Path Out of Poverty? Education Plus Neuroscience

Tuesday, July 14, 2015 - 08:00
  • Martha Burns, Ph.D

Key PointsNeurological implications of poverty on kids

  • Children raised in poverty are exposed to millions of fewer spoken words at home
  • Income level negatively impacts cognitive functions
  • There are links between family income and memory and attention
  • Poverty is associated with chronic stress which can have a toxic effect on brain architecture
  • Computer games designed to target the skills that are impacted can turn around some effects of poverty

How family income impacts children neurologically

Poverty impairs the brain’s ability to develop and learn. Perhaps as toxic as drugs and alcohol to a young child’s brain, poverty not only affects the development of cognitive skills in young children, but it also changes the way the brain tissue itself matures during the critical brain “set up” period during early childhood.  We have known for decades, since Hart and Risley’s seminal research published in 1995, that children who come from homes of poverty are exposed to millions of fewer spoken words in the home environment by the time they enter school than children who are raised in homes where the parents are professionals. Neuroscientists have recognized that human brain maturation is experience-dependent and one of the most important times for experience to mold the brain is from early childhood through the elementary school years.  It goes without saying that the less language a child is exposed to the fewer opportunities the brain has to develop language skills. But language function in the brain is not the only casualty of poverty; there are many other cognitive skills that are affected by low socioeconomic status.

Kimberly Noble, an Associate Professor of Neuroscience and Education at Columbia University Teacher’s College, has been studying the effects of poverty on many aspects of cognitive development and brain structure for over a decade. As early as 2005, with M. Frank Norman and Martha Farah, she published research on the relationship between socioeconomic status and specific cognitive functions. Her findings show that children who come from homes of poverty have limitations in a range of cognitive skills, including the following:

  • Long and short term (working) memory
  • Visual and spatial skills
  • Executive functions like self-control
  • Ability to learn from reward

What is the link between brain development and household income?

More recently, Dr. Noble and Elizabeth Sowell, Professor of Pediatrics at The Saban Research Institute at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, have found compelling links between family income and brain structure as well, especially affecting those areas of the brain important for memory and attention, regions essential for academic success. In a recent article in the journal Nature Neuroscience they reported that increases in both parental education and family income were associated with increases in the surface area of numerous brain regions, including those implicated in language and executive functions. Family income, however, appeared to have a stronger positive relationship with brain surface area than parental education.

What causes the correlation between poverty and brain development?

The reasons for the effect of poverty on brain development are complex. Elizabeth Sowell has asserted that family income is linked to factors such as nutrition, health care, schools, play areas and, sometimes, air quality, all of which can affect brain development. Others, like Jack Shonkoff and Pat Levitt of the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child at Harvard, have emphasized the role of stress in brain development.   Stress is associated with the release of the hormone cortisol which, in the short term, activates the body to respond to problematic situations.  With chronic stress, however, the authors review research which indicates the sustained cortisol can have a toxic effect on brain architecture.  

How can educators help reverse these effects?

As educators, the new research begs the question, “Are children raised in poverty doomed to educational struggle, no matter how well we teach?”  The answer, fortunately, is that neuroscience has not only clarified the problems caused by poverty but provides solutions as well.  In a recently published report titled “Using Brain Science to Design Pathways Out of Poverty”, Dr. Beth Babcock, CEO of Crittenden Women’s Union, argues that because those areas of the brain affected by the adverse experiences of poverty and trauma remain plastic well into adulthood, neuroscience research offers promise for coaching and other methodologies that can strengthen and improve brain development and function.  In her report, Dr. Babcock advocates, in part, for the use of "computer games” designed to, “improve memory, focus and attention, impulse control, organization, problem solving, and multi-tasking skills [that] are now widely available and beginning to create positive outcomes” (page 13).

The Fast ForWord programs, designed by neuroscientists at UCSF and Rutgers and tested for over a decade in many school districts with high poverty rates around the nation, have been repeatedly shown to increase academic performance in school districts with high levels of poverty. Read about the inspiring results at Highland View Elementary School, Hattie Watts Elementary School, and J.S. Aucoin Elementary School.

The beginning levels of the Fast ForWord programs (Fast ForWord Language  and Fast ForWord Literacy) target attention, memory, processing and sequencing skills – core cognitive skills essential for learning.  The later level programs (Fast ForWord Reading Levels 1-5) add specific technological instruction in reading comprehension, spelling, phonological awareness,  and decoding while also building in components to continue to build attention and memory skills.  

Research-proven: increased reading skills & neurological changes

Neuroscience imaging research  conducted at Stanford and replicated at Harvard with students who exhibited reading disabilities and used the Fast ForWord programs for six weeks indicated not only significant improvements in reading skills on standardized testing, but also neurological changes in areas of the brain critical to reading success.

The Reading Assistant programs, designed to improve oral reading fluency, incorporate speech recognition software to provide students with a one-on-one patient reading tutor/coach. Especially effective for students of poverty who may have little opportunity to read independently to an adult at home, Reading Assistant first provides a fluent oral reading model of every grade appropriate passage to be read, then, while the student reads aloud into the computer, the program corrects the student’s oral reading errors as they occur in real time. 

