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reading programA minor squabble has broken out in our world of brain-based reading intervention programs. The founder of a small firm who has developed a step-by-step reading approach, primarily as a dyslexia treatment, has posted a blog saying that Fast ForWord should not be used for dyslexia, only for children with autism whose speech is unintelligible.


This, of course, comes as quite a surprise to Fast ForWord providers like ourselves who have seen first-hand  how hundreds of Fast ForWord students come into the program with a dyslexia diagnosis and leave with major reading and language gains.

The Problem with Research Studies

Interestingly, this criticism of Fast ForWord by a skilled, albeit biased, clinician ignores all the research gathered over 12 years that point to all kinds of success Fast ForWord has had for reading, dyslexia, language, auditory processing disorder, attention issues and autism.  The author’s unwillingness to recognize the research points to a problem with research in general:

Torture statistics long enough and they will confess to anything!

Education is a notoriously difficult area to test as there are so many influences in a child’s life, and over the 2-6 months these programs are in progress there is quite a material development curve to be taken into account.

Plus, everyone on the inside in our world knows these tests can be set up to succeed or set up to fail.  For instance, some firms claim 4.6 years of gain in 12 weeks (!!) which is not as true as you would like to think. They make this claim by figuring out the age equivalent of doing some cognitive skill, like a memory skill, then have the student practice that skill for 12 weeks and then get tested again.  Sure, the students will likely do that skill a lot better, but does that really mean they have advanced 4.6 years in the areas of homework efficiency, reading comprehension or test taking? Unlikely.

Another problem with studies is that researchers can select candidates likely to make their case.  For example, to disprove a software’s effectiveness, they select students likely to be non-compliant and call their non-compliance “real world conditions.”

We could go on and on here, as Fast ForWord has been the victim of some of this and faces these out-sized claims daily.  But needless to say, research study results are often taken with a grain of salt, as apparently is the case in this squabble.

The Importance of Tiny Steps

While we of course do not agree that Fast ForWord is only helpful to a small subsection of autistic children, our take-away from this little drama is to ask this question:

If parents choose not to rely on studies, how can they figure out which programs have a real shot of helping their child?

Actually, there is a way.  It comes down to program structure.

Any program that breaks a task like reading comprehension down into smaller components, and focuses on the various skills individually, and then puts them together, building in steps, is likely to be helpful.

In any complicated task — learning to hit a golf ball, for example  — there are a number of separate aspects that need to be mastered, often in a sequence.  What would happen if a child learned a sport like golf without learning the grip, the stance, the back swing, etc., but just went out there and started swinging and swinging? Not much progress would be made.  A new golfer needs some lessons to break the swing down.

The same is true in reading. There are a bunch of skills — basic cognitive and listening skills to learn decoding, then the vocabulary and thinking skills needed for comprehension.

And so our advice is that parents look for programs that take the complicated task of reading comprehension and break it down into smaller, bite-sized skills.  Of course, the selected skills and the process used to develop mastery is also important.  But most important is philosophy of breaking the skill down into manageable chunks.

Most Reading Software is Reading Practice

By contrast, most one-size-fits-all software and a lot of tutors do not work this way.  They provide reading comprehension or reading fluency practice — taking something your child is not good at and does not like doing, and then having him or her do it over and over, hoping for a different outcome.

The lack of effectiveness of tutoring and these kinds of programs for reading is also part of what we have to contend with on a daily basis.  Lots of effort, lots of practice, but still a frustrated, struggling reader.

Bottom line: while we think this dyslexia practitioner was out of line in her criticism of Fast ForWord, her own approach — which we understand is mainly done in a center or in a clinic — appears to have merit also.

We like Fast ForWord as a reading intervention program because it does break language processing and reading into tiny steps and it focuses on the most fundamental of language skills –processing, working memory, focus.  However, in some severe cases where Fast ForWord is part of the solution, not the entire answer, we will often recommend Orton-Gillingham training or other courses after Fast ForWord that also use this step-by-step approach to consolidate reading skills.

Get more information about how effective reading programs treat the underlying causes of reading difficulties using a systematized structure.