The truth about kids’ screen time and language delay, by Norene Wiesen

Chances are, you’re doing something else at the same time you’re reading this blog post—at least partially. Divided attention is just part of the programme in today’s “always-on” environment, and being constantly connected usually means spending a lot of time in front of a screen.

Not surprisingly, our kids’ screen time is increasing along with our own. As a result, language delays due to excessive screen time are becoming a cause for concern.

Too Much, Too Young

When children spend a lot of time in front of a screen—especially when that screen serves as a virtual babysitter for the child—it makes sense to expect that there’s going to be an impact.

One study published in Acta Paediatrica (Chonchaiya & Pruksananonda, 2008) found that children who started watching television before their first birthday, and who watched more than two hours per day, were six times more likely to have language delays than children in a control group.

The Dwindling Art of Two-Way Conversation

What seems to matter even more than the amount of screen time is the degree of adult involvement and interaction with that screen time. Both the Chonchaiya & Pruksananonda study and another study published inPEDIATRICS (Zimmerman, et al., 2009) have shown that when adults guide a child’s screen time and engage the child in two-way conversation about it, the detrimental effect on language development can be neutralized.

Children require conversation to develop robust language skills, and they need adults to invite and shape that conversation in ways that help them think about the world and formulate the language that expresses their thoughts. Even reading to children and telling them stories—both of which are important—are not enough by themselves to support healthy language development.

Connected vs. Connection

In some cases, it may actually be parents’ screen time that’s the problem. For a variety of reasons—including job pressures and shifts in culture—parent screen time has started to encroach upon family time, displacing adult-child interaction.

In her book, The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age, Catherine Steiner-Adair shares the stories of children and teenagers who are sidelined by their parents’ use of technology and who long for their undivided attention. The overwhelming message from the kids is that “it feels ‘bad and sad’ to be ignored.”

If kids aren’t getting the attention they want from their parents, how likely is it that they’re getting enough of the conversation that they need to develop important life skills—including language skills?

Language isn’t just a tool used to communicate at the dinner table or in the classroom; it’s a living part of who we are, and comes to life and grows in our relationships, our conversations, and in caring for—and being cared for—by others.

As hard as it can be to manage the competing demands of work and family—or to break the habit of being “always on”—there’s no substitute for listening, asking questions, and being interested in kids’ lives.

References:

Chonchaiya, W., & Pruksananonda, C. (2008). Television viewing associates with delayed language development. Acta Paediatrica, 97(7), 977-982.doi: 10.1111/j.1651-2227.2008.00831.x

Steiner-Adair, C. (2013). The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age. New York, NY: Harper.

Zimmerman, F.J., Gilkerson, J.,  Richards, J.A., Christakis, D.A., Xu, D., Gray, S., & Yapanel, U. (2009). Teaching by Listening: The Importance of Adult-Child Conversations to Language Development. Pediatrics124(1), 342-349doi: 10.1542/peds.2008-2267

Overcoming Language and Reading Problems: The Promise of Brain Plasticity by Martha Burns, Ph.D

“There is an endless war of nerves going on inside each of our brains. If we stop exercising our mental skills, we do not just forget them: the brain map space for those skills is turned over to the skills we practice instead. If you ever ask yourself, ‘How often must I practice French, or guitar, or math to keep on top of it?’ you are asking a question about competitive plasticity. You are asking how frequently you must practice one activity to make sure its brain map space is not lost to another.”

-Norman Doidge in The Brain that Changes Itself

The Critical Period

From our very earliest days, our brain begins to map itself to the world as we experience it through our senses. The mapping is vague at first, lacking detail, but the more we interact with the world, the more well-defined our brain maps become until they are fully formed and differentiated.

“The critical period” is the name given to the time in infancy and early childhood during which our brain is so plastic that its structure is easily changed by simple exposure to new things in the environment. Babies, for example, learn the sounds of language and words effortlessly by listening to their parents speak. Inside the brain, what this learning looks like is the brain actually rewiring itself to change its own structure.

