LearnFast was established to bring the world’s best neuroscience-based learning programs, including Fast ForWord and Reading Assistant to students in schools, professional clinics and homes. We are driven by the desire to help as many children as possible overcome learning and reading difficulties. We are passionate about helping every child achieve their potential. This is reflected in everything we do, from the people we hire, to the way the programs are implemented.
LearnFast is based in Pymble, Sydney and provides evidence based programs in Australia & New Zealand.
Contact us to discuss how the LearnFast programs can help your students today.
Devon Barnes is a speech pathologist and audiologist who has worked with children struggling with language, learning and reading difficulties for over 40 years. Many times during those decades when working with a learning disabled child she would remark to colleagues, “If only there was some way to get into their brains and reorganise them, perhaps we could fix the problems”.
In 1997 Devon read about the work of Dr Paula Tallal, a renowned neuroscientist and decided to travel to the University of York in England to hear Dr Tallal present the results of the early trials of a set of exercises which were to become the foundation for the development of Fast ForWord. The results were so impressive, Devon realised she had found something that could potentially ‘re-wire’ the brains of learning disabled clients.
The following year Devon completed Scientific Learning Corporation’s Fast ForWord Professional Provider training in New York and commenced offering the programs at her speech pathology and learning centre in Sydney.
Since 1999 LearnFast has provided Neuroscience-based programs in Australia, adding New Zealand in 2007.
Contact us if you are interested in joining the LearnFast team.
Founded in 1996, Scientific Learning (Nasdaq: SCIL) combines the latest advances in brain research and proprietary technology to create products and services that develop learning and communication skills. Based on more than 30 years of neuroscience research, Scientific Learning’s Fast ForWord® family of products use patented technology to target the language and reading skills widely recognized as the keys to all learning.
In March of 1997, after an extensive field trial with almost 500 children at 35 sites, the Company launched its first Fast ForWord® product, Fast ForWord Language software, an Internet and CD-ROM product that develops the fundamental language skills that are the building blocks for reading success. Later that year, a second field trial, with almost 500 students in 19 schools across the U.S., replicated earlier results, showing gains of 1-2 years in 4 to 8 weeks of working on Fast ForWord Language software.
Fast ForWord® Language to Reading software, designed to rapidly build the skills critical for learning to read or become a better reader, was released in 1998.
In 1999, the Company introduced Fast ForWord® Middle & High School software, designed for middle and high school students and adults to reinforce and strengthen basic language skills and develop critical reading skills.
In 2000, the Company introduced Fast ForWord® Reading software, a flexible product that is designed to build reading skills and is correlated to curriculum standards.
Numerous independent studies as well as detailed research and outcomes data consistently confirm the effectiveness of these products.
Publications such as The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Newsweek, Time and others have reported on the powerful science behind the Company’s products as well as the success experienced by students across the country. Today, the Company continues to employ the latest developments in neuroscience and technology to create cutting edge tools to enhance learning and performance.
Scientific Learning applies advances in neuroscience and cognitive research to increase human potential. They produce unique products, tools, and implementation strategies that enable people to build the fundamental cognitive abilities required to read and learn. They use technology, as appropriate, to provide their customers with the applications that allow each learner to progress based on his or her individual needs.
Throughout the history of science, some of the most notable discoveries have come as a result of collaboration. Think Watson and Crick, who uncovered the structure of DNA; the Leakey family, whose work revealed the origins of man; and Albert Einstein and Marcel Grossman, who together developed the general theory of relativity.
A more recent collaboration among four neuroscientists resulted in another exciting revelation: that the underlying cognitive processes that influence speech and language problems could be identified – and permanently improved. These findings led to the development of Fast ForWord, the groundbreaking, computer-based, reading-intervention tool.
Fast ForWord is a product that represents the perfect convergence of neuroscience, technology, and education. But the story of how Fast ForWord came into existence is a tale of science, discovery, and serendipity.
As a student at the University of Portland in the early 1960s, Michael Merzenich discovered an interest in science that led him to the field of neuroscience. Merzenich earned his Ph.D. in neurophysiology at Johns Hopkins and went on to the University of California at San Francisco, where he pursued a deep interest in how the brain processes information. Among his achievements: developing the cochlear implant, which electrically translates acoustic signals into the nerves used for hearing.
During the 1970s and 1980s, Merzenich and his colleagues ran a series of experiments designed to illuminate how the brain interpreted stimuli. Cortical mapping revealed that the brain could and would adapt when influenced by sensory experiences – in other words, the brain actually changed physiologically when it learned or experienced something new. Merzenich and his team demonstrated that the adult brain could change in response to a variety of non-behavioral manipulations; more significantly, collaborative experiments by Merzenich and William Jenkins, Ph.D. – who joined the UCSF lab in 1980 — showed the adult brain also demonstrated change and adaptation in response to behavioural stimuli.
