Strong cognitive skills pave the way for fluency and comprehension.
As a literacy teacher, you’re basically a superhero.
Helping students develop strong listening, speaking, reading, and writing skills may be rewarding, but it is also no small task. And chances are, you’re not just teaching native English speakers but also English language learners.
Like any good superhero, though, you have tools to help you complete your mission. Wonder Woman has her lasso, Spiderman has his webshooters, and you have Fast ForWord®.
What is Fast ForWord?
Fast ForWord is a language and reading solution that builds literacy and cognitive skills in tandem. It’s a great tool to speed up English learners’ language acquisition so they can quickly build the skills they need to thrive. Because of this, Fast ForWord is an approved WIDA Instructional Material and aligns with WIDA and EL state standards.
Bilingual brains are brilliant
Before diving into how Fast ForWord can help EL students build English fluency fast, let’s take a step back and review some of the assets of bilingual brains.
In our first few months of life, our brain begins to fine-tune itself to the language or languages we hear most often.
Part of this fine-tuning involves identifying prosody—what a reader does with their voice to convey meaning—a crucial component of reading fluency and comprehension.
Since no two languages have the same prosody, multilingual students tend to have more active, well-developed regions of the brain that process language development, partially because they have to identify the prosody of each language so they can switch back and forth between them.
In the long run, this means that the areas of the brain that allow both sides to communicate with each other tend to grow stronger in bilingual children. These students are known to have a greater ability to focus, better short-term memory, and strong problem-solving skills.
For these reasons, among others, we should think of bilingualism as an asset—not a deficit.
Bilingual learners are still marginalized in many schools
Despite bilingual learners' tremendous potential, students acquiring English as a second or third language are more likely to be underserved than their native English-speaking peers.
They are less likely to be recommended for AP or other college prep classes. And although the numbers are starting to improve, Department of Education data shows that English learners are still less likely to graduate on time or at all. Also troubling, English learners often exhibit less confidence than students who learn in their native language.
So, the trick is to give ELs the support they need to gain English fluency quickly and effectively so they can start to perform well in school—as everyone knows they can.
How can English learners gain fluency fast?
People learning a new language must learn to listen, speak, read, and write, often roughly in that order. Here’s how Fast ForWord helps students tackle fluency in all these areas.
When it comes to phonemes—the sounds that make up words—English is a bear. There are 44 phonemes. And yes, that’s with only 26 letters!
Compare that to other languages with high phoneme counts—Italian has 33, and French has 32. If we compare English to Spanish, there is an even greater discrepancy. Spanish has five vowel sounds, while English has more than fourteen, depending on the regional dialect.
English also has more consonant phonemes than consonant letters, so there are a lot of sounds for English learners to identify and commit to memory.
Some of these phonemes are difficult to perceive and distinguish from similar-sounding phonemes, such as the sounds for “v” and “f” or “b” and “d.” On top of that, many English phonemes are not in other languages, so students’ brains are not mapped for those specific sounds.
Luckily, Fast ForWord has a solution.
Using patented technology called acoustically modified speech, Fast ForWord can slow down and stretch out speech sounds to help participants perceive and process English phonemes clearly and accurately.
To get a good sense of what acoustically modified speech is, try making the sound for “b.” “Buh,” right? Now try stretching out just the first part without the vowel sound. You can’t do it, can you? You’re only stretching out the “uhhhhhh” part.
But it’s not your fault; the human voice can’t stretch stop consonants because the airflow is stopped temporarily with those particular sounds.
Fortunately, Fast ForWord’s specialized computer technology can elongate stop consonants, giving students’ brains time to process the sounds and build those phonemes in their brain maps.
Fast ForWord exercises such as Hoop Nut and Bioacoustics Lab provide a target phoneme pair in modified speech, and students click on the squirrel or STEM graphic that says the same syllable. As students respond correctly to prompts, the stretched sounds shorten until, by the end of the exercise, their brains are processing at typical speeds, and their English listening skills have grown stronger.
Along with listening to a new language, English learners must become proficient speakers.
Pronunciation and prosody play a significant role here, but so does reading comprehension—since it’s challenging to read something well when you’re not sure what it’s saying.
Enter ClearFluency™, a Fast ForWord component that uses patented voice recognition technology to listen to students read aloud and provide immediate feedback.
In ClearFluency, EL speakers can hear a high-interest and age-appropriate text read aloud and then read it aloud themselves, receiving real-time corrections so they can adjust their pronunciation accordingly.
Laura Contreras, EL Teacher at Lafayette Middle School in Lousiana, shares, "When the students hear words spoken by the program and then repeat them, they know they are speaking English correctly, so they feel more confident.”
ClearFluency also provides frequent in-context comprehension checks, so students can make sure they are tracking subject matter while building vocabulary and strengthening prosody and pronunciation.
Fast ForWord also provides the skills and intensive practice EL students need to become proficient readers.
Many literacy educators devote a portion of their practice to teaching the five pillars of reading: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. Fast ForWord helps build and strengthen these skills as students progress through the components.
Repetition is essential for building automaticity, so Fast ForWord provides targeted repetition in fun and engaging ways that help build skills quickly and with lasting results.
To see how Fast ForWord builds some of the most critical foundational reading skills, try some of the exercises below, but please note that not all begin at the early levels.
Studies completed at Rutgers University with both high school and college students showed that students improve their writing abilities as they complete Fast ForWord. This is because the program improves the foundational components of strong writing: language, reading, and cognitive skills.
There are also specific exercises in Fast ForWord that help develop attention to detail, mental organization, and other skills needed for writing well.
At the elementary level, Ant Antics will help students with the sequencing and attention skills needed to write successfully, and more advanced EL students can build on those capacities while experimenting with expressiveness in Art Walk.
Cognitive skills in the EL classroom: Where the rubber meets the road
While listening, speaking, reading, and writing are capacities that every EL student must attain on their road to fluency, cognitive skills are the secret sauce that accelerates language acquisition and makes literacy gains stick.
And Fast ForWord, more than any other reading program, teaches these cognitive skills.
Strengthening the cognitive skills of memory, attention, processing, and sequencing (MAPS) will increase learners’ neuroplasticity which students need when they are learning a new language.
Improved memory and attention will help students focus on and remember English constructions. Processing will allow them to perceive and make sense of new sounds and letter combinations, and sequencing will help them put English together on the word, sentence, and paragraph levels.
Think of it this way. When comparing language learning to learning how to ride a bike, direct language instruction is the bike itself–and it needs to be strong, well-oiled, and in good condition. But cognitive skills are like the road beneath.
If that road is bumpy, rocky, or full of potholes, it won’t matter how nice the bike is. Children will still fall, and it will become difficult, if not impossible, to build automaticity.
Cognitive skills underlie all types of learning—for ELs and everyone else—and strengthening them with consistent practice will help the journey go smoothly and last longer.
Fast ForWord helps ELs gain fluency fast
Fast ForWord provides English phonics training, intensive grammar and vocabulary practice, and the speaking and reading reinforcement necessary to build English proficiency. It also teaches the cognitive skills that help learning stick.
We all want to prepare ELs to keep learning in English and move to higher academic achievement levels—and Fast ForWord can help us get there.
Cory Armes has eighteen years’ experience in K-12 education as a general and special education teacher and educational diagnostician, specializing in working with students with learning disabilities and behavioral issues. She has worked in Texas throughout her career and is glad to be on the ELAR team at Carnegie Learning.Explore more related to this author
Language learning is like learning how to ride a bike. Direct language instruction is the bike itself and cognitive skills are the road beneath.
Cory Armes, Senior Content Specialist, Literacy