Summary: education is the key!

Poverty is toxic to the developing human brain and thereby endangers academic success. Education offers the key to a path out of poverty.  However, increasing class sizes and limitations on teachers’ time to individualize instruction, especially in school districts with high poverty rates, limit the ability of teachers to be as effective as they might if they could work with students individually. Furthermore, even the best curriculum does not include courses to improve attention, memory or other underlying cognitive functions compromised by lives of poverty. Neuroscience now offers not only an explanation of the problem but low cost solutions that can change the brains of all students to enable learning so that teachers can then do what they do best: teach!

References: 

Babcock, E. (2014) Using Brain Science to Design Pathways Out of Poverty. Crittenton Women’s Union Report

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

Noble, K., Norman, M.F., Farrah, M (2005) Neurocognitive correlates of socioeconomic status in kindergarten children. Developmental Science 8:1, pages 74-77.

Noble, K. et al. (2015) Family income, parental education and brain structure in children and adolescents. Nature Neuroscience. Published online 30 March

Shonkoff, F., Levitt, P., Bunge,s. et. al. (2014) Excessive Stress Disrupts the Architecture of the Developing Brain. National Scientific Council On The Developing Child, January.

 

Carter’s Story: Diagnosing and Treating Dyslexia

Tuesday, June 16, 2015 - 08:00
  • Hallie Smith, MA CCC-SLP

“I knew there were leaves on trees, but had never really seen them.”

Joanne Gouaux remembers when she was 8 years old, sitting in an ophthalmologist’s office, waiting to put on her first pair of glasses. As soon as she put them on, she looked out the window. She saw leaves clearly for the very first time.

“I feel like that’s what’s happening with Carter and words. It’s like he knew words were for reading, but couldn’t quite make sense of them himself.” She went on to say “I knew leaves existed, but had never truly seen them.” Joanne is the mother of Carter, who was just recently diagnosed with dyslexia.

Carter loves Legos, spy trap inventions, and 9-year-old humor. He’s always been a good problem solver, talkative, social and curious. But he was not learning how to read.

Now, after Fast ForWord, things have changed. He’s reading signs outside and making jokes about them.                                                                                          

“Mom, if you take the ‘gr’ off of that sign 'Keep off the Grass'…and he bursts into laughter.”

___________________________________________________________________

Early clues

When Carter started school, he attended an academically rigorous private school. By the spring of kindergarten, the teachers noted that he was experiencing a few problem areas:

  1. Connecting sounds and symbols
  2. Remembering things he had just written
  3. Struggling to read and write.

His teachers suggested that Carter be withdrawn from private school and seek services in public school. The resource specialist also recommended that Carter receive specialized vision testing to rule out perceptual difficulties. Vision problems were ruled out by a neuro-ophthalmologist, and a developmental pediatrician was also able to rule out traumatic brain injury. The pediatrician did suggest the possibility of a ‘budding learning disability’.  Joanne explained, “She assured us that public school would have the best resources to support Carter.”


Searching for the right school

Carter-dyslexia

Joanne enrolled Carter in a public school known for its high test scores. It was poor fit from the start. “His teacher refused to recognize his struggles as legitimate,” Joanne recalls. “She called him lazy in front of me, and took away recess time for not finishing his writing assignments quickly.” Carter went from loving school to feeling sad and anxious each morning. After just three months, Joanne transferred him to a school “more in line with his learning style” - an independent school with a kinesthetic learning curriculum.

Carter made friends quickly at his new school, and his teachers appreciated his curiosity. But in the spring, Joanne was called into a meeting with Carter’s teacher, the resource specialist, and the head of the school to discuss Carter’s results on the Woodcock Johnson tests, which measure cognitive performance. “The scores clearly showed how little he was retaining from the classroom,” she says. At the time, Joanne was told it was just a stage and Carter would come through it with continued team effort.


Almost held back

But two weeks before the end of the year, she was called back for a team meeting with the recommendation that Carter be held back. Joanne was exasperated with the late notice.

“I did not believe that Carter needed another year of first grade,” she says. “He had a rich Kindergarten experience, and lots of reading support at home. I knew there had to be something else underneath that was preventing him from emerging as a reader and writer. Faced with possibility of being held back a year, Carter was heartbroken and discouraged.”


Finding the right intervention

Joanne decided to look for help elsewhere. Her mom, who is dyslexic, suggested that she contact the fraternal organizations, such as the Shriners. Joanne found the Scottish Rite Childhood Learning Clinic in Oakland, CA, and met with the director, Pamela Norton. Norton told Joanne about Fast ForWord, which, she said, could bring his grade level performance up one to two years. “I cried,” Joanne says. “I finally found someone who not only believed in Carter, but was also willing and capable of helping.”