“We established that the brain is modified on a substantial scale, both physically and functionally, each time we learn a new skill or develop a new ability,” said Merzenich. “Our brains were created to reinvent and reconfigure themselves throughout our lifetimes.”
Merzenich made this ability, known as brain plasticity, his team’s primary research focus. Another exciting discovery emerged when Jenkins spearheaded a 1990 behavioural study: that progressive training could actually accelerate the rate at which the brain changed. This led the researchers to start envisioning practical applications for this knowledge.
“Understanding the plasticity of the brain is a great leap forward, but knowing what we know isn’t worth much without bringing it into a practical reality,” said Merzenich.
Meanwhile, a young researcher named Paula Tallal pursuing her Ph.D. in experimental psychology decided to focus on non-linguistic rapid auditory processing deficits in children suffering from language-learning impairments. She theorised that their speech and language difficulties were related to auditory processing problems, meaning the children had difficulty distinguishing between speech sounds. She found that that these children did well discriminating long-duration speech sounds, but had trouble differentiating rapid sounds such as “ba” and “da.”
Intrigued, she used a computerised speech synthesizer to extend the duration of these quick sounds from the typical 40 milliseconds to twice that or more and tested the children with the modified sounds. Amazingly, the children were now able to distinguish between the sounds.
“This was a unique and completely novel finding,” says Tallal. “We were able to find the root of the difficulty in temporal-spectral processing, and you could manipulate the results by changing the duration of the sounds.”
Tallal’s work also showed that this basic acoustic processing weakness also interfered with the processing of speech syllables that differed only in terms of rapid acoustic changes within their acoustic spectrum.
Tallal published her groundbreaking research in 1973, 1974, and 1975, and over the next two decades continued her work investigating language acquisition in children while holding academic positions at Johns Hopkins University, the University of California at San Diego, and ultimately Rutgers University. However, despite authoring numerous papers about language delays and difficulties and the connection to cognitive neuroscience, she remained frustrated about not being able to find practical applications that would allow these ideas to be used for remediation or intervention.
But a chance encounter would change all that.
In 1993, the Santa Fe Institute, a think tank devoted to fostering multidisciplinary collaboration between scientists who might not otherwise work together, held a conference at which Merzenich, Tallal, and Steven Miller – who was working with Tallal as a post-doctoral graduate student – were invited to present their research. When she and Merzenich heard each other speak, says Tallal, it all fell into place.
“It really clicked that we should work together,” she says. “Mike had been doing research with primates and showed that you actually could improve the neural maps of these monkeys. We realised we should see what could happen if we used this neuroplasticity-based approach to address the temporal-spectral processing abilities of children.”
Steve Miller says the implications were exciting: “Mike told Paula he believed that the skills (in children) she was finding to be deficient could be trained and improved, and if that were true, those perceptual improvements would lead to grand changes in the learning machinery of the brain.”
Merzenich saw the possibilities, too. “Bill Jenkins and I had discussed using our training tools, as applied in monkeys, in a game-like format for impaired human populations, and we both realised that Paula’s kind of kid problem might be addressed with our kind of solution,” says Merzenich.
The four scientists obtained research funding from the Dana Foundation to develop model training tools designed to test that theory. They decided to try two approaches – first, to acoustically alter speech to extend the duration between transitions and to amplitude-alter the quick pieces of the sound; and second, to determine whether they could use neuroplasticity principles from Merzenich and Jenkins’s animal-research work as the basis of a training program that could actually speed up auditory processing rates.
Jenkins took the lead on creating the computer software that would be the foundation of the training components.
“It was pretty intricate stuff, but by then computers were an intimate part of our research tools – we used them to design and conduct our behavioral experiments with monkeys – so we were really positioned to do this,” says Jenkins. “We were also fortunate to do this at a time when new technology had emerged to allow us to build this at a consumer level with high-enough audio quality.
Jenkins and his team developed complex algorithms that could stretch the speed and enhance components of speech, but the challenge was how to package the software so it would appeal to and engage children, its ultimate target audience. Although monkeys participating in studies could be motivated by food, Jenkins realised psychophysical testing would be extremely boring for humans: “After 20 minutes, I’d be ready to fall asleep,” he joked. “I recognised that in order to get the high number of trials that produced plasticity effects in primates, we’d have to devise a much more motivating environment for humans.”
His solution? Make a game of it. So the software component used to train the brain to increase its sampling-rate characteristics was disguised as something called Circus Sequence, while another component became Old McDonald’s Flying Farm. Within six months, Jenkins, Merzenich, and their colleagues had a prototype product ready to go.
Putting it to the Test
Tallal and Miller focused on setting up a “summer-school” study at Rutgers University designed to evaluate the efficacy of the software. They ran the first study for four weeks in July of 1994 with seven children.
