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

Brain Surgery, Part 2
Carl Sannito

About a year ago, I wrote an article about a program called Fast ForWord (you can read the article here. Go ahead, I'll wait). To summarize, an administrator in Chicago had selected my school to take part in a pilot program using software called Fast ForWord. Fast ForWord is a series of programs that students run on a computer to strengthen, augment and even correct their memory, attention, auditory processing and sequencing skills. These skills are developed and strengthened through a series of listening activities on the computer. Although the activities begin as rather simplistic actions, they grow harder over the course of many weeks and eventually turn into exercises that work on reading comprehension, spelling, phonics, parts of speech, vocabulary, and a host of other skill sets. The programs are very intense and extremely demanding on the children, as well as the instructor: I've completed the activities, so I can speak from experience. Scientific Learning, the corporation behind Fast ForWord, states that they have conducted years of research on the brain and about how people learn. Through this research, they have created software to "remap" the brain, stimulate areas that are underdeveloped, and reconnect neurons to facilitate new connections that lead to tremendous growth in students of all ages.

I previously wrote about how I used the product with two groups of students with mixed results. What I'd like to do now is to give you an update, a "One Year Later," so to speak. I've now finished my second year with the programs and I want to share more of what I've learned. I can say that there were some wonderful success stories. Of course, as always, there were many bumps in the road. That’s par for the course; as I continue to remind teachers, there is no magic bullet for all students. I don't think that there ever will be because every student is different. We all learn differently and we are unique.

However, Fast ForWord is worth your time. I wouldn't write this if it weren't.

Implementation of Fast ForWord
I worked with four third grade classrooms in a computer lab setting daily. We worked on average 65 minutes a day, although if the computers were feeling temperamental, that time increased. We worked every day without fail. Let me repeat that: We didn't miss a day. If we had a half day in school, I shortened the length of time in the lab, but the students still came to the lab to do some work. If there was an assembly, we planned ahead of time.

Consistency Was Key
And this wasn't a quick fix either. We worked on Fast ForWord for the entire school year. That's a lot of lab time.

The classroom teachers didn't always come down and stay with their students in the lab, but sometimes they did. I asked that they spend a few days working on the same activities that the students did, so they would have an idea of how each activity works.

I spent the first few days training the kids how to do to exercises before sending them on their own. But even when they were expected to come into the lab and work independently, I was still taking my headphones and plugging into individuals' computers and assisting them with their work. I was also spending a lot of time every day examining reports which show me where students were having trouble so I could plan individual interventions.

Our Results
I'm not authorized to share individual test scores, and I don't take much stock in test scores, our schools (for better or worse) are driven by test scores. I always remind my students and parents that test scores are simply a snapshot - how a child performed on one particular test on one particular day.

However, the classroom teachers all reported back to me that a number of their students were beginning to improve. I didn't begin to sense improvement with my students until around February or March, but the classroom teachers saw it sooner. By May, when our reading coordinator individually assessed each students' reading ability, she said that she had never seen such improvement before. In her words, "It's as if someone has come in and re-wired their brains!" And when she asked each student what they thought helped them improve so much in reading, time and time again the comment was, "It's my time in the lab." Or more bluntly, "It's Fast ForWord." That's powerful stuff, from a third grader.

Now, did we see results in every child? No. Did we see results in lots of students? Yes, we did. One of the best things about Fast ForWord is that students progress at their own rate and work at their own level. So we could have special needs students working along side advanced children without a second thought. And the classroom teachers loved that.

We didn't see these results last year, but then again, we weren't dedicated to the program as much as we were this year. We put a lot of time and money and energy into it; after all, a 65-minute period isn't standard and it meant creating a new schedule. It also meant that some classes would no longer be able to work in the lab. It meant hiring me to teach this program exclusively. And it meant having networked computers that were up to the job of running the software.

Can every school do that? No. So I can't say that "Yes! This is for you!!!"

But I can say that this is something that schools should be investigating. Our school had some great success with this and I suspect that with some time and energy, my results could be duplicated at your school.

If you have a comment or suggestion, or if you have used FastForWord and want to share your results,you can e-mail Carl at carlsannito@yahoo.com.


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