In June of 2013, Carter began using the Fast ForWord Language program, with weekly support from the Scottish Rite Childhood Learning Clinic. By August, Joanne says “he was within norms for second grade. Fast ForWord allowed him to enter second grade, rather than being held back and repeating first grade.”


At last…The right diagnosis!

Beginning that summer, when Carter was starting to catch up with his peers, Joanne pursued further testing at her own expense. After WISC testing and a battery of Woodcock Johnson assessments by a Developmental Pediatrician, Carter was finally diagnosed with dyslexia in September, 2013.


Carter’s progress

Currently, Carter has daily support through the school "learning center" (1/2 hour per day). He has an IEP which became effective last fall, 2014. Carter continues to struggle with writing and motor planning -- but his skills are emerging and accommodations like voice-to-text typing allow him to be a more independent learner.
 

At Carter's last parent teacher conference his teacher and resource specialist noted mental focus and a desire to learn as major strengths. Carter is an avid audio book listener, which allows him to access some much needed academic stimulation, and supports the continued growth of his language skills. 

Now that that he is in 4th grade, Carter is reading Level 2 readers and decoding words. His confidence has soared. “He no longer dreads opening a book,” his mother says, and “he's proud of himself when he writes. He still experiences bouts of frustration and discouragement like any student, only now he feels confident that he can break things down into smaller steps to accomplish his assignments and goals.”

 

Parent Checklist: Is My Child At-Risk for Learning Issues?

Tuesday, June 2, 2015 - 08:00
  • Kristina Collins


parent checklistWe developed the following parent checklist to learn what concerns parents see in their children and to help them decide if their child is in need of help. Choose one answer for each question and indicate how often the behavior is exhibited in your child’s daily life with the following options: Never, Rarely, Sometimes, Often, or Always.

  • Misunderstands what you say
  • Needs instructions repeated
  • Misunderstands jokes
  • Has difficulty understanding long sentences
  • Needs questions repeated
  • Has difficulty retelling a story in the right order
  • Cannot finish long sentences
  • Has trouble saying the same thing in a different way (rephrasing)
  • Has trouble finding the right word
  • Pronounces common words incorrectly
  • Gets confused in noisy places
  • Has difficulty engaging in conversation with others
  • Has behavior problems
  • Lacks self-confidence
  • Avoids group activities
  • Has trouble paying attention
  • Has trouble sounding out words
  • Has trouble reading
  • Has trouble spelling
  • Cannot tell you about the events of his/her school day

If you answered Sometimes, Often or Always to several of these, your child may be at-risk for a language-based learning disability and will likely require intervention to prevent these issues from affecting him/her academically in the future.   Why are we posting this now? Because summer is one of the best times to tackle these issues.

We hear from countless parents like you who are looking for help for their bright child who struggles with reading, writing, attention, or other issues. You’re in the right place. We can help you help your child this summer.  

Related Reading:

Preventing Summer Brain Drain with Dr. Martha S. Burns

What’s on Your Kids’ Summer Reading List?

 

Alternatives to Medication in the Treatment of ADD

Tuesday, March 24, 2015 - 08:00
  • Martha Burns, Ph.D


In this op-ed in the New York Times, Richard A. Friedman, Professor of Clinical Psychiatry and Director of the Psychopharmacology Clinic at the Weill Cornell Medical College, discusses the urgent need to address the needs of students with attention problems.  Given the dramatic recent increase in the prevalence of ADHD diagnoses in school-aged children [according to the Centers for Disease Control, the lifetime prevalence in children has increased to 11 percent in 2011 from 7.8 percent in 2003 — a whopping 41 percent increase], Dr. Friedman argues for a need to find more natural (non-medical) ways to help these students. In his op-ed he states, “In school, these curious, experience-seeking kids would most likely do better in small classes that emphasize hands-on-learning, self-paced technology-based assignments, and tasks that build specific skills.”

Whereas many parents and educators consider medication as a first approach to management of disorders of attention, the recent dramatic increase in the incidence and the call for consideration of non-medical interventions for school-aged children is important for parents and teachers to consider when managing learning issues within the classroom. One important type of attention disorder that has been treated successfully without medication is auditory attention disorders associated with some types of learning disabilities. Research conducted by Courtney Stevens and her colleagues at the Brain Development Lab at the University of Oregon has shown that children with specific language learning disorders have problems with auditory attention. Parents and educators rarely use the term “auditory attention”; however, the Stevens et al. research is increasingly supportive of its important role in learning.

We all recognize students who have problems with auditory attention: those who cannot stay focused on listening long enough to complete a task or requirement (such as listening to a class discussion in school). In fact, when educators use the term “listening skills,” they are referring to auditory attention.  It is virtually impossible to imagine a classroom where paying attention to the teacher for sustained periods of time is not critical to academic success.  According to the International Listening Association (www.listen.org), 45 percent of a student’s day is spent listening, and students are expected to acquire 85 percent of their knowledge through listening. Auditory attention skills mature over time, and like many other skills important for learning (memory, thinking skills), students vary in their ability. Children with ADHD have a known diagnosis of significant auditory (and visual) attention problems. However, according to the Stevens et al. research, even across typical learners there is a variation of ability ranging from those with average auditory attention skills to those with excellent auditory attention skills. And like with other cognitive skills, independent controlled research indicates that Fast ForWord training can significantly improve auditory attention and/or reading skills in a variety of students:  typical students and those with specific language impairment.

