Glasses For The Ears: Technology Provides a Critical Link to Literacy
by Isabel De Anda, Fifth Grade Teacher
Pine Elementary • Carlsbad, California
MultiMedia Schools • March/April 2000

Nine-year-old Alejandro De Anda is a happy, enthusiastic boy. He enjoys nature and finds science fascinating. He plays soccer, baseball, and basketball. He sings and plays the piano and drums. And he talks—a lot.

Just a few years ago, however, Alejandro was a very different little boy. My son, like 8 million other students, had difficulty learning to read. From kindergarten on, his struggle to read turned his world upside down. It was not until the summer before Alejandro started third grade that we finally discovered a solution—“Glasses for the Ears.”
 

Watching the Struggle
Alejandro’s problems in school began when he did not learn the alphabet and numbers in kindergarten. My husband Jose and I thought we could help by giving our son extra help at home. At the time, I was a stay-at-home mom. Ten years earlier I had been a teacher in Mexico. My husband was a school principal. Despite our best efforts, Alejandro still struggled.

I thought he might have a learning disability so I requested an Individual Educational Plan (IEP) from his school. Halfway through first grade, the school told me Alejandro was a gifted child but he needed to mature. They said his reading and writing would come along.

Alejandro’s inability to read and write deeply affected his self-esteem. The school psychologist told us that our 6-year-old son felt like he did not belong and that we did not love him very much.

By the time Alejandro was in second grade, I was desperate. He still could not read or write. On the SAT-9, a standardized test in California, he scored below grade level in everything except math. I transferred him to Casita Center, a magnet school for math and science in the Vista Unified School District in north San Diego County. He finished second grade there, however, nothing changed. He continued to lag behind his classmates. He found it hard to concentrate and was distracted. He could not complete homework by himself.

We continued to work with Alejandro at home. I tutored him with flash cards. I signed him up for a “Reading Aloud” workshop at the library and checked out books with audio tapes. We read 40 or 50 children’s books a week.
 

Catching Sight of a Solution
During this time, I also attended school. The teaching credential I earned in Mexico did not transfer to California, so I enrolled at National University in Vista to earn a teaching credential and master’s degree in cross-cultural teaching.

In summer 1998, just before Alejandro began third grade, one of my classmates presented a paper on innovations in reading. She told us about a program called Fast ForWord that was being administered just down the coast at the Encinitas Learning Center in Encinitas, California.

Developed by Scientific Learning Corporation, Fast ForWord is a patented CD-ROM- based training program for students with language and reading problems. Fast ForWord is often called “Glasses for the Ears” because of its corrective ability in helping improve how a child understands sounds.
 

Taking a Closer Look
Based on decades of research in neuroscience and neuropsychology, Fast ForWord is a language-training program that rapidly builds skills necessary for listening, thinking, and reading in children. It moves beyond addressing the symptoms of language and reading problems and directly attacks the root cause.

On average, students with language and reading problems make 1- to 2-year gains after only 4-8 weeks of Fast ForWord training.

After listening to my classmate’s presentation, I thought the program sounded like something that could help Alejandro. I visited the Encinitas Learning Center and found out more about Fast ForWord. Shortly thereafter, we transferred Alejandro to Buena Vista Elementary in Carlsbad, where Jose is school principal, so we could all be in the same school district on the same academic calendar. In September 1998, Alejandro began third grade and began attending Fast ForWord sessions after school at the Encinitas Learning Center.

At the center, Alejandro’s pre-tests showed that his reading was at the first grade level. To increase his skills, the Fast ForWord administrator explained that Alejandro would need focused practice and repetition in the skills necessary for language, comprehension, and reading.

The Fast ForWord program is intensive. It consists of five 20-minute training sessions a day, 5 days a week. I thought Alejandro might not be able to concentrate for that long. But, to my surprise, he was engaged the whole time.

Fast ForWord improves language skills with seven training exercises, three for sounds and four for words. The exercises are presented in a game-like environment, with animations to maintain the child’s interest and to reward correct responses. From the beginning, Alejandro was very enthusiastic. He said he loved to play the computer games and hear the sounds on the computer. Some days, he even asked to stay longer.

