Computer programs not mere child's play

Games that change speech sounds act as `eyeglasses for the ears'

May 03, 1999|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

TEMPLE, Texas -- Seated before a computer at Thornton Elementary School, 7-year-old Stephanie Taylor plays what looks like a Nintendo game. Crossing and uncrossing pink tennis shoes, she concentrates mightily on "Old MacDonald's Flying Farm."

The object of the game is to grasp and hold a flying animal while the player listens to a repeating sound. When the sound changes, Stephanie releases the animal with her mouse. It flies to safety, and Stephanie wins a point.

Stephanie is engaged in one of several new commercial programs designed to enhance phonemic awareness -- and "rewire" her brain.

"We're actually retraining Stephanie's brain," says Temple speech-language pathologist Elizabeth M. Pasichnyk, 45, who is working with Stephanie and other children at Thornton 100 minutes a day for eight weeks this spring to alter the neurological pathways in their minds.

The program's developers -- researchers at Rutgers University in New Jersey and the University of California in San Francisco -- claim children gain 1 1/2 to two years in language skills after four to eight weeks of training. Critics challenge these results, maintaining the program is expensive and unproven.

The Thornton program is called Fast ForWord. Its software changes the speech sounds that have eluded struggling youngsters like Stephanie, slowing the sounds down and then gradually speeding them up as the games become more advanced.

Programs like Fast ForWord and a competitor called Earobics have been called "eyeglasses for the ears." They're being marketed in schools, clinics and hospitals.

"I've become a believer," says Pasichnyk. She can point to dramatic gains in reading scores among Fast ForWord pupils at Thornton, and she's impressed that the program keeps a running record of how they're doing.

"I'm convinced that we're turning keys in these children's minds," says Pasichnyk. "I was a struggling reader myself, and my own reading has improved."

Fast ForWord is expensive. It costs Thornton $20,000 (including training of instructors) for 25 children to take an eight-week course.

Critics also challenge Fast ForWord's methodology. "There isn't enough evidence for this program to be considered a treatment for a reading disability," says Martha Bridge Denckla, a neurologist at the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore who does research on learning problems.

Thornton Principal Gale Leidy thinks it's worth it.

"These computerized programs are the wave of the future," she says. "If I have 22 kids in a class and four need help, I just don't have the teachers to give those four the one-on-one they need. I'd be totally selfish if something like Fast ForWord helped kids learn to read and I rejected it because it was too expensive."

Pub Date: 5/03/99

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