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New Teachers Online: How-To Articles: Use New Technology to Reinforce Instruction

Brain Surgery
Carl Sannito

I’ve written previously about the dichotomy of using computers in education. Computers can be technological tools students use for the creation of a product (documents, writings, presentations, photos, graphic organizers, etc). They can also be used as workstations to run educational software. Which is better? Does it make sense to have a student use the computer to create a PowerPoint presentation when that child may be better served by using software to improve his/her reading skills? Or should a child leave elementary school thinking that computers are just used to run educational “games” because that’s all they are used for in school?

I tend to believe that as educators we have to do both. It’s great to show children how to create a piece of writing using Word, but the students still need to be able to write before they get to the computer.

I would like to highlight some educational software that I have been using extensively this past school year. The software is called Fast ForWord by a company called Scientific Learning. The software uses 30 years of brain research to stimulate critical areas of the brain, improving skills such as memory, listening, attention, processing and sequencing. Although their entire web site does a better job of explaining everything better than I could in one article, let me give you my experience with the software.

Last October, I was told that our school was going to be adopting the Fast ForWord product series. I went to an all-day training session and was completely overwhelmed. The trainer began talking about areas of the brain which are (for lack of a better word) under-stimulated in some students. She showed us MRI’s of students brains who had been diagnosed with dyslexia. Compared to MRI’s of “normal” brains, there was definitely less brain activity.

Through this brain research, Scientific Learning has created a series of computer activities to first diagnose problems in language development and then to stimulate those areas of the brain associated with those problem areas.

I was skeptical, to say the least.

The trainer then went on to show us the first product that students would use, called Fast ForWord Language. It is a series of seven activities that students would work on at a computer. Each activity is a rigorous listening and memory activity that was extremely challenging. Not challenging because you need to be smart to complete the activity, but challenging because you must listen extremely carefully in order to get the activity right. Let me give you an example.

One activity (Phonemic Awareness) presents the student with three sounds. The student listens to the first sound carefully, because that sound will be repeated as either the second or the third sound. The student will have to listen to all three sounds and select if it is the second sound or the third sound that is the same as the first. What makes this so difficult is that the sounds are very similar. “Ba” and “da” are one pair of sounds that are difficult to discriminate, but are used extensively for just that reason.

At first, the sounds are digitally slowed down. They are presented slower so that a child’s brain can absorb the sound and discriminate. This is the same principal that educators use when we occasionally pull a child aside and explain the directions to him or her very slowly so they have time to grasp the meaning. However, over time, the directions are sped up to normal speed.

The next piece of information that the trainer gave me was that in order for these activities to work, there was going to be an awful lot of work. The students would wind up working five days a week, no excuses, on this Fast ForWord program. And each session was timed by the computer for 50 minutes straight. That’s a long time for a third-grader, I thought. But she was explaining that this was very appropriate for second and third grade students. Luckily, it’s not 50 minutes straight because there are breaks scheduled between each of the different activities.

After listening to all of this I decided that I was going to give this product a try.

It was much harder than I thought it would be. I have a class of third graders and every day they come to Fast ForWord class. They work hard and the class takes more than an hour to complete, but my kids do work. And I work hard to motivate them. I use candy, stickers, points, charts, surprises, you name it. It was very hard for them in the beginning of the year. But they are really into it now.

Here’s what I found: We selected students for the program based on test scores (stanines 3 and 4, which are pretty low) and teacher feedback (what kids would benefit the most from this). Most of the students were quiet kids that weren’t interested in what was going on in class. What we found about half-way through the program is that many of these kids “woke up.” It was like their brains just kicked them into high gear. Kids that teachers hadn’t heard from all year began to ask questions and start to challenge things in class. This wasn’t always easy because now these children went from being more “docile” to actually becoming more challenging to handle in class.

Me? I think that’s great! That was success to me.

I’ve only been doing the program for a few months, but it will take a couple years to really measure the results. You see, just because the students have “woken up” isn’t enough to make up for years of lower brain activity.

There are some Fast ForWord products available to continue this growth and help bring the students up to grade level; my students won’t begin working with them until next year. However, I’m extremely hopeful. The trainer said that the students would become more attentive, and many of them have. I’ve seen it with my own eyes.

I can’t just yet give a whole-hearted endorsement of the Fast ForWord product line, I absolutely think that based on all the testimonial I have heard from other educators, based on the scientific studies that I have read, I think this product is worth checking out, especially as an intervention strategy used for our special-needs students.

It is not cheap. I was told that students in the more affluent suburbs pay top dollar to use this product. It cost our school a lot of money to get Fast ForWord, but this is just one of those things that the administration decided that we couldn’t afford to not have it. Because it can be used as an intervention strategy, because it is aligned with most state standards, and because it is aligned with the goals of NCLB, Fast ForWord covers many bases.

I encourage educators to investigate Fast ForWord on their website for more specific scientific data.

Although I know that some teachers may not want to use computers for educational “games”, I think that there are some fantastic reasons to do so. Fast ForWord may just be the best reason yet.

If you have a comment about this article or want to share your experiences with Fast ForWord, you can e-mail Carl at carlsannito@yahoo.com.


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