Jun 28, 2016 by Ann Osterling, MA CCC-SLP

Sky GymDr. Paula Tallal, one of the premier cognitive neuroscientists in the nation, started out researching the cause of language impairments in children. As most parents and specialists in language know, language is a naturally acquired skill, similar to walking. All a baby needs is to hear language spoken around them and they will begin talking. But some children are not able to do this easily or naturally. Dr Tallal was interested in why that might happen. She originally hypothesized that children who develop language slowly might have problems with underlying sequencing skills, since words and grammar depend on getting the sequence correct – for example perceiving the difference between spot and pots requires putting the /s/ sound into the word in the correct sequence. To test this she had children with and without language problems sequence tones to see if that could be a basic skill that would differentiate children having trouble learning language. She noticed that learners with no language difficulties could sequence two sounds very easily no matter how quickly they occurred in time, but children with language problems had difficulty sequencing sounds only when they occurred quickly, not slowly. This blog post explains how Fast ForWord can train struggling learners in rapid auditory sequencing tasks through exercises called Sky Gym and Jumper Gym.

What are Sky Gym and Jumper Gym?

Sky Gym and Jumper Gym are the names of exercises in Fast ForWord that help improve the speed at which a participant identifies and understands rapid, successive changes in sound (listening accuracy), and the ability to recognize and remember the order in which a series of sounds is presented (auditory sequencing).

The object of these exercises is to correctly identify sequences of two to five sound sweeps.

Struggling in Sky Gym/Jumper Gym? That’s actually a good sign.

These exercises are incredibly powerful and important training tools – but they're also considered two of the hardest exercises in Fast ForWord. These exercises were the topic of many discussions (online and in person) in the early days. It's easy for some of us, like me, to forget that there are many new Fast ForWord providers and coaches who don’t have this background. I truly know of no other way to improve the speed of auditory processing skills. 

A little background.

The inclusion of these tone-sequencing exercises in the Fast ForWord products goes back to the 1970's when Dr. Paula Tallal did research that showed how individuals with a Specific Language Impairment (SLI) had problems processing auditory information if it was presented for too short of a time and/or presented too soon after another auditory stimulus. But, if the auditory stimulus (a tone) was given for a longer period of time, these people could get it.  Their errors on the rapid tones weren't a cognitive or “not smart enough” issue, but due to the fact that the information was presented too quickly. Kind of like when we hear people speaking a language that is not our native language, we always think they speak "too fast.” Another way to make these listening tasks easier for a person with SLI (which is probably an auditory processing problem) is to present one tone, and then have a longer period of time in between the first and second tone. So, Dr. Paula Tallal's research in the 70's identified a core underlying problem for people with auditory processing issues. 

Meanwhile, in Dr. Michael Merzenich's labs, more and more research was being done that proved neuroplasticity existed beyond the initial critical window of development. He was also in the process of discovering the most efficient ways to train the brain to learn new information. 

In the 1990's, Tallal and Merzenich began discussing how to improve the ability to understand spoken language if you had SLI, auditory processing problems or dyslexia. Dr. Tallal wondered if a device could be worn that would stretch out the speech to make it longer. Dr. Merzenich told her that the brain could actually be trained to learn to process these rapid sounds by using the principles of neuroplasticity. These conversations led to the early trials of Fast ForWord at Rutgers in 1994 and 1995.

That is the story of how these exercises came to be.

So, what about the students who struggle with these exercises?

Typically, if a participant is struggling with these exercises, it means they really do need to be doing Fast ForWord – particularly this type of exercise.  Don't let the fact that there are no speech sounds, words or language mislead you (it did me, in the beginning). Slow progress on these exercises are usually not because the learners aren't motivated or aren't listening hard enough (how exactly does a person "listen harder" anyway?). It's usually because the brain is not able to process rapid information quickly, efficiently or accurately. 

Coaching strategies for Sky Gym/Jumper Gym

It is very important that these participants complete their training time on Fast ForWord in a quiet and distraction-free environment. They should be wearing enclosed headphones and the volume should be loud enough for them to hear clearly. There are a number of activities that can be done to try to motivate the person to really work hard – such as the “10 in a Row” challenge, where the goal is for a student to achieve a minimum of 10 correct answers in a row. You can also try a “Beat the Teacher” challenge, where students compete with their provider, coach, or fellow participant by earning points for being consistently accurate.  You can find these and other intervention strategies in MySciLEARN.