Use It or Lose It: Training the Brain to Form New Maps

Just a few decades ago, the prevailing scientific view held that the brain was a finely tuned machine that operated within a fixed scope of ability once the critical period had passed. But in the 1990s, through a series of experiments with monkeys, Dr. Michael Merzenich discovered that our brains can change well past the critical period—and indeed throughout our lives. But learning that takes place after the critical period is no longer effortless, and children and adults must work hard to pay attention to the new information that they wish to absorb and master.

The maxim commonly used to describe the phenomenon of neural learning is “neurons that fire together wire together,” and it’s this “wiring together” that results in the corresponding structural changes in the brain. Timing is key to the process, with neurons that fire simultaneously wiring together to create a map.

The space allocated to a neural map evolves over a number of stages. When learning is taking place, a relatively large space is allocated to the map. Once a skill is established, the mapped neurons become so efficient that fewer are needed—allowing some of the map space to be reallocated again for new learning. It’s a practical use-it-or-lose-it process that allows us to continue picking up new skills without bumping into space limits in the brain. Taking up a musical instrument such as violin, for example, causes more map space to be allocated to the playing fingers, and consequently, less space is allocated where there is lower demand.

As we develop mastery of a skill, our neurons not only grow to be more efficient, but they also begin to process faster. With that faster processing they tend to fire together more readily as well, creating more groups of neurons that send out clearer signals. The clarity of those signals has a great deal to do with how well the brain learns and remembers what the neurons have processed. The clearer the signal, the more clearly the brain remembers.

But what if there are gaps or inefficiencies in the maps that have been established?

From the Lab to the Learner

Dr. Merzenich had become interested in the work of Dr. Paula Tallal at Rutgers University. Dr. Tallal was interested in understanding why some children have more trouble than others when it comes to learning to read. Her research had shown that auditory processing problems were causing the “fast parts” of speech—common combinations of consonants and vowels that are pronounced very quickly—to be problematic for children with language difficulties.

Dr. Merzenich believed the problem was a matter of the children’s auditory processing speed lagging behind the speed of the speech sounds, resulting in an inability to distinguish differences between similar sounds or to perceive the correct sequence of sounds when they occurred in rapid succession.

Another known contributing factor was that of neural readiness. After processing a sound, neurons require a rest period before they can fire again. Normally this rest period is about 30 milliseconds, but for most children with language impairments it takes at least three times as long for the neuron to recover. The result is that a lot of critical language information is simply missed during the rest period.

Merzenich and Tallal believed they could combine forces to effectively help children who struggled to read. In 1996, Merzenich and his colleague Dr. Bill Jenkins teamed up with Tallal and her colleague Dr. Steve Miller to develop a real-world application of the science of neural plasticity by creating a product that could help struggling readers rewire their brains. From this union, Scientific Learning was born.

Fast ForWord

The partnership between Merzenich, Jenkins, Tallal, and Miller resulted in the software product that today we call Fast ForWord. Fast ForWord was carefully designed in the guise of a video game that could challenge and develop cognitive skills like memory, attention, processing speed, and sequencing as well as language and reading skills from phonemic awareness to decoding and comprehension.

Merzenich and Jenkins wanted Fast ForWord to trigger the children’s brains to secrete dopamine and acetylcholine—neurotransmitters that help lock in learning. Because the brain secretes these neurotransmitters when it gets rewarded, a generous supply of entertaining animations was built into the product to play spontaneously when a child achieved a goal.

From the very beginning, Fast ForWord elicited remarkable results. Children who participated in the initial field trial boosted their language development by 1.8 years, on average, in just six weeks. A subsequent study at Stanford University, dyslexic children’s brains showed increased activity in several areas after Fast ForWord, bringing them more in line with the patterns seen in typical readers’ brains. The dyslexic children’s brains had shown different patterns of activity before Fast ForWord (as revealed by fMRI).

In the 14 years since the field trial, Fast ForWord has been used by more than 2.7 million children around the world, with achievement gains of up to two years in as little as three months. During this time, school-based results—such as those at St. Mary Parish Public School System in Louisiana—have demonstrated that Fast ForWord can improve test scores across subject areas. And many additional research studies have corroborated the effectiveness of the Fast ForWord program for building cognitive, language, and reading skills.

