Many students struggle with school at some point in their academic careers. Some struggling students may be experiencing a lack of motivation, social problems at school, time management challenges, poor self-esteem, or lack of organization and study skills. Other struggling students may need to build the cognitive skills of memory, attention, processing speed, and sequencing in order to be able to keep up with the pace of instruction in school and to comprehend that instruction. Many struggling students find that the use of brain fitness exercises to strengthen cognitive skills helps transform them into successful learners in the classroom. Reading and learning can then become enjoyable activities that the student can feel good about.
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Does this ever happen to you? You ask your child to do something simple, and he or she says, “huh?” For example, you might say something like, “Chris, time to get ready for school: go upstairs, get your shoes, grab your homework (we worked really hard on that last night) and shut your window because it looks like rain.” And your child acts as though he didn’t hear a word.
Often teachers describe a child like this as having poor listening skills because the same thing will happen in class—except that in school the child misses important assignments, fails to follow instructions on tests, or is unable to learn information when it is presented orally. What is going on here?
Parents or teachers may assume that a child is deliberately ignoring them when they ask to have instructions repeated or miss important information in school. But audiologists, who are specialists in hearing, have identified a specific reason for these listening problems. They refer to them as auditory processing disorders, or APD for short.
APD is not a hearing loss and not an attentional problem, although it can often seem as though the child is not paying attention. Rather, with APD a child has trouble figuring out what was said, although it sounds loud enough. All of us suffer from this problem when we are trying to listen to someone talk in a very noisy room, like at a party where a band is playing very loudly. We know the person is speaking—we can hear their voice—but we can’t easily discern what they are saying. Sometimes we try to read the person’s lips to figure out what they are talking about. But after a while it gets so hard to listen we just tune out or leave the situation. Now, imagine you are a child and speech always sounds muddled like that. The child’s natural instinct, just like yours, is just to stop listening. As a result, children with APD often achieve way under their potential despite being very bright. And in some cases, the children may have speech and/or language problems as well.
Audiologists have been able to diagnose auditory processing problems for many years. The recommendations for school intervention with children with this disorder have been largely compensatory, such as “seat the child at the front of the class, right in front of the teacher” or “amplify the teacher’s voice with a microphone and provide the child with a listening device to hear the teacher’s amplified voice more clearly than other noises in the room.” Specific, targeted interventions like Fast ForWord are a more recent development.
Although Fast ForWord Language and later Fast ForWord Language v2 were specifically developed to treat temporal sequencing problems associated with specific language impairment, and the programs have been successfully used as a clinical intervention for auditory processing problems for fifteen years, specific peer-reviewed case studies on auditory processing benefit from these programs has been lacking. That changed in April of this year (2013) when researchers at Auburn University, a leader in the study of APD, published controlled research in International Journal of Pediatric Otorhinolaryngology on the benefits of intervention with children diagnosed with APD. The researchers not only found that Fast ForWord Language v2 improved auditory processing skills, and in one child language and cognitive skills as well, but they found evidence of what scientists call “neuroplastic” brain changes in the children with APD after the program as well. This means that the children’s brains were rewiring themselves and getting better at auditory processing at the same time.
I will discuss the study in detail in next week’s blog post. If you’re not already a subscriber, you can sign up here to have the next blog post delivered to your inbox.
Abrams, D.A., Nicol, T., Zecker, S.G., &Kraus, N. (2006). Auditory brainstem timing predicts cerebral dominance for speech sounds. Journal of Neuroscience, 26(43), 11131-11137.
King, C., Warrier, C.M., Hayes, E., &Kraus, N. (2002). Deficits in auditory brainstem encoding of speech sounds in children with learning problems. Neuroscience Letters 319, 111-115.
Krishnamurti, S., Forrester, J., Rutledge, C., & Holmes, G. (2013). A case study of the changes in the speech-evoked auditory brainstem response associated with auditory training in children with auditory processing disorders. International Journal of Pediatric Otorhinolaryngology, 77(4), 594-604. doi: 10.1016/j.ijporl.2012.12.032
Wible, B., Nicol, T., Kraus, N. (2005). Correlation between brainstem and cortical auditory processes in normal and language-impaired children. Brain, 128, 417-423.
