Top 10 New Fast ForWord Features That Students and Educators Will Love

Thursday, August 16, 2018 - 08:00
  • Logan De Ley, MA, MS

Fast ForWord Foundations IThe excitement is building around Fast ForWord Foundations I, the flagship of the new Fast ForWord. We have received great feedback from early reviewers, so we just have to share the buzz. Here is a top ten list with some big wins for students, for educators, and for the whole Fast ForWord family.

Students are going to love...

1. Streaks:

Rushing to earn points can lead to mistakes that set you back. In contrast, earning high streaks requires staying focused and avoiding mistakes – which is how you make progress in the Fast ForWord exercises. How many can you get correct in a row?

2. Autoplay:

Now you can zip through a series of three or more trials with one click of the Go button. If you get them all correct, you earn bonus points and bump up your next Autoplay series. Autoplay and the Streak signs work together to reinforce the importance of consecutive correct trials.

3. Replay:  

Classrooms can be noisy places. If you didn’t hear a word or sound, you no longer need to guess. Click the Replay button and be sure of your answer. 

4. Progress indicators:

The Progress Meter has been supercharged! Combined with the new Feeder Meter, Completion Sign, and 10% celebration animations, it gives immediate feedback about each step you make forward, and you can readily see exactly how far you have come. 

5. Increased adaptivity:  

Okay, they might not call it that… but students will love being able to fast-track through material that is easy for them, and quickly reach material that provides the right level of challenge.

Educators are going to love...

6. Enhanced introductory sequences:  

We have figured out where many students get stuck and provided more complete and differentiated instruction to help them make a strong start.

7. Just-in-time, automated coaching:  

Rather than merely raising a flag when a student needs help, Foundations I identifies when and where a student is struggling and provides coaching to correct such common issues as understanding the task, content knowledge, choosing effective strategies, and maintaining attention / motivation. 

8. Vocabulary pre-teaching:  

No more flash cards getting students ready to use Fast ForWord! Foundations I embeds instruction in relevant vocabulary within the exercises.

9. Direct instruction on language structures:  

Ever wonder how to teach reduced relative clauses to a second grader struggling with Ele-bot? Now, Ele-bot is carrying more of her own weight, by coaching students on what to listen for and how to understand various grammatical forms.

The whole Fast ForWord family is going to love...

10. SmartLearning Technology:  

You can’t see it, but it powers many of the improvements in this list and it opens the door to future improvements. Imagine that – educational technology that learns and gets smarter, just like you and your students do! 

What Weak Cognitive Skills Look Like in the Classroom

Tuesday, March 21, 2017 - 08:00
  • Linda Gajowski, M.Ed., MS


weak cognitive skills"I just don't get it!" is a phrase some of us may have heard or even used in our lives. Our brains successfully comprehend and utilize incoming information when strong cognitive skills are present. With weak cognitive skills, especially in young children, learning is a challenge. The major cognitive skills necessary for optimal learning are memory, attention, processing, and sequencing. When children are deficient in one or more of these essential cognitive tools, learning acquisition problems will occur. We all use cognitive skills every day to function successfully. Just driving to the supermarket and back requires those four cognitive skills which are so ingrained that we are often not consciously aware of them.


Let's look at memory, often referred to as working memory. This cognitive skill allows us to remember information, an essential building block of learning. Without good recall, a child will struggle in the classroom. When kindergarteners are given directions to color the apples red, the tulips yellow, and the cats black on a worksheet, those with poor short-term memory may only remember the first color. Other children may have difficulty following a first grade morning routine which may include placing homework in the inbox, clearing desktops, and getting and completing morning worksheets. Although homework is handed in and desks cleared, some students may forget the next step in the routine. It is, therefore, imperative that memory evolves to optimal levels so that children may learn to the best of their ability.


Another important cognitive skill is attention. Children must be able to attend to (listen and understand) information for learning to occur. Without this cognitive skill at a high functioning level, reading acquisition along with school success will be adversely affected. Normal classroom movements or noises may not bother most children. Those students with poor attention may find themselves watching a seat mate or looking for the noise being made on the other side of the room.  Such distractions may interfere with their ability to hear and comprehend information. When students cannot pay attention well and assimilate new information, they become frustrated and lose interest in the lesson. Even small distractions that others ignore will then become the focus. Let's build good attention skills in the early grades to optimize children's school success!


