Winter 1998, Vol. 9 No. 1

by Jean Earle

Discussion and debate abound regarding Fast ForWord (Scientific Learning Corporation), a new computer-based approach to receptive language and auditory processing remediation. Discussion is probably more widespread here in New Jersey because one of the two main researchers/developers is Dr. Paula Tallal from the Center for Neuroscience at Rutgers University where much of the initial research behind the program was conducted.

Fast ForWord is a language training program designed for the estimated 10% of children ages 4 to 14 who specifically demonstrate auditory temporal processing difficulties. Tallal and other researchers have found that the inability to process speech at usual rates of speed can greatly inhibit language learning. Children with this specific difficulty of distinguishing among speech sounds often exhibit poor language comprehension and possibly expressive speech challenges. Fast ForWord is designed to develop and enhance the particular skill of adequate auditory temporal processing in children who have not developed it in natural developmental ways.

What Makes Fast ForWord Different?

Many speech/language and reading programs focus on teaching phonics, a system based on elements of sound called phonemes. Speech is, in fact, composed of even smaller acoustic events or "phonetic elements" which make up phonemes. These elements are rapidly, and rather automatically, processed by most people as syllables, words and sentences are heard or articulated. Fast ForWord is constructed and based upon the findings that this ability to process elements rapidly is lacking in many children and can be trained. The computer can be utilized to precisely control and organize the sequence and timing of speech sounds for the training and learning process.

Results of Fast ForWord Training

Research studies have shown some dramatic results for children completing the training exercises provided by Fast ForWord. In 1995 Dr. Tallal and Dr. Michael Merzenich of the University of California at San Francisco (known for brain plasticity research) took Fast ForWord to the field where the studies were duplicated. The results, with greater numbers of children and a variety of settings, are the kind that cause any parent, special educator, or speech pathologist to sit up and take notice. Most children in the studies to date have experienced significant and measurable improvements in acoustic reception, speech reception and language comprehension abilities. The children have moved from below average ranges into normal ranges for skills and abilities that are required for normal language use.

Extensive Training

Going through Fast ForWord training for a child, parent and practitioner is an intensive process requiring a major commitment of time, effort and also typically of dollars The process requires a minimum of 2 hours per day, 5 days per week, of work on games at the computer. Measurable improvements correlate with compliance to the schedule.

The games are not the usual computer games enjoyed by children in the typically fun ways provided by characters such as Millie, Sammy, or even Mavis. There are entertaining interludes and characters, and a token economy system with which you can be creative, but the tasks are repetitive, and students cannot choose to exit a game or go to another until at least fifteen minutes of play is completed. In fact, the only way out during the first fifteen minutes of each game is rebooting your computer, which results in loss of all the data. There are seven games, and during most of the therapeutic course, a child is expected to play five of the seven games each day, preferably for 20 minutes each:

1. Circus Sequence provides a series of frequency modulated sounds and is the mainstay of the program (and the built in assessment tool). It builds the rate of processing and temporal sequencing skills.

2. Old MacDonald's Flying Farm teaches children to distinguish phonemic Sound Changes.

3. Phoneme Identification teaches children to identify and distinguish between some rather similar sounding specific phonemes.

4. Phonic Match reinforces memory and reasoning skills using word structures that differ by a single phoneme.

5. Phonic Words teaches phoneme and word recognition skills for complex words which differ by a single phoneme (e. g., breathe, breeze; zip, sip).

6. Block Commander teaches listening comprehension and syntax through the use of simple sentence structures.

7. Language Comprehension Builder introduces increasingly complex sentences to develop higher-level language skills including morphology, syntax, and grammar.

All of the games adjust to the student's own performance levels and keep the practice experiences positive. The technical difficulty levels of the games adjust after just a few incorrect responses, enabling continuing successes. For word and sentence structures, the programs begin with modulated and digitized speech and gradually build to normal speech speeds - something only a computer can do! Children going through the program have been known to learn to use their own digitized speech to decode words and process speech for themselves - an interesting technique to observe.

Recommended Criteria for Fast ForWord

Which students are eligible for Fast ForWord and how do you determine whether a particular individual may benefit from this training? Comprehensive language measures including clinical evaluations of language functions, tests of language development, tests of auditory comprehension of language, and preschool language screenings are the usual identifiers of children with language learning impairments. Within each of these categories there is a host of commonly used tests and measures. Scientific Learning Corporation recommends that a student's scores on one composite test (not just a subtest) of one standard deviation below the mean is most indicative of a student who may be experiencing some auditory temporal processing deficits, and who is likely to benefit from the training. Once that determination is made, Fast ForWord administers the Sequential Temporal Analysis Report (STAR) which can specifically measure the rates of processing in terms of tone duration and time between tones (interstitial intervals).

Children with various educational labels have undergone training. It should be noted that the length of the training and the ability to successfully undergo the training are influenced by issues of attention (the training requires an inordinate amount of sitting and attention), motor and cognitive access to the computer and tasks, and effects of various medications. Thus the requirements rightfully include training under the auspices of professionals, even in natural environments and home settings.

Training Regimen for Professionals

Because of the potential for misuse, the developers of Fast ForWord are exercising care in their marketing and distribution of the software. Professionals who are interested in using the software are required to complete a certification program which includes a half day training workshop (at a cost of $350) and a written or on-line examination. The training workshop focuses on an overview of the research related to this new method of intervention and on technical aspects of the Fast ForWord program, including internet reporting.

To be eligible for the training, professionals must already have background and experience in the following: understanding of auditory temporal processing, engagement techniques and behavioral motivation for children, human/computer interaction issues and techniques, and expertise in using computers. Most certified professionals are speech therapists, psychologists, or special educators, with the large majority being speech therapists.

This writer completed the professional training and became certified last June. With a background in special education and additional experience as a parent of a child with disabilities, she has assessed 12 students to date, many of whom have significant disabilities such as autism or attention deficit with hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Only two have completed the entire program to date. While the results of their participation will be added to the formal research study being conducted, anecdotal evidence is promising. One of the older (14 years old) students said, after decidedly not enjoying her weeks of study, "I really think I hear better, and I hear and understand things in school that I never heard before."

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Personal Experience With Fast ForWord

My own daughter, Morgan, with multiple neurological complications and anti-convulsant medications, engaged in the program from July to November 1997. She began with a certified educational therapist, transferring after one month to home, which provided greater flexibility in practice times and lower total costs. After the first month of the program there was a noticeable difference in the quantity and flow of Morgan's expressive language. After a few additional we she began to accentuate phonemes in both oral communication and in her attempts to decode words and read.

In post-program testing, however, Morgan still demonstrates very limited temporal processing capability. While in some ways this is disappointing after our intensive efforts, the fact that we know this and can include the specific information in her IEP, greatly aids us in defining service needs and strategies for Morgan in classroom and learning environments. My family is among those who believe in making innovative therapies available to special needs children who may not technically meet the standard criteria. Improvements are relative!

Jean Earle, M.Ed., is a student of Assistive Technology and guest lecturer in Special Education at the College of New Jersey. She is a partner of Computer Education Institute in Warren and parent of a seven year old Fast ForWord graduate.

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