Mona Shield Payne
Sunday, June 21, 2009 | 10:27 a.m.
Beyond the SunMartha P. King Elementary School
The 44 children sitting in front of computers in two classrooms at Martha P. King Elementary School look like they are playing educational video games. With headphones on, they point and click while cartoon images show them matching sounds and words.
But this is no ordinary game to strengthen reading skills. The Fast ForWord program has 30 years of scientific research behind it, Principal Lee Esplin said it is designed to strengthen connections in the brain that help children focus better and build mental skills.
It’s kind of like P.E. for the brain.
The program has both an auditory element – directions spoken into the headphones that can be slowed down, so children understand them – and the video side, Esplin said. The program asks the children to listen for differences in very similar sounding words, and the directions are repeated until the children catch on.
The program begins at very basic levels and moves up to parts of speech and punctuation.
The idea, Esplin said, is to use repetition on tasks that require focus to strengthen the connections between the front and rear lobes of the brain.
MRIs done of children’s brains showed that good readers have a lot of brain activity in the rear portion, while poor readers have a lot of brain activity in the frontal area, he said. Strengthening the connections between the two helps children focus better and gives them the ability to be better readers, he said.
“If students are struggling with reading, they are struggling with math and everything else,” Esplin said. “That’s the base.”
The students — in first through sixth grade — spend 90 minutes four mornings a week in front of the computers, taking breaks when they feel like it and moving at their own pace. The program beeps at them if their minds wander, said instructor Tonya Peplowski, who said she has seen some real progress in students who have used the program in the seven years the school has had it.
Peplowski pointed to one boy in the summer session who got up from his seat five times the first day, twice the second day and only once the third day. During the school year, she said, she put one student who had trouble paying attention on the program during reading time, and when the girl returned to her classroom, she was able to do the entire period’s work in the short amount of time left.
Peplowski said she has seen students increase their reading ability by several levels.
It seems to have the most dramatic effect in students who are bright but have trouble focusing, she said.
“It forces them to focus and pay attention to the task,” she said. “It teaches them to pay attention to detail.”
Steven Smith, who will be in sixth grade at Garrett Middle School in the fall, said he didn’t mind spending his mornings at school instead of at play.
“It’s kind of fun,” he said. “It’s not quite school, and not quite video games.”
He signed up on the recommendation of a teacher, he said, and he has seen his reading grade rise from a C to a high B.
“It’s good,” he said.
Lyda Stewart drives her son Tevin, 10, who will be in fifth grade at Edna Hinman Elementary School in the fall, to Boulder City for the program, which was recommended to the family. Tevin has a high IQ but low reading level, she said.
Stewart wasn’t impressed the first couple of days, she said, but by the fourth day, teachers were able to tell her that Tevin had some auditory problems, which impressed her.
Tevin was impressed that he earned enough points for a prize at the end of the first week, she said.
It’s a good way to spend the summer mornings, instructor Sara Carroll said.
“The kids are doing something academic in the summer,” she said. “Then when school starts again, they can move through the classroom.”