The Importance of Literacy
In the 1991 National Literacy Act, Congress defined literacy as “an individual’s ability to read, write, and speak in English, and compute and solve problems at levels of proficiency necessary to function on the job and in society, to achieve one’s goals, and develop one’s knowledge and potential.” Two years later the Department of Education published the results of the National Adult Literacy Survey (NALS) that found that 21 to 23 percent (40-44 million) American adults fall at the lowest literacy level. The lowest literacy level means an individual is usually unable to do the following:

  • Locate eligibility from a table of employee benefits
  • Locate an intersection on a street map
  • Locate two pieces of information in a sports article
  • Identify and enter background information on a social security care application
  • Calculate total costs of purchase from an order form

The NALS results also demonstrated how these low literacy skills are linked to social and economic disadvantage. Over 40 percent of adults with low literacy skills live in poverty. Those adults at the lowest literacy level work on average only 19 weeks per year and they make up seventy percent of prisoners.

Since the NALS survey was released, The U.S. Department of Education has launched the American Reads Challenge, which urges all American adults to do whatever they can to help each child become a reader. However, conventional educational programs alone are insufficient to meet the American Reads Challenge since many parents and related adults do not have the literacy skills necessary to read to their children or assist their children with reading assignments. For this reason, educators are encouraged to develop innovative programs that foster family literacy training for parents. Both the Reading Excellence Program and Title I Even Start Programs provide funds for educational programs that include family literacy goals.

Taking Action
The America Reads Challenge provides action steps for elementary school educators that include:

  • early assessment of each child’s developing reading ability
  • high-quality professional development for teachers in research-based instruction
  • promotion of independent reading, at least 30 minutes a day, by providing students and parents with specific reading assignments
  • open communication between home and school to enhance a child’s progress and success

The challenge to educators and educational administrators is to find programs that use research-based methods that enable the children to meet academic content and performance standards. The programs also need to provide professional development, encourage family involvement and communication, provide literacy training for parents where necessary, and be appropriate for children and adults for whom English is a second language.

Research-Based Programs
A family of intensive computer-based programs, recently developed by neuroscientists at University of California at San Francisco and Rutgers University, meet all of these challenges. The adaptive training programs, Fast ForWord Language, Fast ForWord Language to Reading, and Fast ForWord Middle & High School, developed through Scientific Learning Corporation, have been proven remarkably effective in studies of over 1000 children nationwide. Independent efficacy studies have been conducted with children at risk for academic failure, children who speak English as their second language, children with special needs, and children functioning at average levels but below their academic potential. Using Fast ForWord Language (or Fast ForWord Middle & High School for adolescents) all individuals averaged one to one and one-half year’s growth in language, phonological awareness, memory, and attention skills prerequisite for reading success after only six weeks of training. On Fast ForWord Language to Reading, children showed an average one and one-half year gain on reading decoding and comprehension tasks. Reading Edge, an assessment program developed by nationally recognized reading specialists, efficiently identifies those elementary aged children at risk for reading failure. And, Fast ForWord Bookshelf provides reading practice with a series of print storybooks and stories on CD that provide interactive reading practice to develop early reading skills.

Professional Development And Family Involvement
In addition to the extraordinary academic boost that the Fast ForWord family of programs provides for children, the administrative format of the training protocol has been developed to also allow for two more of the directives of the America Reads Challenge — professional development of teachers and maximal family involvement. Prior to initiating the Fast ForWord family of programs in any educational setting, Scientific Learning Corporation provides intensive professional development for all educators involved in the training. Professional development includes lectures on the research that lay the foundation for the training exercises as well as neuroscience principles found to drive the brain to learn more efficiently. Scientific Learning Corporation also conducts evening information sessions for parents of children interested in the programs or selected by the schools to participate in the programs. The parent information sessions also provide an introduction to the scientific research about reading and the neuroscience of learning.

Family Communication
After Fast ForWord Language, Fast ForWord Language to Reading, or Fast ForWord Middle & High School training begins, communication between the teachers, schools and parents is fostered in three ways. First, at the schools’ discretion, parents receive periodic progress reports, generated by the computer-based program, that show their child’s unique growth toward training goals. Second, parents are encouraged to participate in the child’s training by volunteering as adult monitors who are taught to supervise the children during the computer training. Finally, after training is complete, parents receive summary reports that teachers can use to guide the parents’ independent work with the child at home or counsel them about the child’s continuing educational needs.

Family Literacy
The Fast ForWord family of programs are unique in that they can also be used to promote family literacy. The adolescent-adult version, Fast ForWord Middle & High School, provides language and perceptual tasks with English phonemes to assist adults who have not received adequate literacy training themselves or whose first language is not English. Parents who desire the literacy training can receive the training in a computer lab alongside their child, or independently, at home. In a clinic in Evanston, Illinois a Korean-American family used Fast ForWord Language with their son and daughter, because they felt that the children, although good students, were at a disadvantage in school and extracurricular activities because their English was not as sophisticated or fluent as their peers. After training on Fast ForWord Language for five weeks, the children reported that they felt they could follow instructions better in school as well as during sports activities. The children’s teachers were thrilled at the improved attention and concentration skills the children exhibited after Fast ForWord Language. With this success, the children’s father decided to use the program himself for four weeks. He reported that after his training on the program, his reading and writing accuracy in English improved dramatically and he felt his Korean accent was less noticeable. But as important to him, he stated that he now understood nuances in the conversations of others that he had totally missed before going through the Fast ForWord Language program.

Effective for children with English as a Second Language
Finally, the Fast ForWord family of programs has been found especially effective with ESL children. In a presentation at the International Dyslexia Association conference in November, 1999 data were reported that indicated that ESL children who trained on Fast ForWord Language for six weeks showed twice the gains in language skills compared to a control group who received a standard educational curriculum during the same period. Of equal importance to educators, after the Fast ForWord Language training, the ESL learners in the study did not differ significantly from the native English speakers who also participated in the program.

Dr. Martha S. Burns is an Associate Adjunct Professor at Northwestern University and serves as a Senior Clinical Specialist for Scientific Learning Corporation. She was a practicing Speech-Language Pathologist for over thirty years. Dr. Burns has published numerous journal articles and three books on the neurological basis of speech and language.