For those interested in the specifics of the Stevens et al. study, she and her colleagues examined whether six weeks of Fast ForWord Language training would influence neural mechanisms of selective auditory attention previously shown to be deficient in children with specific language impairment (SLI). Twenty 6-8 year old students received Fast ForWord Language training, including 8 students diagnosed with SLI and 12 students with typically developing language skills. An additional 13 students with typically developing language received no specialized training but were tested and retested after a comparable time period as a control group.  Before and after training, students received a standardized language assessment as well as a highly objective electrophysiological neural measure of attention using Event-Related Potentials (ERP).

Compared to the control group, students receiving Fast ForWord Language training showed increases in standardized measures of receptive language as well as an improved effect of attention on neural processing. No significant change was noted in the control group. The enhanced effect of attention on neural processing represented a large effect size (Cohen’s d = 0.8, indicating that the average child in the experimental group is comparable to the child at the 79th percentile of the comparison group). These findings indicate that the neural mechanisms of selective auditory attention, previously shown to be deficient in children with SLI, can be remediated through training and can accompany improvements on standardized measurements of language development.

Other controlled research, presented by Deutsch et al. at a CHADD conference several years ago, also showed improvement in attention among those students with a diagnosis of ADHD or ADD plus language impairment. In fact, if one considers Dr. Friedman’s finding that children with attention disorders benefit from “self-paced technology-based assignments and tasks that build specific skills,” there are no better designed self-paced e-learning programs than the Fast ForWord and Reading Assistant solutions. The Fast ForWord Reading products and Reading Assistant tasks are self-paced online tasks that require sustained auditory attention.  The tasks in Reading Assistant especially require activities that include listening to modeled reading, reading aloud while receiving corrective feedback through listening, listening to your own reading, and then answering questions about what was read.  Answering “think about it” comprehension questions further exercises both auditory memory and executive function skills.

In conclusion, the effort to find more natural, non-medical ways to help students with attentional disorders is at hand.  Self-paced technology programs like the neuroscience-based Fast ForWord series provide one proven alternative for improving attentional skills in students with language-based learning issues as well as those diagnosed with ADD and ADHD. 

Further Reading:

Stevens, C., Fanning, J., Coch, D., Sanders, L., & H Neville (2008). Neural mechanisms of selective auditory attention are enhanced by computerized training: Electrophysiological evidence from language-impaired and typically developing children. Brain Research, 1205, 55-69.

Students Show Improved Auditory Attention and Early Reading Skills After Fast ForWord Intervention

Related Reading:

Improved Auditory Processing With Targeted Intervention

Why Auditory Processing Disorders (APD) are Hard to Spot

 

The Case Against Timed Readings

Tuesday, March 3, 2015 - 08:00
  • Timothy Rasinski, Ph.D


Join Dr. Rasinski on March 11th for a free professional development session, The Role of Automaticity in Reading

As many of you know, I have spent a good deal of my career focusing on reading fluency. Along with other literacy scholars, I have found fluency to be a critical competency for proficient reading – one that many struggling readers, from first through twelfth grades, have not sufficiently mastered.

Yet, despite a growing body of evidence about the importance of fluency in reading, fluency has been dismissed by some scholars and even a number of teachers. I feel that this diminishment of fluency is due to a fundamental misunderstanding of one aspect of fluency – automaticity in word recognition.

The “Automatic” Response
Automaticity refers to the ability to do something with minimal cognitive effort. Think of all the things we do in life that are rather automatic: from swimming, to driving a car, to typing on a keyboard. When we began learning these activities, we had to employ a fair amount of our cognitive resources -- thinking about the leg and arm movements involved in a swim stroke, whether we turned the ignition switch in the car before or after shifting into gear, or even having to examine the specific keys on the keyboard in order to hit the correct one. 

Besides the cognitive energy used, did you also notice you were rather slow at doing the activity at first? This was because employing your cognitive resources requires time and effort. The more time it takes to think through and complete a task, the slower you do it.  

However, have you noticed that if you keep practicing the activity you become faster at it?  This is because you are developing automaticity in the task. 

As you practice the task repeatedly you have to use less and less of your cognitive resources; you don’t have to think through the task.  

With greater automaticity comes greater speed in the accomplishment of the task.

Ties to Fluency
The notion of automaticity is critical to reading fluency. When first beginning to read, youngsters have to use a great deal of their cognitive resources for word decoding; they have not yet developed automaticity in word recognition.

Lack of automaticity has two consequences:

  • First, young readers are generally slower in their reading than more advanced readers. 
  • Second, these students are likely to be less proficient in their comprehension as more advanced readers.