We welcome your comments.  Submitted comments will appear as soon as the moderator reviews and approves.


I am a parent of a 51/2 yr

I am a parent of a 51/2 yr old using fast forward for a few months.She is having the hardest time with Robo dog. She has a 2% completion after 50 days. She is still at only 14% with Sky Gym, but has improved a bit over that same period. Are these 2 related in some way? Is there anything I can do to help her?

Hi Thomas

Hi Thomas I am a Fast ForWord provider from Sonic Learning in Australia and often see this pattern in children with processing difficulties as both these games rely heavily on hearing the fine differences between sounds. Make sure to ask your Fast ForWord provider (or child's coach if training at school) for advice. In addition, some ways you can help are: - Make sure she is wearing headphones as described in the above blog post and training in a distraction-free environment - Use the help mode in Robo Dog (press the question mark button to turn it on/off) - If using a computer, make sure she is using either a mouse (not the laptop trackpad) or alternatively you may wish to control the mouse and have her point to her chosen answer (be sure to only click what she chose, don't tell her the answer or the questions will only become harder). - Encourage her to complete her most difficult games first when she is fresher - After making a mistake, encouage her to pause and take a deep breath before continuing - Make sure she isn't rushing - some children believe that they have to work fast, but success on Fast ForWord is not at all related to clicking fast, it is in fact all about getting as many as you can correct in a row.

Hi Thomas, thank you for your

Hi Thomas, thank you for your question asking if and how Sky Gym and Robo Dog are related and how you can help your daughter. Robo Dog works on vocabulary, auditory word recognition, phonological accuracy, and phonological fluency. Robo Dog consists of two tasks, phonemic and semantic. In the phonemic task, the participant listens to a target word and then selects the correct picture from a group of 4 pictures that contains one or more pictures that are phonetically similar. In the semantic task, the participant listens to a target word and selects the correct picture that has a semantic relationship. Sky Gym works on listening accuracy, auditory sequencing (range of frequencies 500Hz, 1000Hz, 2000Hz – 2 sweep sets). In Sky Gym, the participant identifies and remembers the order of a series of frequency-modulated sound sweeps, and then indicates the pattern just heard. Both exercises work on the cognitive skills of working memory and visual symbol-sound associations from long term memory, focused attention, and auditory processing. Sky Gym is building phonological awareness (the ability to hear sounds that make up words in spoken language.) Sky Gym does this with the high and low acoustically modified sounds. In Robo Dog, the learner is practicing identifying the correct word based on how speech sounds correspond to the written letter or letter combinations (Phonics). They two exercises are related because they are both building the learners ability to “hear” sounds that translate into “hearing” “identifying” words correctly (the difference between hearing “stay” or “say”. You can help your daughter in Robo Dog by asking her to say the word out loud before clicking her answer. You want to know what she heard … that is why her saying it out loud can be very insightful as to why she is not moving forward. You can ask for clarification, “did you hear thorn or torn (this will help identify if her challenge is a sound issue or a vocabulary issue). Also, use the HELP feature after two incorrect responses – this allows the learner to “practice” saying and identifying the correct picture as the word is modeled. Another suggestion is to use the word in a sentence for her, after she says it out loud – this will help with the semantic piece. Always, always celebrate her correct answers and encourage her efforts when the answer is not correct.! In Sky Gym, you really want to slow down her clicking. You can sit with her and you take the mouse – when she is ready, you click… she repeats what she hears Wheep?? (high sound) or Whoop!! (low sound). Then, first on a piece of paper with an up-arrow drawn out and a down arrow (this diagram you create is meant to replicate the up / down arrows on screen), have her touch the arrows in the sequence she heard … up, up…up, down … down, down. Once she does that, you take the mouse and replicate her sequence to answer the question. Her repeating the sounds can become a game because you can encourage her to exaggerate the sounds – please note the exclamation emphasis for the high sound and the question emphasis for the low sound. Another idea is for her to give you a thumbs up or a thumbs down after she repeats the sound sequence. You can also use a musical instrument to mimic the high vs low sounds if you have one handy. We would also recommend that you connect with your Fast ForWord coach - they may have many more ideas to help based on your daughters' performance. I hope this information is helpful, best of luck!