In a 2010 study at Wilkes University in Pennsylvania, Beth Rogowsky found that Fast ForWord significantly improved students’ grammar skills as measured by the Written Expression Scale from the Oral and Written Language Scales (OWLS). A subsequent study by Dr. Rogowsky published in 2013 showed that college students who used Fast ForWord increased their reading and writing skills significantly more than students in a comparison group as measured by the Gates MacGinitie Reading Test and the OWLS.

The Brain That Changes Itself

Our current understanding of how the brain changes itself in response to experience opens the door to mind-bending possibilities. With the development of newer, smaller, and faster technologies, there’s no telling how Merzenich’s revolutionary discovery of brain plasticity past the critical period will impact the future of education.

What is certain is that true brain-based learning has arrived, that it’s available today, and that children around the world are overcoming language and reading problems that not long ago were often considered insurmountable.

References:

Doidge, N. (2007). The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science. London: Penguin Books.

Help Your Young Child Build Literacy by Beth Connelly, MS CCC-SLP

During the earliest years of life, the brain sets up for learning through the development of language. This foundation has been shown to be the bedrock of school learning and the roadblock to success for many students.

Language is a complex, multidimensional system that supports decoding and comprehension as children learn to read. The formal skills necessary to create mental models of text not only for reading but for following instructions, interpreting stories and content and other higher order skills depend upon language abilities that have been developing since birth.

Baby Talk

Talking to children from infancy is key to building language skills. “Baby talk,” aka “parentese,” is a singsong way of talking to children while exaggerating facial expressions. It is spoken around the world—not just in English-speaking countries—and is stimulating to infants as they map the key sounds and patterns of language.

Daily Talk

Parents and caregivers teach children what words mean (“doggie”, “cup”, etc.), how to make new words (i.e. happy, happier, unhappy), how to put words together (i.e. “Ryan went to the corner store” rather than “Ryan went to the store corner”) and what combinations work best in different situations (“May I please have a toy” rather than “Give me that!”- also referred to as pragmatic skills).

Talking to children about daily activities, such as about how things are the same and different, enhances communication skills. Reviewing the days’ activities with children builds language and memory skills as well as sequencing skills. Rhyming and word play help children to begin to break words into sounds which will build into reading skills later on.

Reading With Expression

It is important to read to children with expression from an early age. Six-month-old babies can enjoy picture books while they build vocabulary and language comprehension. Pre-school children, age 5, were studied by Mira and Schwanenflugel at the University of Georgia (2013), who found that the degree of expressiveness of the reader has an impact on how much of the story children are to able recall. This affects language processing so necessary for school success.

What You Can Do

Parents and early childhood educators can help young children build language skills with simple and fun activities that fit naturally into the day:

  1. Use parentese with very young children in the home and classroom
  2. Talk to children during daily events and activities to build vocabulary and language structure
  3. Play! Initiate and encourage active engagement with the environment
  4. Model reading with expression
  5. Read age-appropriate texts aloud on a regular basis
  6. Engage children in discussion and provide opportunities for problem solving
  7. Model turn-taking and discourse, essential pragmatic skills for social and academic success

Avoid or reduce exposure to TV—even educational programming—in favour of person-to-person interaction. Helping young children build strong language skills is fun, and it’s also one of the most important things parents and educators can do to establish the necessary foundation for success in school and in life.

Reference:

Mira W.A., & Schwanenflugel P.J. (2013). The impact of reading expressiveness on the listening comprehension of storybooks by prekindergarten children. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools. 44(2), 183-94. doi: 10.1044/0161-1461(2012/11-0073)

Related reading:

The Speech and Language Connection: The Nursery Rhyme Effect (Part 1)

The Speech and Language Connection: The Nursery Rhyme Effect (Part 2)

Girl Brains and Boy Brains: What Educators and Parents Need to Know by Bill Jenkins, Ph.D.

Many a study has laid out the innate physiological differences between the male and female brain. Michael D. De Bellis and his team of researchers, for example, clearly showed how the maturing brain differs between boys and girls, and how those differences vary over the course of regular development.