Next, the cognitive skill of processing allows our brains to understand and assign meaning to incoming information. Most information is received either visually or aurally.  Students with poor visual processing skills may find themselves interpreting visual cues inaccurately. As a result,  math computation, hand writing, and oral reading may be adversely affected. Children with poor auditory processing skills may be unable to accurately discriminate between sounds. They might appear reluctant to answer a question since their brains are busy trying to figure out what was asked of them. Reading and comprehension as well as math then become very real challenges for students with poor cognitive processing ability.


Lastly our brains arrange information in a particular order with the cognitive skill of sequencing. Students need this skill to alphabetize, count, and organize information. When children's brains meld new information with previously stored Information, they have a solid base for learning. Children with weak sequencing skills may not be able to compose or outline a story. Even doing a simple word search game depends on good cognitive sequencing skills. Some children who are weak in sequencing may become disinterested in the lesson, perceiving it as "boring" or too difficult. On occasion disruptive behavior may occur due to a child's academic frustration.

Memory, attention, processing and sequencing are the major cognitive skills necessary to become a successful learner. When one or more of these cognitive skills is deficient, children will experience a difficult time in school. Without these essential cognitive skills working at an optimal level, intervention is required for children to learn. The Fast ForWord program is a well-documented educational program geared toward improving these essential cognitive skills.


How to Improve Auditory Processing Speed Using Fast ForWord

Tuesday, June 28, 2016 - 08:00
  • 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.


10 Tips for a Great Parent-Teacher Connection This Year

Tuesday, September 1, 2015 - 08:00
  • Lynn Gover

You may just be starting school or you may be in full swing. Either way, it's important that you start your relationship with your child's teacher on the right foot. Prepare for parent-teacher conferenceResearch indicates that family engagement is a key factor when it comes to a child’s academic success. Make the most of your time when you first meet the new teacher or during Parent-Teacher conferences by doing your homework and showing up prepared with questions and talking points that are relevant to you and your child.

  1. Make a list of your questions. Sometimes we have a whole list of topics and questions that we’re thinking about, but when we’re put on the spot we can’t recall any of them. Write down your questions to use as a reference during your meeting.
  2. Write down your child’s strengths and weaknesses. Having an open discussion about your child’s strengths and weaknesses can bring valuable insight to your child’s teacher that she might not have witnessed in the classroom. Also share specific rewards and motivations that you use at home.
  3. Review your child’s work, grades and progress reports. Pay special attention to teacher communications sent home and how your child has been progressing so far. Walk into the meeting prepared with specific questions or items you want feedback or clarification on.
  4. Keep the lines of communication open. Ask the teacher about communication preferences.  Is he/she available after hours to talk about your child’s progress? Or maybe email works better? Be sensitive to a teacher's schedule and workload when asking for support - praising a teacher's strengths goes a long way in building good rapport.   
  5. What support services are available? How does she handle it if your child needs some extra help? If your child does need extra assistance, what is the school's Response to Intervention process? Is afterschool support available?
  6. Ask about your child’s reading progress. Although you may have a good idea if your child is reading on grade level (or not), find out about the specifics of your child’s reading skills. Some questions to ask include:  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? How can I help support these reading efforts at home?
  7. Don’t forget to ask about cognitive skills! Cognitive skills are the foundation for all learning, which makes this conversation so important. Some questions to ask include:

How would you say my child is doing, as compared to peers, in these areas:

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?

Attention: How is my child’s attention during different types of activities? One-on-one? Small group? Whole class?

Processing: How well is my child able to “make connections” as compared to peers? In reading, is my child decoding new words, making educated guesses about the meaning of a new word, using background knowledge, or predicting and inferring? In math, is my child showing signs of struggling during computations or retrieving simple number facts? In writing, is my child generating coherent ideas without a lot of support and putting them into words?

Sequencing: How well is my child able to organize his thoughts for writing or explain his understanding of a new concept?

8. How about social skills? Find out how your child interacts with other students in the classroom. How is he without direct supervision? How does he handle conflict with other students? Ask about how you can help to improve his social skills at home.