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Last week, Scientific Learning was pleased to host The Neuroplasticity Revolution, a webinar with Dr. Norman Doidge—psychiatrist, psychotherapist, researcher, and author of the New York Times bestseller The Brain That Changes Itself. The concept of brain plasticity—the brain’s ability to grow and change in structure and function in response to experience—is “the most important change in our understanding of the brain in 400 years,” Doidge told an audience of more than 3800 registrants.
Doidge reviewed concepts of brain and mind in history—dominated until very recently by the idea that the adult brain is hard-wired and therefore fixed in ability—and explained why it took scientists such a long time to observe and accept the brain’s plasticity. He then told the story of a woman named Cheryl, who was fortunate to find herself in need of brain rehabilitation after that old notion had been put to rest.
Cheryl had a balance problem. Her sense of balance had been so damaged by the antibiotic gentamicin that she couldn’t stand up without feeling that she was falling. Physician-neuroscientist Paul Bach-y-Rita treated Cheryl with “sensory substitution,” a therapy he developed that provided corrective sensory feedback from a motion sensor through electrodes to Cheryl’s tongue. The technique immediately helped Cheryl gain her bearings and she found that she could maintain her balance for a period of time after removing the training gear. This residual effect gradually lengthened, and over the course of a year, Cheryl regained the ability to stand normally without using the device at all.
Cheryl was able to regain normal function, said Doidge, despite having 97.5% damage to her vestibular apparatus—the semicircular canals in the ear that connect to the brainstem and help to orient us in space. He noted that often, but not always, there’s some kind of neural workaround even in severe cases. Cheryl’s recovery not only seems miraculous, but also points to the fact that her brain changed itself to heal—by recruiting dormant pathways or making new pathways for the corrected sensory information to travel.
Cheryl’s, story, said Doidge, is just one example of how the brain learns. He went on to discuss “conventional learning” and learning disorders in the classroom, walking his audience through Dr. Michael Merzenich’s research demonstrating the neural underpinnings of brain plasticity and learning.
Dr. Merzenich conducted a series of experiments in which he rearranged the wiring of the nerves connecting a monkey’s fingers to its brain. He expected to see the brain maps for these fingers become distorted or jumbled, but instead found that they turned out fairly normal. He realized that the brain was able to adapt to the structural changes by taking timing into account. The thumb usually initiates movement, for example, followed closely in time by the index finger. The middle and ring finger behave in a similar way. And Merzenich realized that the monkey’s brain used the timing intervals to determine which fingers were adjacent to one another and map them accordingly. These experiments finally converted the brain plasticity skeptics.
A recording of the full webinar is now available on the Scientific Learning website. Watch and learn:
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Chances are, you’re doing something else at the same time you’re reading this blog post—at least partially. Divided attention is just part of the program in today’s “always-on” environment, and being constantly connected usually means spending a lot of time in front of a screen.
Not surprisingly, our kids’ screen time is increasing along with our own. As a result, language delays due to excessive screen time are becoming a cause for concern.
Too Much, Too Young
When children spend a lot of time in front of a screen—especially when that screen serves as a virtual babysitter for the child—it makes sense to expect that there’s going to be an impact.
One study published in Acta Paediatrica (Chonchaiya & Pruksananonda, 2008) found that children who started watching television before their first birthday, and who watched more than two hours per day, were six times more likely to have language delays than children in a control group.
The Dwindling Art of Two-Way Conversation
What seems to matter even more than the amount of screen time is the degree of adult involvement and interaction with that screen time. Both the Chonchaiya & Pruksananonda study and another study published in PEDIATRICS (Zimmerman, et al., 2009) have shown that when adults guide a child’s screen time and engage the child in two-way conversation about it, the detrimental effect on language development can be neutralized.
Children require conversation to develop robust language skills, and they need adults to invite and shape that conversation in ways that help them think about the world and formulate the language that expresses their thoughts. Even reading to children and telling them stories—both of which are important—are not enough by themselves to support healthy language development.
Connected vs. Connection
In some cases, it may actually be parents’ screen time that’s the problem. For a variety of reasons—including job pressures and shifts in culture—parent screen time has started to encroach upon family time, displacing adult-child interaction.
In her book, The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age, Catherine Steiner-Adair shares the stories of children and teenagers who are sidelined by their parents’ use of technology and who long for their undivided attention. The overwhelming message from the kids is that “it feels ‘bad and sad’ to be ignored.”
If kids aren’t getting the attention they want from their parents, how likely is it that they’re getting enough of the conversation that they need to develop important life skills—including language skills?
