Computer helps kids read -- and more

January 22, 2011

A computer program designed for children who struggle with language and literacy has had such a profound effect in Surrey schools that the people involved say they've been moved to tears.

""Lives have been changed,"" Sandy Collins, a speech-language pathologist, said when asked about a U.S. program being adopted by B.C. schools that's based on years of research into neuroplasticity -- the discovery that the human brain can be ""rewired"" to overcome learning deficiencies and disabilities.
""It's the most important development in my 30-year career,"" she added.
In fact, when Collins and colleague Joyce Seeley discuss their efforts to help students who have difficulties processing acoustic information, they divide their experience into two camps -- that which occurred before the Fast ForWord program was created in the mid-1990s and that which happened afterwards.
The software is not strictly about reading, even though literacy is the goal. Rather, it is designed to change the way students process the smallest units of sound, which are so tiny that they occur within milliseconds and can't be reproduced by the human voice.
It's information that is missed by children who can't process sounds quickly enough, Collins explained.
That's where this technology comes in. Through the use of computer exercises and headphones, students of all ages can be exposed to sounds within sounds that are drawn out until they are able to distinguish them separately and, later, understand how they fit together into phonemes, the building blocks of all languages. The sounds are presented as a game, with rewards for correct answers and advancement based on individual results.
The program, developed and distributed by Scientific Learning Corporation of California, is not standard fare in Canadian schools. New Brunswick and B.C. have shown the most interest to date, with Surrey becoming a leader in this province due to the enthusiasm of superintendent Mike McKay. Coquitlam has had the longest experience, having started offering Fast ForWord in 2003.
The B.C. Education Ministry has also encouraged Fast ForWord. In 2009, it provided a small grant to four public-school districts -- Surrey, Burnaby, the Sunshine Coast and Central Okanagan -- to evaluate Fast ForWord products aimed at special-needs children. Following positive findings, a B.C. consortium that acquires learning resources for public and private-school members negotiated a special discounted price with the company.
Surrey has been offering Fast ForWord in 21 locations, each of which has two work stations. The one-time licensing fee for each site is $12,000 and there is an annual site maintenance charge of $3,000.
That's expensive in a sector always strapped for cash, but Collins insists it's a price worth paying. ""You can't afford not to
[pay it]. It's like saying you can't afford penicillin.""
Outside the province, the district that has shown the most interest in Fast ForWord is Miramichi in New Brunswick.
Only one school in Ontario uses Fast ForWord and it reports remarkable results in Toronto's troubled Jane Finch neighbourhood. Rob Lines, the veteran teacher who administers the program at Yorkwoods Public School, said his students love it and for some, it's the only reason they keep coming to school.
""It's a very empowering program,"" he said during an interview, noting that struggling students are allowed to make their mistakes ""within the privacy of their own headphones"" rather than in front of a classroom of peers.
Lines has tried other programs during his 30 years in special education but found positive outcomes were fleeting. ""There are temporary benefits for kids, but I've never seen anything
[else] that lasts,"" he said.
""This is cutting edge and this is where we have to go -- and I don't say that lightly.""
Carol Todd, a special-needs teacher at Coquitlam's Kilmer elementary, shares his enthusiasm, although she noted in an e-mail that Fast ForWord is only one of several programs that support literacy learning in the district. Still, she said, the program's use of technology is appealing to a generation in love with video games and she likes the way the program tracks and records individual progress.
""I believe that Fast ForWord is one of the programs out there that has made positive impact.""