You see, comprehension requires the use of a reader’s cognitive resources (Dick Allington calls it thoughtful reading). If readers have to use too much of their cognitive resources for decoding, they have less available for comprehension. And so, comprehension also suffers.

Faster Reading, Improved Fluency?
Automaticity in word recognition leads to two results: faster reading and improved comprehension.

Since reading speed is an observable consequence of automaticity – and it can be easily and quickly measured – it is used as a method for assessing word recognition automaticity (e.g., DIBELS oral reading fluency).  In my own dissertation study over 30 years ago, I found that automaticity, as measured by reading speed, was strongly associated with reading comprehension and other general measures of reading proficiency in elementary grade students. 

The problem in fluency has been a confusion of automaticity and speed. Increased reading speed and improved reading comprehension are the outcomes of increased word recognition automaticity, but in many iterations of fluency instruction, speed has been viewed as the cause of automaticity (and comprehension).    

We have learned that regular practice in nearly any activity improves automaticity. In reading we have come to learn that practice can take two forms: wide  reading (reading a text once and then moving on to a new text) and what has been called repeated reading, where a student reads a text several times until they achieve a certain level of automaticity, as measured by reading speed.  

Because reading speed is the way that progress is measured in repeated readings, this form of fluency instruction has evolved into timed re-readings for the purpose of increasing reading speed.  Students attempt to make every new reading of an instructional passage faster than the previous one.  

What happens in such instructional scenarios is that students do indeed increase their reading speed; however, word recognition automaticity and comprehension are likely not to improve.

When students read for speed they do not have to pay attention to the meaning of the words or the passage; rather they try to read from the beginning of the passage to the end as quickly as possible.

Working directly to improve students’ reading speed does not necessarily result in improved comprehension or automaticity.

The Case Against “Timed Readings”
I think this reading-speed-oriented approach to fluency instruction confuses the reading process. Yet, it has become a ubiquitous practice in schools throughout the United States. Even our major professional reading organization, the International Literacy Association, has promoted “timed readings” as a way to improve fluency.  Indeed, I have had elementary students in our university reading clinic who, when prompted to read a passage have asked, “Do you want me to read this as fast as I can?”    

I know of no compelling research that has shown that instruction to improve reading speed actually leads to profound and lasting improvements in reading comprehension or overall reading proficiency.

Reading speed is a decent measure of word recognition automaticity, and can be used as a proxy for general reading achievement. However, we should be aiming to increase reading speed in the way that you who are reading this blog and other fluent readers have increased their reading speed – through plenty of authentic and meaningful reading experiences.

I cannot recall a time in my elementary school career where I was asked by a teacher to read as fast as possible. And yet, through my own authentic wide and repeated reading experiences, I have improved my word recognition automaticity, my reading speed, and my reading comprehension. 

A More Authentic Reading Experience
And so, if we keep our aim on improving word recognition automaticity through authentic reading practice for the purpose of improving comprehension, reading speed will follow without any direct instruction or prompting. 

The key is to come up with authentic reading experiences for students.

Wide reading is fairly simple – get students to engage in reading material they find interesting.

Repeated reading can be a bit more of a challenge. However, if we think of life outside of the classroom we can come up with plenty of ways in which adults engage in repeated reading (or rehearsal).

If you know you will have to perform a reading for an audience, then you have a natural and authentic reason to engage in repeated readings – you want to make your reading for the audience meaningful.   

Research by me and my colleagues has found that when students regularly engage in this more authentic form of repeated reading – through  the performance of readers theater scripts, poetry, songs, speeches, and the like – word  recognition automaticity improves, reading speed increases, comprehension improves, and students’ enjoyment of reading is enhanced.

The take-away is this: word recognition automaticity, as measured by reading speed, is critical for reading success. However, it is appropriately taught and promoted through authentic and meaningful wide and repeated reading experiences, NOT through reading experiences that aim primarily to increase reading speed.

Related reading:

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

Five Fluency and Comprehension Strategies That Every Reader Can Use

 

How Learning A New Language Actually Rewires the Brain

Tuesday, February 17, 2015 - 08:00
  • Hallie Smith, MA CCC-SLP
English language learners know that mastering a new language is mentally taxing. Until recently, however, less was known about what actually happens inside the brains of those learning a second language. New research findings reveal that the brain undergoes a powerful reorganization in bilingual individuals.
 
Impact of Phonological Competition on Thinking Abilities
In a recent report from the journal Brain and Language, researchers from Northwestern University and the University of Houston studied brain activity of monolingual and bilingual participants. In particular, the researchers were studying a phenomenon known as phonological competition. This is the process through which we determine what word is being spoken, meaning that effective resolution of phonological competition is critical to language comprehension.
 
Our brains engage in phonological competition thousands of times each day. When listening to spoken English, auditory cues from the beginning of a word -- for example, “p-r-o” -- lead to activation of several possible target words (“process,” “project,” “progress,” etc.). Each of these possible targets competes for selection. As more auditory information is received, the competition becomes lower as the correct word is selected.
 