Language isn’t just a tool used to communicate at the dinner table or in the classroom; it’s a living part of who we are, and comes to life and grows in our relationships, our conversations, and in caring for—and being cared for—by others.
As hard as it can be to manage the competing demands of work and family—or to break the habit of being “always on”—there’s no substitute for listening, asking questions, and being interested in kids’ lives.
Chonchaiya, W., & Pruksananonda, C. (2008). Television viewing associates with delayed language development. Acta Paediatrica, 97(7), 977-982. doi: 10.1111/j.1651-2227.2008.00831.x
Steiner-Adair, C. (2013). The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age. New York, NY: Harper.
Zimmerman, F.J., Gilkerson, J., Richards, J.A., Christakis, D.A., Xu, D., Gray, S., & Yapanel, U. (2009). Teaching by Listening: The Importance of Adult-Child Conversations to Language Development. Pediatrics, 124(1), 342-349. doi: 10.1542/peds.2008-2267
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The number of English language learners (ELLs) in American schools is rising faster than that of any other student population. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) 2012 report, The Condition of Education, ELLs in US schools increased from 3.7 million in 2000-01 to 4.7 million in 2009-10, up from 8% to 10% of all students. In California, the state with the greatest increase, 29% of enrolled students in 2009-10 were ELLs.
Given these numbers, it’s clear that the challenges are enormous. There are more than 150 languages spoken by ELLs in the country’s schools. In some states, the vast majority of ELLs speak a single language—often Spanish—while in other states fewer than half of the students speak the top foreign language. Schools face a shortage of qualified bilingual teachers and, often, rigidity within the traditional school structure that impedes effective teaching of English learners.
It’s no surprise, then, that when it comes to ELL’s academic achievement, the data shows that our schools are failing to meet the Department of Education’s promise of “fostering educational excellence and ensuring equal access.”
Where’s the Excellence?
Consider the following data from the 2011 Nation’s Report Card:
4th Grade ELL
8th Grade ELL
8th Grade Non-ELL
% Proficient or
4th Grade ELL
8th Grade ELL
8th Grade Non-ELL
% Proficient or
The non-ELL achievement levels are unimpressive, but the ELL results are downright depressing—especially for 8th graders who may be at risk of dropping out. For the vast majority of English learners, the language barrier remains unacceptably high.
School Success Stories
Despite these dismal statistics, some schools have done an exceptionally good job educating English learners. Take, for example, Coral Way Bilingual K-8 Center in Miami, FL, which started providing two-way bilingual education for all students in the 1960s in response to an influx of English learners from Cuba. Of the 70% of kindergarteners who enter the school with a Limited English Proficient (LEP) classification, most move out of the classification by 2nd grade.
On the West coast, a technology-based approach has made a big difference at a school formerly in Program Improvement. At Korematsu Discovery Academy in Oakland, CA, where the student population is 65% LEP, Principal Charles Wilson introduced the Fast ForWord online reading intervention program to help struggling learners move closer to proficiency. Within two years, the reading proficiency rate for 2nd – 5th graders increased from 17% to 41%. The math proficiency rate increased from 39% to 67% in the same period.
As a result of these gains, Korematsu received an award from Oakland Unified School District for the largest increase in the proficiency rate of English learners of all elementary schools in the district. According to Wilson, English learners who go through the program “are able to understand English more quickly, maintain their focus for a longer period of time, and are better at following directions.”
While the jury’s still out on which program model—two-way bilingual as used at Coral Way, late-exit bilingual, pullout ESL, etc.—is “the best” for helping English learners make strides academically, research shows that successful schools have typically made an effort to restructure for better learning. School restructuring can include a variety of elements, such as:
Many of the benefits of restructuring—such as greater parent involvement and teacher collaboration—extend beyond ELLs to the broader school community. With a more flexible structure in place, teachers have greater latitude to help all their students build the skills they need to succeed in reading, language arts, and all subject areas.
The Fast ForWord online reading intervention program used at Korematsu Discovery Academy is easier to implement than school restructuring and can provide rapid results within traditional or restructured learning environments. The program helps ELLs learn to hear the critical differences between similar sounding English phonemes so that so they can make sense of the English language. Once they can hear the sound differences, the “code” is broken and they can accelerate their acquisition of reading and language skills. It’s this unique intervention approach that makes it possible for ELLs to achieve significant academic gains in just a few months.
