Educators

Paula Tallal, Ph.D.Ask the Scientist:

What are the neurobiological and environmental factors that drive individual differences in language and literacy development? And how can we use this information to potentially improve children's literacy in schools?

Featured Scientist: Paula Tallal, Ph.D., Rutgers University, Email: tallal@axon.rutgers.edu TDLC Co-Director, Education and Outreach; Co-Director, Ctr for Molecular and Behavioral Neuroscience, Rutgers; Co-Founder and a Director of the Scientific Learning Corporation

What are the neurobiological and environmental factors that drive individual differences in language and literacy development? And how can we use this information to potentially improve children's literacy in schools?

Literacy scores of US students are low, despite tremendous addition of money and input to the educational system. And the achievement gap between the "haves" and "have-nots" continues to grow. Our goal is to "build better learners." Our schools focus on improving teaching, improving classrooms and curriculum, discussing types of schools (charter schools, public schools, etc.). Why do we focus so little on the learner? What can we do to improve the learner in this whole system?

My research is focused on understanding the neurobiological and environmental factors that drive individual differences in language and literacy development. We are interested in how individual differences in language development relate to reading and academic achievement. And how academic achievement itself might be able to be enhanced by strengthening the foundational perceptual and cognitive capacities that support lifelong learning.

Understanding the importance of auditory processing speed is really important for understanding how language works in the brain. The actual precision of timing in the auditory system determines what words we actually hear. For example, children with language learning problems can't sequence two simple tones that differ in frequency when they are presented rapidly in succession. In order to become a proficient reader and to learn how to spell, we need to hear these small acoustic differences in words and learn that it's those acoustic differences that actually go with the letters. And we know from years of research that most children that are dyslexic have difficulty in this process of hearing the small sounds inside of words and becoming aware that those phonemes are what really attach to the letters or the graphics. So, "When you think about memory, think about time. If you can't process it, you can't remember it."

But schools are not focusing on improving the neural capacities of students. It has been commonly believed that children enter school with differing (genetically endowed) brain capacities and that teachers have to make-do with these individual differences in learning capacity. But recent breakthroughs in the neurscience of learning have demonstrated that this view is fundamentally wrong. (Merzenich and Jenkins, 1993). The brain is remarkably plastic and can be modified through environmental training. That is probably what music is doing.

My goal is to try to study what exactly IS music doing? What parts of it are most important? And can we simulate some of those parts potentially for enhancement of those kids who do not get music in school? Scientific Learning Corporation has created the FastForward Program: making neuroprocessing, neurolinguistic, and memory-training exercises fun through computer games. These exercises use the variables that drive neuroplasticity (frequency, adaptivity, sustained attention, and timely rewards).

Research in the school system has found that the FastForward intervention improves educational outcomes by building up the basic neural capacities that underlie sustainable, lifelong learning. Temporal thresholds can be modifiable -- they are very plastic - and brain activity changes. For example, after auditory language training of children with dyslexia, metabolic brain activity more closely resembled "normal" readers, and reading improved enormously. So, improving neural capacities has been shown to improve student performance, independent of content (language, math, science) or curriculum used (Tallal, 2004). Even children's math scores improved tremendously, even though the intervention does not train math; it trains the brain's precision to process auditory and language information. Our research shows how important language is for ALL academic achievement.

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