On a neural level, previous research suggests that each of the possible target words are activated in the brain at the same time. The brain must suppress the incorrect items to allow the correct word to be selected. Although both monolingual and multilingual individuals do this, people who know more than one language have more potential words to suppress. For example, someone bilingual in Spanish and English has significantly more words beginning with “p-r-o” to compete for selection (“progreso,” “pronombre,” etc.). Thus, bilingual children become great at suppressing incorrect information when presented with several competing choices. This translates into stronger cognitive control in math, logical reasoning, and other areas of functioning.
 
Novel Research Findings About Brain Structure in English Language Learners
The brain is plastic, meaning that it changes its structure and function in response to learning. Learning a new language is associated with increased brain volumes in the left parietal lobe, which is the brain’s language center. Additionally, in line with the improved cognitive control observed in bilingual people, areas of the brain that control attention and the ability to ignore distracting information also grow in size.
 
In conjunction with studies looking at the size of certain brain regions, researchers use functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to identify brain activity during a task. Functional MRI is a method of measuring the amount of blood flow to a brain region while a person performs a particular task. More blood flow is thought to reflect greater activation in that region compared to the rest of the brain. This allows researchers to identify which brain areas control certain abilities.
 
In fMRI studies, bilingualism is associated with increased activation of a network of regions throughout the brain, including the frontal, temporal, and parietal lobes. This includes the brain’s language centers, which grow larger in response to learning a new language. The network also includes regions thought to help with executive control, which allows the brain to reduce interference between the two languages being activated at a given time.
 
Interestingly, bilinguals show lower activation than monolinguals in the anterior cingulate cortex and left superior frontal gyrus, regions associated with executive control. This lower activation reflects improved efficiency in bilinguals; their stronger executive control abilities means that they do not need to exert as much cognitive effort to complete a task. Thus, they are better at choosing which language to use and which to ignore during a specific task.
 
Similarly, a study examining neural activity in native English speakers who learned Chinese for six weeks scanned the brains of participants before and after their language learning. The investigators focused on network-level differences in brain activity, which reflect the exchange of information throughout numerous brain areas. They found that successful learners had more integrated brain networks than non-learners, particularly in language-related regions. More integrated brain networks translate to faster, more efficient flow of information. This means that bilingual individuals may have structural and functional brain differences that make it easier for them to process new information. 
 
What This Means for Instructors of English Language Learners
  • English language learners aren’t necessarily slower than their monolingual counterparts (and may actually be faster!). In the study published in Brain and Language, there was no difference in reaction time between monolinguals and bilinguals. Although educators sometimes perceive that English language learners take longer to master certain tasks, this may not be the case. Bilingualism may actually make the brain more efficient at complex tasks, particularly those that involve ignoring irrelevant information.
  • Increased executive control may translate to other domains of life. Numerous studies have shown that bilingual people have stronger executive control compared to monolinguals. In fact, they show larger brain volumes and more integrated brain networks in areas associated with executive abilities. This may translate to other classroom areas. For example, when presented with a math word problem that contains pieces of irrelevant information, a bilingual child may be better at ignoring distractors and finding the correct answer. English language learners may also tune out classroom distractions more effectively than their monolingual counterparts. Studies have found robust effects in which bilingual individuals outperform monolinguals across verbal and nonverbal tasks.
  • Successful language use transforms the brain to a greater degree. When it comes to English language learning, the quality of education matters. An experienced educator is likely to achieve better results. Students’ successful learning results in significantly better efficiency of language networks in the brain. These efficient brain networks also improve functioning in other areas of life. This highlights the importance of investing in good educators and training programs for English language learners.
  • Learning a new language results in lifelong changes to the brain. This area of brain research is relatively young, but evidence suggests that the brain changes resulting from learning a new language may last a lifetime. Thus, fostering strong abilities among English language learners may translate into a lifetime of higher cognitive control. 

 

Further reading:

Learning a Second Language:  First-Rate Exercise for the Brain

Related reading:

Educating ELLs:  4 Trends for 2015

5 Things You May Not Know about ELLs

 

Unlocking Potential and Inspiring Outcomes – Register for Visionary Conference 2015 Today!

Tuesday, December 16, 2014 - 08:00
  • Carrie Gajowski

2015 Visionary Conference“The limits of my language means the limits of my world.” – Ludwig Wittgenstein

It’s that time again! Open your calendar and mark February 26-28 with the highlight event of the year – the 2015 Visionary Conference! This year’s conference theme is “Unlocking Potential and Inspiring Outcomes.” Are we talking about your clients’ potential and outcomes, or that of your business? Both! Attend the conference in person in Chandler, Arizona, or join in online as a virtual attendee. Either way, you won’t want to miss it.

Inspiring Minds Want You to Know

Scientific Learning co-founder Dr. Steve Miller returns to the Visionary Conference in 2015 after several years away, and attendees are in for a real treat. Dr. Miller’s keynote presentation, “A Neuroscience eLearning Revolution,” will look at e-learning and the brain through the lens of the latest neuroscience research. Come prepared to learn what neuroimaging and behavior research has to say about early neurolinguistic skills and future academic performance.