9. Find out about State Testing & Advancement. Is there a schedule available? Ask your child’s teacher if they have any concerns about your child’s ability to prepare for and take the state tests.

10. Ask how you can help support your child’s academic success (and how you can help support the teacher!). Are there specific ways you can stay informed about what your child is currently learning in school? Can you carry those lessons through in your day-to-day activities with your child? Some teachers have websites to keep parents in the loop; some may send newsletters home or have a specific bulletin board or binder you can check in the classroom. Coming to your teacher with supportive questions can go a long way. Keep in mind that teachers are under significant pressure and it goes a long way to acknowledge what they're doing for your child and the others in their class. You are on the same team! 

In addition to this list, you can print out our Top 10 Brain-Based Questions for Your Child's Teacher. If you have any concerns about your child falling behind or about his academic performance before Parent-Teacher Conferences, don’t wait! Contact your child’s teacher right away and arrange a meeting earlier.

Having an open line of communication with your child’s teacher is so important, both to your child’s academic success as well as to your involvement in your child’s academic career. You may also find out about parent volunteer opportunities and planned field trips, so that you can see how your child interacts with his or her peers and teachers in a natural setting. Take advantage of this opportunity to work together with your child’s teacher to set him up for a successful school year!


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 the right questions 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? What lessons can we carry through into our homelife?

Conference (or “As-Needed”) Questions

  1. Reading – When working in a small group with my child 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


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)


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).


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.


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.

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


Overcoming Language and Reading Problems: The Promise of Brain Plasticity

Wednesday, September 11, 2013 (All day)
  • Martha Burns, Ph.D

Author Norman Doidge There is an endless war of nerves going on inside each of our brains. If we stop exercising our mental skills, we do not just forget them: the brain map space for those skills is turned over to the skills we practice instead. If you ever ask yourself, ‘How often must I practice French, or guitar, or math to keep on top of it?’ you are asking a question about competitive plasticity. You are asking how frequently you must practice one activity to make sure its brain map space is not lost to another.

-Norman Doidge in The Brain that Changes Itself

The Critical Period

From our very earliest days, our brain begins to map itself to the world as we experience it through our senses. The mapping is vague at first, lacking detail, but the more we interact with the world, the more well-defined our brain maps become until they are fully formed and differentiated.

“The critical period” is the name given to the time in infancy and early childhood during which our brain is so plastic that its structure is easily changed by simple exposure to new things in the environment. Babies, for example, learn the sounds of language and words effortlessly by listening to their parents speak. Inside the brain, what this learning looks like is the brain actually rewiring itself to change its own structure.

Use It or Lose It: Training the Brain to Form New Maps

Just a few decades ago, the prevailing scientific view held that the brain was a finely tuned machine that operated within a fixed scope of ability once the critical period had passed. But in the 1990s, through a series of experiments with monkeys, Dr. Michael Merzenich discovered that our brains can change well past the critical period—and indeed throughout our lives. But learning that takes place after the critical period is no longer effortless, and children and adults must work hard to pay attention to the new information that they wish to absorb and master.

The maxim commonly used to describe the phenomenon of neural learning is “neurons that fire together wire together,” and it’s this “wiring together” that results in the corresponding structural changes in the brain. Timing is key to the process, with neurons that fire simultaneously wiring together to create a map.

The space allocated to a neural map evolves over a number of stages. When learning is taking place, a relatively large space is allocated to the map. Once a skill is established, the mapped neurons become so efficient that fewer are needed—allowing some of the map space to be reallocated again for new learning. It’s a practical use-it-or-lose-it process that allows us to continue picking up new skills without bumping into space limits in the brain. Taking up a musical instrument such as violin, for example, causes more map space to be allocated to the playing fingers, and consequently, less space is allocated where there is lower demand.

As we develop mastery of a skill, our neurons not only grow to be more efficient, but they also begin to process faster. With that faster processing they tend to fire together more readily as well, creating more groups of neurons that send out clearer signals. The clarity of those signals has a great deal to do with how well the brain learns and remembers what the neurons have processed. The clearer the signal, the more clearly the brain remembers.

But what if there are gaps or inefficiencies in the maps that have been established?