The demographic changes in American schools are demanding that educators demonstrate the same globally competitive skills that their students are expected to develop—the ability to innovate, implement effective technologies, work collaboratively to solve pressing problems, and communicate cross-culturally with parents and the broader community. There are schools like Coral Way and Korematsu Discovery Academy that have demonstrated what’s possible. Who’s up for the challenge?
“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.
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.
I’m so excited to announce our webinars for this fall! We are honored to have Dr. Norman Doidge, the well-known author of The Brain That Changes Itself, join us October 2nd for a webinar. This is a rare opportunity that educators, clinicians and parents alike won’t want to miss. Dr. Tim Rasinski, one of our favorite presenters, is returning to speak about the role of fluency in comprehension, and Dr. Marty Burns will be speaking on meeting the needs of the rapidly changing diverse student populations.
Dr. Martha S. Burns will discuss what the latest brain science says about the true learning potential of ELLs, struggling readers, and students with ADHD. Find out how today’s powerful intervention technologies can help build foundational reading and cognitive skills for a variety of student populations—and help students improve their ability to learn.
Dr. Timothy Rasinski is a vocal proponent of teaching reading fluency as a means of helping students build better comprehension. In our September webinar, Dr. Rasinski will talk about fluency as a predictor of reading comprehension, present the research on fluency, and substantiate fluency as an essential component of any successful reading program (National Reading Panel). All this and you’ll gain a better understanding of how to teach fluency so your students can start getting more from their reading.
For 400 years, the brain was thought to be a more-or-less fixed piece of machinery after infancy. Dr. Norman Doidge, author of The Brain That Changes Itself, will talk about the recent discovery that the brain retains the ability to change its own structure and function in response to experience through the latest years of our lives. Learn how this discovery was made, how it turns our understanding of learning on its head, and how it radically alters the was we think about student potential—especially for students with learning challenges or disorders. And, discover the online interventions that have grown out of the science and learn how they work to help students overcome reading and language difficulties.
Have you wondered what the effect of the Fast ForWord program is on older students, or how it develops other skills besides reading? Many studies conducted on Fast ForWord primarily concentrate on reading results among K-12 students, but the program helps with other skills and with other students as well.
In a peer-reviewed study entitled, “Neuroplasticity-Based Cognitive and Linguistic Skills Training Improves Reading and Writing Skills in College Students,” published in Frontiers in Psychology, Beth Rogowsky, et al, documented the effects that the use of Fast ForWord had on college students’ reading and writing skills.
Results from this study showed that the training group made a statistically greater improvement in both their reading and writing skills than the comparison group. In addition, the group who received training began with statistically lower writing skills before training but ended up exceeding the writing skills of the comparison group after training.
To give you an idea of the type of change that took place in students’ writing, here’s an example of a piece of writing by one student before and after Fast ForWord training. The student was asked to examine a table that listed the percentages of books read by 5th and 9th grade male and female students and write a paragraph that described the information.
Before: “As children advance in grades we see a clear increase in the number of books they have to study or carry. We also can notice that more boys in both 5th and 9th grades tend to carry more books.”
After: “The table shows that in the 5th and 9th grades, girls are more likely to read 2 or more books than boys are. In the 5th grade; 70% of boys read 1 book or less and only 30% of boys read 2 or more books. In the 9th grade more boys, 50%, start to read 2 or more books. Overall in both 5th and 9th grades girls beat boys when it comes to reading books.”
Meeting the Need for Writing Proficiency
Writing is both what you write and how you write it. Besides getting the facts correct in the post-Fast ForWord example, the student writes with more “texture,” adding much more detail and using more variety in sentence constructions and grammatical conventions, and even adding a nice colloquial touch at the end that adds a bit of spice to the paragraph.
With only 27% of 12th grade students achieving a writing score of “Proficient” in the National Assessment of Educational Progress (2011), and only 45% of students meeting SAT writing benchmark proficiency, American students show a clear need for something that will help them improve their writing skills.
Most writing programs train or concentrate specifically on writing skills; the proposition borne out by Rogowsky’s study is that writing can be improved by training the complexities of the language and cognitive skills upon which writing depends. One could say that high school and college students not only need to “read to learn” but also “read to write.” When they read and process information accurately, they get the facts right, which is always a boon in conducting research. And reading increasingly complex materials – such as students encounter as they move through the higher levels of Fast ForWord – models correct and highly textured writing for students.