My son has been doing sky gym

My son has been doing sky gym for 11 days...he is still struggling. The data shows 0% growth. He works really hard on it; when I sit with him, he is getting them right but how many to u need to get right to show growth?? How do I help him with this???

Hi Thomas,

Hi Thomas, Getting to 14% in a few months on Sky Gym is way too slow. She is making too many mistakes because she does not rehearse before responding. She must rehearse--this gives her time to think it over and correct herself. So here's the plan. Step 1: Sit on your daughter's right hand side where you can control her access to the keyboard. Put the mouse away. No mouse for Sky Gym. She will use the arrow keys only. Step 2: Before she starts a session of SG, prepare a little 2-inch square post-it, with hand-drawn up and down arrows. Put this post-it just below the arrow keys on the keyboard. She will tap the hand-drawn arrows on the post-it as a rehearsal before she puts her answer in. BTW, Never click for her. Step 3: Teach her that the sounds have names. The sound that goes up is named "Me." The sound that goes down is named "Jo." Be sure she does not think the sounds are saying these names. These are just names. Use the Help button (Question mark on screen) to get to the practice screen where you can practice saying the names of the sounds. Be sure she is clear on this. Step 4: Sit on her right side and lightly lay your hand over the arrow keys to prevent her impulsively responding. Step 5: Teach her this sequence: 1. start the trial by using the space bar. 2. say the names of the sounds she thinks she heard: me-me; jo-jo; me-jo; jo-me. DO NOT CORRECT HER. 3. tap -tap the sequence on the hand-drawn arrows. 4. ONLY THEN DO YOU UNCOVER THE ARROW KEYS to allow her access. 5. She taps her response, whether right or wrong, on the arrow keys. One more thing: She should use ONE HAND ONLY. We are trying to teach one hemisphere of the rain to specialize in language processing. Email or call me at 520-777-5999 for more help. Karen Kennedy, Private Provider, Tucson AZ; karenkennedy1@cox.net

I've found that the most

I've found that the most important intervention is to guide the participant in REALLY being ready to listen - not just clicking along on automatic pilot. Encourage that fraction of a second delay that allows the child to set himself to listen, every time, before clicking the prompt button. Sometimes subvocalizing "listen" helps.

Hi Ginny, thanks so much for

Hi Ginny, thanks so much for your comment. Great recommendations!

Exceptional Student Education

Exceptional Student Education take a look at this school South Florida Jewish Academy provides an individualized, technology-centered curriculum, designed to focus on the specific needs of each child.

We are parents of 10 years

We are parents of 10 years old boy.We have to improve he's attention .He is doing these exercises for a month.We are happy that he can do it becouse we are hungarians he is learning german language for four years one hour every school day.This program motivates him he is proud of himself when the program gives him something as a dog or a bone or another things.We hope in september the next scholl year the fifth he will be better in many many things.The teaching methods in Hungary aren'so good they learn a lot of things which we learnt three or four years later when we were children they have a big lexical knowledge and our opinion with my husband is that they got it not in time .They are overloaded and they don1t have the skills which they needed to catch in these years.We hope the bests.

Hello Ava, thanks for your

Hello Ava, thanks for your comment! We are happy to hear that Fast ForWord training is going well with your son - we would love to hear more about his attention skills when he returns to school. Please let us know and best of luck!

Thanks for the reminder that

Thanks for the reminder that students with Auditory Processing will struggle more with Sky Gym. I do believe that the reps need this reminder also. I am a Special Education Teacher in Panama City, Florida. I have been a school manager for 10 years now, my lower cognitive students struggle more with listening and processing the sounds/words than average cognitive, but all have made progress!

My son (has been diagnosed

My son (has been diagnosed with CPD) has been doing fast forward for 11 days. He has 0% completion rate for sky gym...he is constantly doing it. When I sit with him; he is getting them right but doesn't seem to make growth on the data. How do I help him??