From the Lab to the Learner

Dr. Merzenich had become interested in the work of Dr. Paula Tallal at Rutgers University. Dr. Tallal was interested in understanding why some children have more trouble than others when it comes to learning to read. Her research had shown that auditory processing problems were causing the “fast parts” of speech—common combinations of consonants and vowels that are pronounced very quickly—to be problematic for children with language difficulties.

Dr. Merzenich believed the problem was a matter of the children’s auditory processing speed lagging behind the speed of the speech sounds, resulting in an inability to distinguish differences between similar sounds or to perceive the correct sequence of sounds when they occurred in rapid succession.

Another known contributing factor was that of neural readiness. After processing a sound, neurons require a rest period before they can fire again. Normally this rest period is about 30 milliseconds, but for most children with language impairments it takes at least three times as long for the neuron to recover. The result is that a lot of critical language information is simply missed during the rest period.

Merzenich and Tallal believed they could combine forces to effectively help children who struggled to read. In 1996, Merzenich and his colleague Dr. Bill Jenkins teamed up with Tallal and her colleague Dr. Steve Miller to develop a real-world application of the science of neural plasticity by creating a product that could help struggling readers rewire their brains. From this union, Scientific Learning was born.

Fast ForWord

The partnership between Merzenich, Jenkins, Tallal, and Miller resulted in the software product that today we call Fast ForWord. Fast ForWord was carefully designed in the guise of a video game that could challenge and develop cognitive skills like memory, attention, processing speed, and sequencing as well as language and reading skills from phonemic awareness to decoding and comprehension.

Merzenich and Jenkins wanted Fast ForWord to trigger the children’s brains to secrete dopamine and acetylcholine—neurotransmitters that help lock in learning. Because the brain secretes these neurotransmitters when it gets rewarded, a generous supply of entertaining animations was built into the product to play spontaneously when a child achieved a goal.

From the very beginning, Fast ForWord elicited remarkable results. Children who participated in the initial field trial boosted their language development by 1.8 years, on average, in just six weeks. A subsequent study at Stanford University, dyslexic children’s brains showed increased activity in several areas after Fast ForWord, bringing them more in line with the patterns seen in typical readers’ brains. The dyslexic children’s brains had shown different patterns of activity before Fast ForWord (as revealed by fMRI).

In the 14 years since the field trial, Fast ForWord has been used by more than 2.7 million children around the world, with achievement gains of up to two years in as little as three months. During this time, school-based results—such as those at St. Mary Parish Public School System in Louisiana—have demonstrated that Fast ForWord can improve test scores across subject areas. And many additional research studies have corroborated the effectiveness of the Fast ForWord program for building cognitive, language, and reading skills.

In a 2010 study at Wilkes University in Pennsylvania, Beth Rogowsky found that Fast ForWord significantly improved students’ grammar skills as measured by the Written Expression Scale from the Oral and Written Language Scales (OWLS). A subsequent study by Dr. Rogowsky published in 2013 showed that college students who used Fast ForWord increased their reading and writing skills significantly more than students in a comparison group as measured by the Gates MacGinitie Reading Test and the OWLS.

The Brain That Changes Itself

Our current understanding of how the brain changes itself in response to experience opens the door to mind-bending possibilities. With the development of newer, smaller, and faster technologies, there’s no telling how Merzenich’s revolutionary discovery of brain plasticity past the critical period will impact the future of education.

What is certain is that true brain-based learning has arrived, that it’s available today, and that children around the world are overcoming language and reading problems that not long ago were often considered insurmountable.


Doidge, N. (2007). The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science. London: Penguin Books.

Related reading:

What Educators May Not Know about the Neuroscience of Learning

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


What Educators May Not Know about the Neuroscience of Learning

Tuesday, November 6, 2012 (All day)
  • Scott Sterling

latest in neuroscience

On October 30 th, noted neuroscience researcher and co-founder of Scientific Learning, Dr. Paula Tallal, conducted a live webinar titled “What do Neuroscientists Know About Learning That Most Educators Don’t?” In her presentation, Dr. Tallal discussed her original research on auditory processing, its relationship to language development, and the far-reaching effects that deficiencies in those areas can have on learning.

