|Founded||California, U.S (1997)|
|Key people||Bill Jenkins
Fast ForWord is a family of educational software products intended to enhance cognitive skills of children, especially focused on developing "phonological awareness" (discussed below). It is marketed as a therapy for strengthening the skills of memory, attention, processing rate, and sequencing for children. It evolved from studies that showed children with abnormal temporal processing and language learning impairment could have their phonological awareness improved in parallel with their temporal processing. It is currently marketed for children with a broad range of reading problems, and perhaps other cognitive disorders as well. Fast ForWord software was developed and is commercially distributed by Scientific Learning Corporation, which became a public company in 1999.
Independent scientific analysis of the Fast ForWord product has shown some support for the effectiveness of the product in treating children's learning challenges. See Independent Scientific Analysis Controversy (further below).
The Fast ForWord products evolved from the work of a number of scientists, including Michael Merzenich and Bill Jenkins at the University of California, San Francisco, and Paula Tallal and Steven Miller at Rutgers University. This team started Scientific Learning shortly after publishing two papers in Science. These papers demonstrated that children who had abnormal temporal processing could be trained on software (which later evolved into Fast ForWord). This training results in 1–2 years of age equivalent improvement in language reception measures. The magnitude of the improvement, subject by subject, was correlated with their improvement in temporal processing. In other words, these studies showed that software like Fast ForWord, when applied to subjects with abnormally poor temporal processing and reading skills, could remediate both their temporal processing and language reception powerfully, and further suggest that temporal processing abnormalities can form a perceptual bottleneck in learning to comprehend language. The studies also included control groups and found significant differences in language reception improvements between control and experimental groups.
Merzenich, who is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and is also the Chief Scientific Officer for Posit Science, is no longer formally involved with the management of the company. He and Bill Jenkins, currently Vice President, Science, Technology, and Education at Sally Ride Science are internationally known for their research on brain plasticity, which is the concept that the brain changes as we learn new skills. Paula Tallal is currently co-director of the Center for Molecular and Behavioral Neuroscience at Rutgers and an active participant on many scientific advisory boards and government committees for both developmental language disorders and learning disabilities. She has published over 150 papers on the topic of language and learning and is the recipient of national and international honors. Steven Miller, former Senior Vice President of Research at Scientific Learning, has extensive experience in organizing clinical research studies and conducting longitudinal studies of children who have language and reading problems.
Fast ForWord uses computerized exercises in which children identify computer-generated speech sounds (although the latest versions of the product apparently includes others kinds of computerized training as well). Participants spend 30 to 100 minutes a day, five days a week, for four to 16 weeks using the products In the speech-sound drills, the training program starts off with sounds that have been altered by computer processing. These processed sounds preserve the frequency content of normal speech sounds, but are slowed down and have artificially exaggerated differences. These changes make the task easier for children with slower than normal temporal processing, but paradoxically are more difficult to discriminate for temporal processing normals. As the subject progresses, these differences are reduced to make the games more challenging.
The premise of this approach is that the drills help students with a wide range of language problems develop enhanced phonological awareness, and that this enhanced awareness will have numerous benefits for their language functioning, including especially reading. The method of utilizing exaggerated differences in training a person to tell two things apart is commonly referred to in psychology as "fading". Fading has been widely used beginning in the 1950s in many areas of behavioral research and treatment, including animal learning, behavioral therapy of retarded individuals, and problems with perception of speech sounds.
In 2004 a license for 30 computers cost $30,000.
Randomized controlled trials
Several studies have been published that have evaluated Fast ForWord Language using randomized controlled trial designs. In 2004, a study of Fast ForWord in a large urban school in the Northeast of the US was published. The study consisted of 374 students who scored in the bottom 20% on the state's reading test. The study concluded that although certain aspects of the children's language skills were slightly improved, the gains did not appear to translate into actual increases in reading skills.
A larger randomized study examined 415 second and seventh graders performing far below national reading standards. The students randomly assigned to receive Fast ForWord treatment did not show statistically significant improvement in most of the reading measures examined, although there were a few small gains for certain subgroups, and a significant fraction of students with the lowest language test scores dropped out. The study authors concluded that "the Fast Forword Language program did not, in general, help students in these eight schools improve their language and reading comprehension outcomes". However, in their discussion they noted that the "supplementary analyses, which examined the causal effects of participaton, revealed that when the middle school teachers and students remained committed and more faithfully achieved the completion standards set by Scientific Learning Corporation, the students exhibited statistically significant improvements in reading comprehension.
In 2010, a systematic meta-analysis of all randomized controlled trials of FastForword was published. It concluded that there is no evidence that Fast ForWord was effective in treating children's reading or oral learning challenges.
The Scientific Learning Corporation website lists many dozens of studies with positive results that do not use the "gold standard" randomized designs, but instead compare children's performance before and after treatment. In early studies that pre-dated the commercial development of Fast ForWord, it was reported that 8–16 hours of training using Fast ForWord produced "1.5 to two years of progress in reading skills". These age-equivalent improvements are based on their published data expressed in the same format. More personal stories can be found in the book The Brain That Changes Itself. In a study entitled, “Neuroplasticity-Based Cognitive and Linguistic Skills Training Improves Reading and Writing Skills in College Students,” that was peer-reviewed and published in Frontiers in Psychology, Beth Rogowsky, et al., documented the effects that the use of Fast ForWord had on students’ reading and writing skills. The study used a quasi-experimental design. A study by Heim, S., Keil, A., Choudhury, N., Thomas Friedman, J. & Benasich, A., published in 2013 in the peer-reviewed journal, Neuropschologia, examined the effect of Fast ForWord Language on an experimental group of 21 students (6-9 years old) with language-learning impairment (LLI) who used the product as compared to a control group of 12 students (6-9 years old) with typical language development (TLD) who did not use the product. Pre- and post-training assessments included standardized language/literacy tests and EEG recordings. Results of the study were positive. “Our results showed that LLI children exhibited gains in all measures of oral language following training." 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. Neuropschologia, 51, 990-1001.
- Alternative therapies for developmental and learning disabilities
- List of alternative therapies for developmental and learning disabilities
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