For 6 weeks, Alejandro, his 6-year-old sister Gina, and I made the 20-minute drive from Carlsbad to the Encinitas Learning Center. Gina and I waited outside and played, read, or did homework. Inside, Alejandro was retraining his brain for reading and language improvement.

Speech is composed of many acoustical elements of sounds that rapidly change in succession, at rates as fast as 10 milliseconds. The brain identifies these sounds by recognizing the most distinguishing characteristics such as volume, pitch, duration, and intervals between sounds. Fast ForWord stretches and emphasizes the important acoustic differences in sounds so students with reading and language difficulties are better able to process them.

Fast ForWord’s daily 100-minute training schedule uses principles of repetition, reward, and intensity. Its computer-generated artificial speech, digitized human speech, and digital tones extend and amplify minute speech sounds so that students are better able to distinguish between phonemes, the 44 smallest units of sound in our language that can change meaning (like cat versus rat).

Through Fast ForWord’s training exercises, we discovered that Alejandro had difficulties learning sound-letter correspondence for each phoneme. Before he could make the sound-letter associations necessary in reading, he first had to be able to recognize the sounds and sound combinations that the letters represent. The exercises helped Alejandro recognize these word sounds—first in isolation, and then in groups of sounds, words, and finally, sentences.

The training exercises were continuously calibrated and adjusted to Alejandro’s skill level, growing more challenging and rewarding as he mastered new skills. As training adapted to his ongoing progress, it gradually moved speech sounds closer and closer together with less modification until he finally was training with more natural speech acoustics.

Fast ForWord’s Internet-based progress reports provided daily results from Alejandro’s exercises, which were analyzed, compared with his progress to date, and reported to us.
 

Observing Improvement
I started to see improvement during Alejandro’s second week of Fast ForWord. First, I noticed that when I asked him to change into pajamas or brush his teeth, he did it immediately. He seemed to understand directions better and I did not have to chase after him.

Then, he asked for the chance to read. He said he wanted me to listen to his reading, instead of having me read to him.

During the fourth week, Alejandro noticed improvement and began to feel good about himself. He ran around telling everybody he could read. He even completed homework on his own. That was a big joy for me.

By the end of the 6-week program, Alejandro’s post-tests showed remarkable improvement. In reading, he had progressed two-and-a-half grade levels to the third grade level. In language, he had achieved a 2-year gain and progressed to the 5th grade level.

The main benefit of the Fast ForWord program is that Alejandro finally feels good about himself. He gained confidence. Before, he was very quiet and shy. Now he talks. In fact, he talks so much, we cannot quiet him down!

Alejandro now sings, too. Although he had been in the church choir in first grade, he never sang. In the middle of his fourth week of Fast ForWord, he started singing all the choir songs he had learned but had kept to himself for so long. Since then, he has also taken up piano and drums. Before Fast ForWord, Alejandro did not enjoy sports. He was afraid of the ball. Today, he plays baseball, soccer, and basketball. He is also making friends and inviting them to the house, which he never did before.
 

Seeing Lasting Results
At the end of third grade, Alejandro took the SAT-9 again and scored above grade level, at the 99th percentile, on everything but spelling. He is now in 4th grade and has earned mostly A’s, with a B in vocabulary on his most recent progress report.

For me as a parent, Fast ForWord relieved a lot of stress. Before we learned about the program, we did our best to find something to help him. I tried everything I could, but nothing worked. I felt like a failure. Fast ForWord helped us all.

As an educator, I think Fast ForWord has many applications. It is great tool to bring students who have language and reading problems up to grade level. Although it sounds expensive at the start, Fast ForWord would actually save districts money in the long run in such areas as tutors and after-school programs because teachers would no longer have to work for years to bring students up to grade level. With Fast ForWord, we could do it in 4-8 weeks with lasting results. The language-training program would also be a wonderful tool for students who are learning English as a second language.

I am signing up Alejandro for Fast ForWord Two this summer to build upon the language skills he acquired. Alejandro is already looking forward to June.
 
 

Isabel De Anda is a fifth grade teacher at Pine Elementary. Communications to the author may be addressed to Isabel De Anda, Pine Elementary, 801 Pine Avenue, Carlsbad, CA. 92008; phone: 760/434-0600. For more information about Fast ForWord call 888/665-9707, or visit http://www.scientificlearning.com.
 
 

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