As brain plasticity research has taught us, people are never too old to learn. This study shows how strengthening foundational cognitive skills in the context of listening and higher level reading tasks can help older students who are in college and how this kind of training can significantly improve not just students’ reading but also their writing skills.
Reference: Rogowsky BA, Papamichalis P, Villa L, Heim S and Tallal P (2013) Neuroplasticity-based cognitive and linguistic skills training improves reading and writing skills in college students. Frontiers in Psychology, 4(137)1 – 11.
It’s more than just a generational trend: research has shown that employing cooperative learning strategies in the classroom can actually help students learn better and even like each other more. But breaking students into effective working groups, training them in cooperative learning techniques, and promoting positive experiences for all learners takes know-how.
Research out of Stanford University shows that lower-status students may be excluded from full participation in cooperative learning groups even when they repeatedly attempt to engage with the group. While certain students may remain silent because they lack confidence in their ability to contribute due to a language barrier or lower ability, other students who do attempt to participate may be ignored when they speak or are blocked from accessing a task (e.g., other students may physically dominate an area where building materials are laid out).
Shaping Social Perception
One wonderful benefit of cooperative learning is the opportunity that it affords teachers in helping their students appreciate what every student has to offer. When a teacher takes the time to notice a unique skill or ability of a quieter learner—say, Rosa—and to point it out to the entire learning group, every member of the group gets the chance to shift their perception of Rosa and of her value to the group—including Rosa herself. It’s as simple as saying to the group, for example, “Rosa is good at planning things out step-by-step; your group can use her as a resource and rely on her to help keep your project on track.”
Learning How to Learn Cooperatively
As with most new skills, learning how to learn cooperatively must be trained. Teachers can help by ensuring that all students understand the purpose of cooperative learning and have the knowledge and tools to participate effectively.
Recommendations for enhancing a classroom’s cooperative learning culture include:
Who is a Leader?
Students who are easily recognized as leaders may not be the only leaders in the classroom—or even the best. Within cooperative learning groups, teachers can, and should, place many different students in leadership positions during group projects.
When a teacher makes the effort to recognize a student with hidden leadership potential and to reframe the learning group’s perception of her with a positive statement about her ability, real opportunity can arise for her within the group—even if that student has weaknesses in other areas, such as literacy.
Authenticity is Key
When her teacher stands up in front of the group and says that Rosa is good at planning step-by-step, you can bet that at least some students are judging that statement. An attempt to manipulate the group’s opinion isn’t likely to fly.
To help reframe a student’s status within the group, then, any statement about the student should meet a few basic criteria:
The real beauty of authentic acknowledgement is that it spotlights the recognition that every learner brings ability to the group and that no one learner is good at everything—and that that’s okay.
The sooner students realize this truth, the sooner they can discover that knowing how to work with others to get the job done is what ultimately counts in life—and that’s a real-life skill that every single student can take out into the world and use.
For decades, most child language scientists have believed that human beings possess an innate capacity to learn the language spoken to them during the first few years of life. Indeed, the vast majority of children worldwide are never “taught” their mother tongue; rather, they acquire it naturally, just by living in a world where people are speaking the language.
Parsing Speech Sounds
Child language specialists have a word for the ability to tease out the sounds within words—they call it “parsing”. When children are first learning their native language they must also “parse” words into sounds so that they can figure out all the sounds in a word as well as the sequence of those sounds. All children have to learn to do this.
Children’s speech errors, like saying “top” for stop or “aminal” for animal, often reflect trouble children have with parsing. Language learning also requires parsing to learn grammatical forms like plural or verb tenses. The difference between the words rock, rocked and rocks necessitates the ability to distinguish all the sounds in each word. But for children with language-learning disabilities, it turns out that this problem parsing words into sounds is particularly difficult, and it affects not only language learning, but also reading and other school achievement.
Audiologists (hearing specialists) and brain researchers have long been interested in how the brain is able to parse words into relevant speech sounds and why some children struggle so much with that task. New research centering on the electrical brain signals picked up by electroencephalogram (EEG) is clarifying the relationship between auditory processing—specifically the ability to parse sounds in words—and language learning.
Brain wave oscillation bands—sometimes thought of as differing brain wave patterns—appear to be a major mechanism coordinating billions of nerves across different brain regions to perform even basic cognitive tasks such as paying attention to someone who is talking and understanding what they are saying. These bands are grouped by their frequency; so-called alpha bands, beta bands, gamma bands and theta bands all refer to brain oscillations of different frequencies.
