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Mark’s Literacy Struggles

From an early age, Mark had difficulty reading. Like other struggling readers, he had trouble decoding and comprehending and received intensive direct phonics instruction during second grade. Mark also completed a computer-based supplemental reading program. Yet, he continued to read slowly and effortfully, and comprehension problems persisted even when he decoded accurately.

Toward the end of third grade, a school psychologist diagnosed him with attentional problems and verbal and nonverbal working memory issues. The psychologist found that Mark had learned to decode accurately, but his distractibility caused him to lose his place frequently. His poor working memory meant he forgot what he’d read, further compounding his comprehension problems. As a result, he repeatedly re-read texts with little to no benefit and became frustrated by the effort required to complete his assignments.

At this point, Mark was demoralized, his parents were concerned, and his teachers weren’t sure what to do next. Since reading well is one of the major predictors of academic success, not to mention a stepping stone to greater confidence, everyone wanted Mark to succeed.

Mark’s Literacy Successes

As soon as Mark was referred to me, I suggested he begin participating in a different computer-based intervention than the one he’d been doing. The program included the decoding and comprehension lessons he was used to, but the reading tasks included training in building attention and working memory as they pertained to reading. It also had literacy-specific components designed to build other EF skills, such as cognitive flexibility and self-regulation. Lastly, the program was highly adaptive, meaning that it addressed Mark’s specific challenges and prioritized the skill-building Mark needed most. 

So what was this reading program that provided EF skills embedded in literacy training? It’s called Fast ForWord.  

And did it work? Absolutely.

By the middle of fourth grade, Mark was an avid reader. He enjoyed reading so much that, according to his mother, he now read independently on nights and weekends. Sometimes Mark became so mesmerized by books that he would get annoyed when his parents interrupted his reading. Although very social, he often ignored texts from his friends until he finished a chapter.

When his parents asked Mark why he now liked reading so much, he said, “I’m really good at it. My teacher says I’m one of her best readers.”

Although Mark is an exceptional example of the power of Fast ForWord, many clinicians like me have seen students like Mark make a U-turn in as little time as a year. Of the hundreds of students I’ve worked with, the vast majority improved significantly using Fast ForWord. Several moved out of special education, and others stopped requiring supplemental services altogether. One of my Fast ForWord users recently became a licensed pediatric clinical psychologist, another a well-respected software engineer.

The Fast ForWord exercise Flying Fish provides an example of an activity that embeds EF skill-building into literacy instruction.

Learning from Mark’s Literacy Experience

Circling back to Mark, our struggling reader turned literacy all-star, Fast ForWord was the right program for him because his reading struggles were as tied to EF issues as they were to basic literacy skills. The EF tasks embedded in Fast ForWord augmented Mark’s other reading instruction and helped him overcome both his literacy and EF challenges.

What’s the lesson in all this?

Struggling readers can become our best readers if we combine direct reading instruction with supplemental training that builds literacy-specific EF skills. Teaching these essential EF skills as they are used in reading might be the missing people of the puzzle needed to help all struggling readers thrive.

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Dr Martha Burns / Director of Neuroscience Education /Carnegie Learning, Inc.

Dr. Martha Burns is an Adjunct Associate Professor at Northwestern University and has authored four books and over 100 journal articles on the neuroscience of language and communication. Dr. Burns’ expertise is in all areas related to the neuroscience of learning, such as language and reading in the brain, the bilingual brain, the language to literacy continuum, and the adolescent brain. Dr. Martha Burns is a Fellow of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association and the Director of Neuroscience Education for Carnegie Learning.