While the science behind the study was well-refined, some of the product was still under development. Many of the exercises were still presented on tape recorders rather than on computers, and the researchers worried that the kids wouldn’t be engaged enough to participate.
“Everyone was afraid the kids would refuse to listen to the tapes,” says Miller. “So everyone brought in the nicest things they had as a token economy for the kids if they worked hard, so we set up a toy closet and a reward system as the children went through the intervention. We were also lucky to have excellent staff who were highly motivated to help the kids have a good time.”
Throughout the four weeks, expectations were high. So intent were they on keeping tabs on the children’s progress, Jenkins even created a software tracking tool designed to communicate daily data back to the UCSF team via the Internet. Finally, the results were in – and they were excellent.
“Six of the seven children made very substantial improvements,” says Tallal. “We were blown away.”
Add Merzenich: “The results from this initial study were excellent, wonderful. The kids were different, the products obviously helped. We were all excited.”
Although the scientists were eager to bring the product to market on the strength of those results, they decided to run a second study with a larger sample group. In the summer of 1995, the product, which had been substantially refined by Jenkins, was set for a second test. This study included 22 children broken into two groups matched for age, intelligence, and language impairment. One group used the software product with acoustically modified speech; the second group performed the same speech-therapy exercises using non-processed speech. This time, the results weren’t excellent. Instead, they were stunning.
“The children in the experimental group showed a very significant – huge! — improvement in the rate of auditory processing,” says Tallal. “The results were spectacular. We moved many of the kids well into the normal range, and that’s what I didn’t think could happen. I did not think you could change something as basic as a psychophysical threshold to that degree.”
The children’s language skills were also significantly improved, says Tallal, indicating that their ability to formulate sentences had improved.
“We were terribly excited. We all knew what we had here and this was really important,” she said. “A lot of people didn’t buy into auditory processing as a causal factor in language impairment, but this was a very powerful way of demonstrating that the theory was correct. From Mike and Bill’s point of view, the idea that neuroplasticity in animals could translate to humans in clinical application was also very exciting.”
The study results went on to be published in the journal Science, in the summer of 1995 and were presented at a conference in November, which sparked an article in the New York Times. The public response was immediate and overwhelming. “Something like 20,000 people tried to call Rutgers to get information, but we don’t know exactly how many because the phone banks blew up,” says Miller. “In the end, we took about 17,000 calls, and CNN covered it.” Soon, Rutgers and UCSF, who jointly owned the technology and the ideas behind it, looked into licensing it for commercial use, but the quality of the applicants was underwhelming.
“My view was, the companies and the kinds of software that were out there would not leverage the science correctly,” says Jenkins. “I saw a lot of edutainment software out there purporting to provide educational benefit, but the designs weren’t neuroscience based. The science was so important and the potential was so big, it didn’t make sense to risk it not being done well.”
The old adage says if you want something done right, you should do it yourself – and that’s what Merzenich, Tallal, Jenkins, and Miller decided to do. In early 1996, they formed Scientific Learning Principles Corporation, although the name was quickly shortened to Scientific Learning Corporation at the behest of some of its venture-capitalists backers; it’s a running company joke that in order to go into business, the quartet had to lose their “principles.”
Rutgers and UCSF gave the fledgling company an exclusive license for the software and the products, which were dubbed Fast ForWord and initially targeted to hospitals and clinics, said Miller. “We believed we needed highly trained professionals to run the software, and we thought schools would have a different implementation model and have less fidelity,” he says. “But we did a study in 1997 that showed the product appeared to be strong enough that the schools were still getting positive results.” In response, Scientific Learning targeted the school model, and the education sector remains the company’s primary focus.
Since its inception, Scientific Learning has created nearly a dozen Fast ForWord programs plus Progress Tracker, an online monitoring tool whose precursor was Bill Jenkins’s software-tracking program from the first study. More than 700 publications have described the research behind Fast ForWord, and over 85 research studies have confirmed students’ academic gains; clinical trials funded by the National Institutes of Health have confirmed the products’ efficacy. Perhaps the biggest success is that over 655,000 students to date have benefited from the Fast ForWord products.
Oh, and about the name? None of the four founders can take the credit or blame – that belongs to a marketing group hired to christen the fledgling product. And while Merzenich, Tallal, Jenkins, and Miller have varying opinions on whether they like the branding, it could have been worse.
“When I first heard the name I thought it was a little corny,” admits Tallal. “But one of the other name choices they came up with was Linguini, and I said over my dead body. I mean, what would our next product be – Lasagna?”
But in the end, the name probably wouldn’t have mattered much, given the incredible results offered by this marriage of neuroscience, technology, and education. And to make it easier, just call the scientists, the company, and the products the same thing: a resounding success.