Research continues to support the hypothesis that difficulty discriminating between small changes in sound is at the heart of learning problems both in students who have a diagnosed difficulty and those who do not.  Dr. Tallal described how oral language is the foundation for learning and for most successful educational outcomes, adding that oral language itself is dependent on the brain’s ability to discriminate and process auditory information. Children who have difficulty perceiving the many subtleties of language find the deck stacked against them in their educational careers. They can experience a variety of impediments to learning, including:

  • Limited attention : Humans are less likely to pay attention to someone speaking if they only understand a portion of what is said. Recall the last time you spoke to someone with a heavy accent or were on a bad phone line.
  • Difficulty following directions : When you only understand a portion of a spoken “order of operations” - like a set of directions – the chance that you follow the order decreases dramatically.
  • Memory issues : As Dr. Tallal describes, if you have to concentrate so much on understanding spoken text, you are less able to move information from working to long-term memory, and therefore are less likely to remember it.

Students with this subtle level of auditory processing problem need specific differentiation that is not possible in most classrooms. The good news, as Dr. Tallal describes, is that modern technology can be used to address the difficulties these children face and help bridge these skill gaps. In fact, it is this level of research and development that informed the development of Scientific Learning’s software programs, including Fast ForWord.

To close, Dr. Tallal took questions from the educators relating to how these insights can be used to improve educational outcomes in all classrooms. Teachers left this insightful webinarwith practical strategies that can be used to help learners of all abilities.



What Makes a Good Reader?

Tuesday, July 3, 2012 (All day)
  • Martha Burns, Ph.D

The Foundations of Reading ProficiencyFoundations of Reading Proficiency

Have you ever wondered why some children seem to learn to read so effortlessly and others struggle? Have you ever seen a child who memorizes poems, math facts, and the alphabet without even trying?  Yet at the same time you might have also known another child who had trouble just remembering their own phone number or address. There are all sorts of reasons that learning—and reading—is easy for some children and hard for others, and believe it or not, it rarely has anything to do with intelligence.

Just as some children are good athletes from the time they are very young, others are great at music or art. We tend to think of art, music and athletics as skills or talents. But actually there are underlying cognitive abilities that enable those talents. For athletics, good hand-eye coordination and quickness can be keys to success. For music, certainly the ability to perceive tones is essential. For art, excellent visual memory is helpful.

It turns out that learning to read also requires some underlying cognitive skills. Children are not born good readers, of course; reading has to be taught. And for a child to be able to learn to read, four core cognitive capacities are needed: memory, attention, sequencing, and processing efficiency (speed and accuracy). It is helpful to tease out each one of these and explain the importance in learning to read.

Memory – Scientists refer to the kind of memory that is important for learning to read as “ working memory.” It is the kind of short term memory that enables you to read this blog and remember what was written a few paragraphs earlier. When children have problems with working memory, reading can be very difficult. A child might have trouble remembering what sounds the letters of the alphabet stand for when they are first starting to read and so have a devil of a time learning to decode. Later in school the child with working memory problems might have trouble remembering what they read just a few sentences earlier and so re-read the same passages over and over again. How do you know if a child has working memory problems? Look for trouble following commands or remembering details of instructions or stories.

Attention – Learning of any kind requires good attentional skills. A student needs to be able to pay attention when the teacher is talking and ignore random noises in the room. A student also needs to learn to pay attention during reading. In learning to read, students need to pay attention to the letters and attend carefully to the sounds they represent. Later in school, students who have trouble attending are often those who can’t stick with a reading assignment. What to look for: the child reads a few sentences or paragraphs and then looks around the room, drops a pencil, or gets up out of a chair. It can take a child who has problems sustaining his attention a very long time to finish reading assignments.

Sequencing – Reading requires the ability to sequence letters into words (“saw” versus “was”) and grammatical endings (“the boy runs” versus “the boys run”), and words into sentences (“the dog chased the boy” versus “the boy chased the dog”). It is easy to see that when children have trouble sequencing, they will misunderstand what they read. Some children find sequencing things they hear very hard because the information is so fleeting.

