siblings and me. 

Sometimes the best models for good reading instruction can be found in our own personal histories. I think I found my models and inspiration for my work in reading fluency from my own parents.  Thanks Mom and Dad!

Further reading:

Reutzel, D.R. & Cooter, R.B. (2004). The Essentials of Teaching Children to Read . Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

References:

1Durkin, D. (1978 - 1979). What classroom observations reveal about reading comprehension instruction. Reading Research Quarterly, 14, pp. 481-533.

Related reading:

Inspiring Fluency: One School’s Journey to Improve Reading Skills

Why We Can’t Neglect Reading Fluency – A Personal Journey

 

 

The Neglected (But Necessary) Goal of Your Reading Program

Tuesday, October 22, 2013 (All day)
  • Norene Wiesen

goal of your reading program If you’ve been following Dr. Timothy Rasinski’s webinars and posts on this blog, then you know how passionate he is about reading fluency. In September, more than 2000 educators signed up to hear Dr. Rasinski speak about the importance of fluency instruction.

What fluency is really about, Rasinski explained, is automaticity in word recognition and reading with appropriate expression. There are many kids at the middle school level and higher—and even adults—Rasinski said, who come across as robotic readers and could benefit from greater fluency.

Dr. Rasinski entertained many questions along the way in his most recent webinar, such as:

  • What are the building blocks of fluency?
  • How much time should be spent on fluency instruction?
  • How does word recognition instruction affect fluency?
  • How effective is reader’s theater as a fluency activity?
  • When should students be reading above their instructional level?

A recording of the complete webinar, including audience questions and answers, is now available. Anyone who works with beginning or struggling readers, or who wishes to improve their own reading fluency, can benefit from Rasinski’s insights.

In just a few short weeks, Dr. Rasinski will return to give a follow-up presentation continuing the fluency conversation. The next presentation will focus on methods for effective reading practice. Check our  webinar registration page for details, or follow us on  Twitter or  Facebook for webinar announcements

Related reading:

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

Reading and Riding: How Learning to Read is Like Learning to Ride a Bike

 

 

Building Better Writers (Without Picking Up a Pen)

Tuesday, October 15, 2013 (All day)
  • Beth Rogowsky, Ed.D

better writer

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

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

The Cognitive Building Blocks of Writing

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

Memory

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

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

Attention

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

Sequencing and Processing Speed

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

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

What the Research Says

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

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

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

What it Means for Writing Instruction

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

References:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Related reading:

Reading to Write: Fast ForWord Writing Improvement Among College Students

What Makes a Good Reader? The Foundations of Reading Proficiency

 

As Classrooms Become More Diverse, How Do We Help All Students Grow?

Tuesday, August 27, 2013 (All day)
  • Martha Burns, Ph.D

diverse student populations With the start of a new school year this month, principals and teachers are facing novel and increased challenges. Educators are well aware that the U.S. classroom is becoming more diverse and that this diversity compounds the added pressure teachers and administrators feel to meet Common Core standardsand local community standards for educational performance. 

The increased diversity in the U.S. classroom can be attributed to several factors:

  • The recent census indicates that over 20% of our students speak a primary language other than English. In many areas of the country the numbers are much higher than that.
  • The rates of students diagnosed with attentional problems (ADD and ADHD) have increased by 40% in the past decade. The extent to which that increase reflects a true change in prevalence is open to debate. But, for the classroom teacher the challenges these students pose complicate classroom organization and format of content presentation.
  • Despite initiatives like Response to Interventionand the Common Core, reading proficiency remains a problem for many schools districts. Nationwide, 33% of fourth graders still do not read proficiently.
  • Most school districts are opting for “push-in” as an alternative to “pull out” for students with special needs. This mainstream inclusion poses specific challenges to classroom teachers who are not specifically trained to work with special populations like children with language-learning disabilities.
  • The number of students in homes below the poverty line is increasing and, with it, continued learning challengesthat are not easily met by changes or adaptations in curriculum.

All of these factors are contributing to an educational environment where teachers and administrators feel increased pressure to meet state guidelines and community expectations yet they are at a loss for approaches that actually increase classroom achievement for these groups. However, there are some commonalities among these diverse groups that make them more amenable to some specific types of interventions than others.

English language learners, struggling readers, special education students, and students from homes below the poverty line share specific kinds of cognitive limitations that have been shown to affect school achievement. A major limitation shared by all of those diverse groups is the reduction in oral language skills. Research published by Hart and Risley in 1995 showed that children living in homes below the poverty line were exposed on average to 32 million fewer words by the time they entered school than children from homes where the parents were professionals. And research published by Hirsch in 1996 indicated that when students enter schools with low oral language the relative difference in oral language skills actually worsens as they course through elementary and middle school. Academic interventions that improve oral language skills are one key to closing the achievement gap.

Some other diverse groups, like those students diagnosed with ADHD or special needs, show problems with attention and working memory skills. As classroom teachers are aware, attention and memory problems are difficult to “teach around” and pose a challenge for classroom management as well. Teachers may feel they spend 95% of their time trying to accommodate the 5% of learners who struggle to attend or cannot easily retain information presented in class. Interventions that focus specifically on enhancing attention and memory skills have been proven to result in increased academic achievement.

It is logical that increased diversity in our nation’s classrooms necessitates a new look at educational interventions that are designed to target the underlying deficits rather than concentrating on curriculum alone. Children with poor oral language skills or reduced attentional or memory capacities are not likely to benefit from even the best instruction until those deficits are addressed. Fortunately, there are powerful, breakthrough interventions like the Fast ForWordand Reading Assistantprograms that focus on those specific capacities and they have proven results with this new diverse group of students we are charged with educating.

References:

Communication Champion. (2011). Oral language and poverty. Gross, J. Retrieved from http://www.thecommunicationtrust.org.uk/commissioners/reports.aspx

Hart, B., & Risley, T.R. (1995). Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.

Hirsch (1996) The Effects of Weaknesses in Oral Language on Reading Comprehension Growth cited in Torgesen, J. (2004). Current issues in assessment and intervention for younger and older students.Paper presented at the NASP Workshop.

Morris, R.D., Stuebing, K.K., Fletcher, J.M., Shaywitz, S.E., Lyon, G.R., Shankweiler, D.P., Katz, L., Francis, D.J., Shaywitz, B.A. (1998). Subtypes of reading disability: variability around a phonological core. Journal of Educational Psychology, 90(3), 347-373.

Related reading:

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

Response to Intervention & Special Ed Stats: Progress Report

 

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. Burns Dr. 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!

 

Language-Based Learning Disabilities and Auditory Processing Disorders

Tuesday, June 18, 2013 (All day)
  • Martha Burns, Ph.D

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

 

 

Underachieving Students: Why They Struggle and How Educators Can Help

Tuesday, June 11, 2013 (All day)
  • Norene Wiesen

student underachievement How 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 childby 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 learncan 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 webinarand discover the critical importance of classroom teachers and technologyin preparing all of our students—and especially our most vulnerable students—for life after K-12.

 

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