Dr. Paula Tallal, also a co-founder of Scientific Learning, will dive deep into the early years of language development with her keynote, “Early Precursors to Language Development: Implications for Literacy,” exploring the relationship between language and literacy.

Dr. Marty Burns will present the final keynote on the neuroscience of language differences and remediation from a Speech Language Pathologist perspective. Expect to hear all about the latest research and walk away invigorated and inspired to make a difference in the lives of your clients.

Learn It Today, Use It Tomorrow

Additional conference sessions will cover a wide range of topics, so whether you’re a newbie or a seasoned Fast ForWord veteran, there’s something new for you. Find out how to integrate Fast ForWord and Reading Assistant in your practice and maximize your results, get your product questions answered at our Ask-An Expert round table, and take a peek at what’s in store for Scientific Learning products in 2015!

ASHA CEUs will be available for a number of sessions, including Dr. Burns’ keynote.

Summer is Around the Corner

Attending the 2015 Visionary Conference is the perfect way to jump start your plans for the busy summer season. Build your confidence and competence or take your mastery to a higher level so you can inspire dramatic outcomes and unlock potential throughout the year!

Related reading:

Dyslexia – How Far We’ve Come!

5 Things Every Parent and Educator Should Know About Early Childhood Brain Development

 

 

The Role of Literacy in Deeper Learning

Tuesday, December 9, 2014 - 08:00
  • Norene Wiesen

Deeper LearningDeeper Learning is a relatively new term for a set of educational goals that have always been prized by the best educators. Also known as 21st Century Learning, Deeper Learning values content mastery, communication and collaboration, critical thinking and problem solving, the ability to self-direct, giving and receiving feedback in a constructive manner, and a healthy academic mindset.

Real-World Connections

For academic learning to matter in the real world, students need to be able to determine what knowledge and strategies they should apply in familiar and novel situations and to recognize why they have made those choices. They need to be able to reflect on the effectiveness of their chosen approach and revise their understanding of problem and solution where warranted.

Deeper Learning typically engages students with real-world situations in ways that traditional learning might not. This real-world engagement raises the stakes where literacy skills are concerned. Students with stronger literacy skills at all grade levels will be better able to self-direct, relying less on their teachers and more on the resources available to them.

Many of the literacy skills needed for Deeper Learning also align with the Common Core, including (but by no means limited to):

Lower Elementary

  • Asking and answering questions about a text (e.g., who, what, where, etc.)
  • Retelling a story and explaining what it means
  • Recognizing the differing points of view held by different characters
  • Discussing connections between different parts of a text (e.g., a series of events)
  • Writing opinion pieces, informational or explanatory texts, and narratives
  • Strengthening writing by revising and editing

Upper Elementary

  • Analyzing various accounts of an event or topic and identifying similarities and differences
  • Using information from a variety of print and/or digital sources to find answers quickly and efficiently
  • Integrating information from multiple texts on the same topic
  • Effectively using facts, sensory details, definitions, dialogue, description, transitional words, phrases, clauses, etc., in writing
  • Conducting research using a number of sources, recalling relevant information, and drawing on evidence to build and present knowledge
  • Writing regularly for extended time periods

Middle School

  • Citing evidence that strongly supports the analysis of a text
  • Analyzing the way a modern work of fiction draws on traditional stories, myths, etc., to create a story that readers perceive as new
  • Determining an author’s viewpoint and explaining how the author treats conflicting evidence or opinions
  • Assessing arguments for soundness and sufficient evidence
  • Building an argument, supporting it with solid reasons and pertinent evidence, and writing a well-reasoned conclusion
  • Writing an entire composition in a formal style

High School

  • Considering the effect of an author’s choices (e.g., the setting, the way that characters are introduced and developed, etc.) on a text
  • Evaluating the impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone, including words with multiple meanings
  • Analyzing a text that requires the reader to understand that what is really meant is different from what is directly stated (e.g., satire, sarcasm, irony, or understatement)
  • Developing claims and counterclaims evenhandedly, providing relevant evidence, and pointing out the strengths and weaknesses of both in a way that anticipates the audience’s knowledge level, concerns, and possible preconceptions
  • Gathering information from a variety of authoritative print and digital sources; assessing the strengths and weaknesses of each source; avoiding overreliance on any single source; and presenting citations following a standard format

Real-World Learning

Today’s students face challenges unknown to previous generations. They must be able to filter an onslaught of information to decide what is relevant and what can be ignored. They have to learn how to communicate using an ever-growing variety of formats and media. Along with traditional essays, reports, and letters, today’s students need to learn how to write effective and appropriate emails, PowerPoint presentations, and video scripts. Self-directed learning might mean that even the youngest students are conducting independent research and learning how to judge the quality and authority of information sources and evidence.