Based on the work of De Bellis et al., we know, for example, that the proportions of white matter to grey matter predictably vary between the genders. We also know that the volume of the corpus callosum area is proportionally different between males and females. And of course, we know that the varying levels of testosterone and estrogen create behavioral differences, especially during pre-adolescence and adolescence. (2001)

With these findings in mind, the question arises: Can such information help us better educate our young people? And maybe more importantly, should it be used to differentiate instruction based on gender?

Caryl Rivers and Rosalind C. Barnett, authors of The Truth About Girls and Boys: Challenging Toxic Stereotypes About Our Children (Columbia University Press, 2011), argue that boys’ and girls’ brains and ways of thinking are actually much more the same than they are different, and that “the differences that do exist are trivial.”

Nevertheless, there is a current trend of well-meaning educators and parents citing these brain differences to support gender stereotypes—a trend that is damaging to learners as individuals and to our society as a whole, says Catherine A. Cardno in her recent EdWeek review of the book. The following are a few of the stereotypes often expounded:

  • Males and females have different aptitudes for math and science.
  • Boys and girls have substantially different communications styles.
  • The sexes are suited for specific career paths solely because of their gender.
  • Boys and girls learn better in single-sex, gender-differentiated learning environments.

She cites a caution the authors make in their introduction, that “Today, parents and educators are being fed a diet of junk science that is at best a misunderstanding of the research and at worst what amounts to a deliberate fraud on the American public.”

In her book Pink Brain, Blue Brain, Lise Eliot, associate professor of neuroscience at the Chicago Medical School, discusses her conclusions after comprehensively reviewing the research on the child through adolescent brain. Her conclusion is that there is “surprisingly little evidence of sex differences in children’s brains.” (2009) The real differences, she says, arise from the neuroplastic nature of the brain and how children’s ways of thinking differentiate along gender lines over time as a result of the input they receive via parents, friends, relatives and educators – NOT because of any innate physiological variations between the sexes.

It is thus our role and responsibility as educators to be aware of the pitfalls of gender-based – and all – stereotyping in our classrooms that we may be perpetuating. Only through completely supporting each learner – regardless of their skin color, SES, gender or any other difference – can we ensure that they will reach their greatest potential.

What New Research Tell Us About Language-Based Learning Disabilities, by Martha Burns Ph.D

For decades, most child language scientists have believed that human beings possess an innate capacity to learn the language spoken to them during the first few years of life. Indeed, the vast majority of children worldwide are never “taught” their mother tongue; rather, they acquire it naturally, just by living in a world where people are speaking the language.

Parsing Speech Sounds

Child language specialists have a word for the ability to tease out the sounds within words—they call it “parsing”. When children are first learning their native language they must also “parse” words into sounds so that they can figure out all the sounds in a word as well as the sequence of those sounds. All children have to learn to do this.

Children’s speech errors, like saying “top” for stop or “aminal” for animal,often reflect trouble children have with parsing. Language learning also requires parsing to learn grammatical forms like plural or verb tenses. The difference between the words rock, rocked and rocks necessitates the ability to distinguish all the sounds in each word. But for children with language-learning disabilities, it turns out that this problem parsing words into sounds is particularly difficult, and it affects not only language learning, but also reading and other school achievement.

Audiologists (hearing specialists) and brain researchers have long been interested in how the brain is able to parse words into relevant speech sounds and why some children struggle so much with that task. New research centering on the electrical brain signals picked up by electroencephalogram (EEG) is clarifying the relationship between auditory processing—specifically the ability to parse sounds in words—and language learning.

Brain wave oscillation bands—sometimes thought of as differing brain wave patterns—appear to be a major mechanism coordinating billions of nerves across different brain regions to perform even basic cognitive tasks such as paying attention to someone who is talking and understanding what they are saying. These bands are grouped by their frequency; so-called alpha bands, beta bands, gamma bands and theta bands all refer to brain oscillations of different frequencies.