Brain scientists have discovered ways to use features of these oscillations bands to “see” how different parts of the brain work together. Katia Lehongre and colleagues have found that in humans, gamma bands are especially important for parsing words into sounds. Significantly, in children with language-based learning disabilities (including dyslexia) and children with aspects of language learning disabilities—poor auditory working memory and rapid naming—language and reading problems appear to be related to specific differences in brain oscillation patterns in the areas of the brain important for learning language.
New Research Questions
Scientists postulate that some children’s brains may be inefficient for learning language, but very efficient for certain other aspects of learning—perhaps visual processing or even aspects of sound processing important for musical learning. What might cause differences in brain oscillation patterns is largely unknown and open to speculation, but for parents and teachers who work with struggling learners, the question to ask is:
Does remediation of the brain wave patterns improve language skills in children with language problems?
A study published in January 2013, addressed that question and found that the answer is “yes”.
Sabime Heim and colleagues at the Center for Molecular and Behavioral Neuroscience, Rutgers University, examined whether oscillations in the gamma band range of the auditory cortex of children with specific language impairments (SLI) change after a specific kind of audio-visual training (Fast ForWord Language), and if that change resulted in improved gamma band efficiency as well as language skills among those children. Study details:
The ability to efficiently perceive and sequence two non-speech sounds presented as quickly as speech sounds are in words is often referred to as Rapid Auditory Processing (RAP).
Heim et al wanted to know:
EEG measures made by the authors before Fast ForWord Language showed what they expected— reduced efficiency components of the oscillations in the gamma-band range (29–52 Hz) among the children with LLI. The reductions occurred where the scientists expected, on the second of two rapidly presented tones. Some answers to the questions above:
The authors concluded that measures of brain wave efficiency are not only correlated with auditory processing problems in children with language-based learning disabilities, but that the Fast ForWord Language program improves at least one measure of the brain wave efficiency and that is in turn correlated with improvements both in RAP accuracy and also language skills.
Heim, S., Keil, A., Choudhury, N., Thomas Friedman, J. & Benasich, A. (2013). Early gamma oscillations during rapid auditory processing in children with a language-learning impairment: Changes in neural mass activity after training. Neuropsychologia, 51, 990-1001.
Lehongre, K., Ramus, F., Villiermet, N., Schwartz, D., & Giraud, A. (2011) Altered Low-Gamma Sampling in Auditory Cortex Accounts for the Three Main Facets of Dyslexia. Neuron, 72, 1080–1090.
Siegel, M., Donner, T., & Engel, A. (2012) Spectral fingerprints of large-scale neuronal interactions. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 13, 121-131.
How early does environment begin to shape children into successful students or underachieving students? The answer has to do, in part, with how early babies start acquiring the skills needed to learn to read.
Watching Beth Connelly’s recent webinar, Breaking the Cycle of Underachievement, I was surprised to learn that children as young as four days old can distinguish the vowel sounds of the language in their natural environment. Four days old.
I couldn’t stop thinking about the implications of that timeframe. Suppose one child grows up in an enriched (typically high-SES) environment with a lot of stimulation and adult interaction, while another child grows up in a low-stimulation, low-interaction (typically low-SES) environment.
As Hart and Risley noted in their landmark study, the first child will be exposed to 42 million more words than the second child by age four. That difference in language exposure plays a big role in establishing the achievement gap that—without effective intervention—continues to widen as learners progress through school and then out into the world.
When I think about how babies as young as four days old are extracting information from the words they hear—distinguishing sounds and learning the building blocks of language—it is easy to understand how a child’s ability to learn can increase or decrease depending on the degree of stimulation in the learning environment.
It’s not just the richness of the learning interactions that influences learning ability, however; babies with frequent ear infections or fluid in their ears can also have trouble extracting accurate information about language sounds, as can babies and toddlers growing up in environments with a lot of background noise.
In her webinar, Connelly covers a wide range of research that often surprises. For example:
That last point is especially important, because—as Connelly discusses—educator impact can be huge, influencing the actual biological processes that determine how successful learners are in the classroom.
Watch the full webinar and discover the critical importance of classroom teachers and technology in preparing all of our students—and especially our most vulnerable students—for life after K-12.