Dr. 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.