Brain scientists have discovered ways to use features of these oscillations bands to “see” how different parts of the brain work together. Katia Lehongre and colleagues have found that in humans, gamma bands are especially important for parsing words into sounds. Significantly, in children with language-based learning disabilities (including dyslexia) and children with aspects of language learning disabilities—poor auditory working memory and rapid naming—language and reading problems appear to be related to specific differences in brain oscillation patterns in the areas of the brain important for learning language.

New Research Questions

Scientists postulate that some children’s brains may be inefficient for learning language, but very efficient for certain other aspects of learning—perhaps visual processing or even aspects of sound processing important for musical learning. What might cause differences in brain oscillation patterns is largely unknown and open to speculation, but for parents and teachers who work with struggling learners, the question to ask is:

Does remediation of the brain wave patterns improve language skills in children with language problems?

A study published in January 2013, addressed that question and found that the answer is “yes”.

Sabime Heim and colleagues at the Center for Molecular and Behavioral Neuroscience, Rutgers University, examined whether oscillations in the gamma band range of the auditory cortex of children with specific language impairments (SLI) change after a specific kind of audio-visual training (Fast ForWord Language), and if that change resulted in improved gamma band efficiency as well as language skills among those children. Study details:

  • Twenty-one elementary school students diagnosed with language learning impairment (LLI) underwent the intervention for an average of 32 days.
  • Pre- and post-training assessments included standardized language/literacy tests and EEG recordings.
  • A control group of twelve children with no language difficulties received the same testing, but no intervention was given.

Questions

The ability to efficiently perceive and sequence two non-speech sounds presented as quickly as speech sounds are in words is often referred to as Rapid Auditory Processing (RAP).

Heim et al wanted to know:

  1. In children with language learning problems who have problems parsing words into sounds, could their difficulty with RAP be seen in the efficiency measure of the gamma band oscillations?
  2. Does intervention with the Fast ForWord Language program, designed in part to improve RAP, improve gamma band efficiency measures and if so…
  3. Does an improvement in gamma band efficiency correlate with improvements in language?

Answers

EEG measures made by the authors before Fast ForWord Language showed what they expected— reduced efficiency components of the oscillations in the gamma-band range (29–52 Hz) among the children with LLI. The reductions occurred where the scientists expected, on the second of two rapidly presented tones. Some answers to the questions above:

  1. In short, the answer is yes. The children with language-based learning disabilities did in fact have a reduction in brain activity associated with sounds that occur as rapidly as speech sounds do during normal talking.
  2. In answer to the second question—do the brain efficiency measures and language skills improve after training?—the authors found that yes, there was an improvement in gamma band efficiency. Amplitude, one of the two efficiency measures, was no longer reduced on the second tone after Fast ForWord training.
  3. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, improvements in gamma band efficiency did – in the majority of cases- correlate with language improvements on standardized tests. The children with language-based learning disabilities who had used Fast ForWord Language showed improvements in core language skills, expressive language skills, and receptive language skills (as measured by the CELF-4).

The authors concluded that measures of brain wave efficiency are not only correlated with auditory processing problems in children with language-based learning disabilities, but that the Fast ForWord Language program improves at least one measure of the brain wave efficiency and that is in turn correlated with improvements both in RAP accuracy and also language skills.

References:

Heim, S., Keil, A., Choudhury, N., Thomas Friedman, J. & Benasich, A. (2013). Early gamma oscillations during rapid auditory processing in children with a language-learning impairment: Changes in neural mass activity after training. Neuropsychologia, 51, 990-1001.

Lehongre, K., Ramus, F., Villiermet, N., Schwartz, D., & Giraud, A. (2011)Altered Low-Gamma Sampling in Auditory Cortex Accounts for the Three Main Facets of Dyslexia. Neuron, 72, 1080–1090.

Siegel, M., Donner, T., & Engel, A. (2012) Spectral fingerprints of large-scale neuronal interactions. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 13, 121-131.

Related reading:

Fast ForWord® Language Series Has Greatest Impact of Any Intervention Listed by NCRTI

Language Skills Increase 1.8 Years After 30 Days Using Fast ForWord