New technologies, along with education trends like Deeper Learning, expand opportunities for students and give them new ways to succeed. But learners are also faced with new ways to fail. The reaches of “literacy” extend farther and deeper than ever before, and the consequences of illiteracy are dire. Every student deserves a toolbox of strong literacy skills to help them rise to meet today’s academic and real-world challenges.

For Further Reading:

Evidence of Deeper Learning Outcomes

Related reading:

Creating Reading Intention to Improve Reading Comprehension Skills in Students

Self-Regulation Strategies for Students With Learning Disabilities

 

 

When Test Scores Go Up, Do Cognitive Skills Increase?

Tuesday, December 2, 2014 - 08:00
  • Norene Wiesen

test scores and cognitive skillsThe amount of attention schools devote to improving standardized test scores is controversial. Mandated or not, there is disagreement about what is actually being measured, and how much what is being measured matters. Now, a study by John Gabrieli at MIT, published in the journal Psychological Science, is shedding some light on what’s not being measured. The results are food for thought.

Gabrieli and his team set out to discover whether increased test scores were associated with improved fluid intelligence, which can be measured in terms of cognitive skills such as working memory, processing rate, and the ability to reason abstractly. Standardized tests, on the other hand, measure crystallized intelligence, students’ ability to apply the knowledge and skills they have been taught.

The researchers approached the question by comparing results from schools with test score increases on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) to schools without increases. In comparing 1,400 students, they found that fluid intelligence showed no correspondence with the school attended. Put another way, students’ fluid intelligence did not increase along with test scores.

Increased test scores are a measure of success, to be sure. Students from the schools with higher test scores were more apt to graduate and go to college. But what then? Do these students complete college in higher numbers than their peers with similar cognitive abilities and lower test scores? Do they have what it takes to perform well at work and to navigate the increasing complexity of our world? We don’t have answers yet, but researchers are turning their attention to these questions to find out.

In the meantime, critics of standardized testing question whether abilities and qualities not measured by these tests – such as solving novel problems, a cognitive skill  – are likely to be as, or more, important in the long run. Some researchers, including Gabrieli, would like to see mainstream educators jump on the fluid intelligence bandwagon. “Schools can improve crystallized abilities, and now it might be a priority to see if there are some methods for enhancing the fluid ones as well,” he says.

A growing number of schools have already begun to focus on building students’ cognitive skills with the Fast ForWord online intervention program. Fast ForWord is scientifically proven to develop cognitive skills like working memory, attention, and processing rate as well as reading and language skills. Students who use Fast ForWord typically boost their academic performance significantly and also become more confident learners.

As important as it is to build crystallized intelligence, developing both kinds of intelligence should be a priority for educators. When students are equipped not only to apply knowledge and skills to familiar problems, but also to understand and reason about novel situations, that’s a real-world advantage with lasting value. What better way to equip students for independent lives and adult responsibilities?

Related reading:

Building Better Writers (Without Picking Up a Pen)

What Makes a Good Reader? The Foundations of Reading Proficiency

 

 

Reading to Learn: Do We Expect Too Much of Fourth Graders?

Monday, November 10, 2014 - 08:00
  • Norene Wiesen

Reading to LearnElementary school teachers are about to get re-schooled in one of the tenets of reading development: that fourth grade marks the turning point between learning to read and reading to learn. A new study in Developmental Science by Dartmouth Associate Professor of Education Donna Coch has revealed that the transition to mature reading skills isn’t as clear-cut as many educators have been taught.

According to the “reading-shift” theory that has dominated teacher education in recent years, students experience a significant transition toward reading automaticity in fourth grade. This shift supposedly gives fourth graders the adult-like ability to read to learn. But Coch’s study, which uses brainwaves to measure the automaticity of different types of processing, doesn’t support the timing behind the theory. Instead, it shows that some aspects of reading automaticity are established before fourth grade while others are still developing past fifth grade.

Specifically, Cook found that phonological processing (“the ability to discriminate and detect differences in phonemes and speech sounds”) and semantic processing (encoding a word’s meaning and making connections between the word and other words with similar meanings) are well established by third grade. However, the brainwave measure of fifth graders’ orthographic processing (using the visual look of a string of letters to quickly understand whether or not those letters make up a word) still resembled that of younger readers more than college students.

If reading automaticity takes years to fully develop, and if we don’t know when the process is complete for most learners (the study did not look at students between 5th grade and college age), what do these results mean for educators and learners?

The takeaway, according to Coch, is that teachers should have realistic expectations of their students’ abilities and not expect them to be reading with full word automaticity in fourth and fifth grade. What makes more sense, says Coch, is for fourth and fifth grade teachers to begin thinking of themselves as reading teachers. That may be a shift for many, but it fits well with the Common Core trend of incorporating reading tasks in subjects beyond ELA. Is your school taking this research into account and changing its approach to teaching upper grade learners?

Related reading:

Teaching Inference as a Reading Strategy: The What, the How, and the Why

Why Prosody Matters: The Importance of Reading Aloud with Expression

 

 

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