Processing speed and accuracy – Scientists refer to the way the brain handles information as “processing.”  Parents may have heard the terms “auditory processing” or “visual processing”. Those terms refer to the way the brain perceives and attaches meaning to information coming in from hearing or vision. Some students are inherently good at processing visual information. Those students seem to learn well visually and are very good at perceiving visual cues, like picking up on facial expressions or remembering how words look when they are spelled. However, some of those students may not process auditory information as well. They might frequently misunderstand words spoken to them or “tune out” when people talk to them.  Students with auditory processing inefficiencies might also seem “slow” to respond when others are talking to them. Certainly, if a child has trouble hearing the difference between the vowels in “bit” and “bet,” it makes sense that learning the correspondence between letter and sound will be difficult. In fact, there is a great deal of research indicating that children with auditory processing inefficiencies find learning to read very difficult.


We tend to think that reading is a visual skill that depends primarily on linking letters to sounds. That has led us to expect that reading problems must be due to either difficulties with recognizing the letters or matching those letters to their appropriate sounds. However, we now know that a core set of underlying cognitive skills: memory, attention, processing speed or accuracy, and sequencing underlie the ability to learn to read and later to read to learn.




Berninger, Virginia. et al. Relationship of Word- and Sentence-Level Working Memory to Reading and Writing in Second, Fourth, and Sixth GradeLanguage, Speech and Hearing Services in Schools, vol.41, 179–193. 2010.

Bishop, Dorothy and Snowling, Margaret. Developmental dyslexia and specific language impairment: same or different?Psychological Bulletin, vol. 130, 858-886. 2004.

Burns, Martha. Auditory Processing Disorders and Literacy. In Geffner, D and Swain, D.  Auditory Processing Disorders. Plural Publications.

Caretti, Barbara. et al. Role of working memory in explaining the performance of individuals with specific reading comprehension difficulties: A meta-analysisLearning and Individual Differences, vol. 19, 246–251. 2009.

Gaab, Nadine. Neural correlates of rapid auditory processing are disrupted in children with developmental dyslexia and ameliorated with training: An fMRI studyRestorative Neurology and Neuroscience, vol. 25, 295–310. 2007.

Stevens, Courtney et al. Neural mechanisms of selective auditory attention are enhanced by computerized training: Electrophysiological evidence from language-impaired and typically developing childrenBrain Research, vol. 1205, 55-69. 2008.

Stevens, Courtney et. al. Neurophysiological evidence for selective auditory attention deficits in children with specific language impairment. Brain Research, vol. 1111-1. 2006.

Related Reading:

The Reading Brain: How Your Brain Helps You Read, and Why it Matters

The Essential Nature of Developing Oral Reading Fluency

Preventing Summer Brain Drain with Dr. Martha S. Burns

Tuesday, May 29, 2012 (All day)
  • Carrie Gajowski, MA

Summer brain drain Martha Burns

One of my favorite webinar presenters here at Scientific Learning, Dr. Martha Burns, recently gave a webinar called “BrainPro:  Preventing Summer Brain Drain.”

Dr. Burns covered a number of points related to learning and retaining information.

  • How learners can benefit from current research in 3 areas: 
    • Psychology – the benefits of teaching to a child’s style of learning
    • Neuroscience and Technology – using neuroscience-based technology to individualize instruction to meet the needs of each individual student
    • Education – providing standardized content to learners across the US
  • The science of how the brain learns. The human brain has thousands of networks that work together and help us to do a lot of different things. Pathways in the brain get stronger and stronger with use.   The more we do something, the better we get at that activity.  The stronger the pathways in the brain, the easier it becomes for the child to learn and retain information. 
  • Early difficulties in reading. If a child is struggling with phonological awareness, memory, vocabulary or comprehension, it may indicate a learning difficulty. The cognitive abilities of memory, attention, processing, and sequencing that are foundational to language can be exercised with Fast ForWord Home (formerly BrainPro).

Following Dr. Burns, we heard from Jenny, a parent from Florida who had her teenage daughter use the Fast ForWord Home to help her pass the FCAT (the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test).   Her daughter has a very high GPA and takes AP and Honors classes, but had difficulty in passing the FCAT reading test two years in a row. After she went through Fast ForWord she took the FCAT for the 3rd time and passed with a near perfect score on the test.  

View the webinar to for more detail and visuals about how the brain learns, and find out how Fast ForWord Home can help your child stay sharp over the summer break.

Related Reading:

Antidotes to Summer Brain Drain (Part 2): 5 Ways to Pull the Plug on Learning Loss

Leigh Ann’s Story: Making a Difference in Children’s Lives



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