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Cognitive Research, Neuroscience and Natural Learning

Fast ForWord as developed by four learning scientists with different specialties:

  • How the brain actually reads – cognitive research
  • How the brain learns and improves – neuroscience
  • How skills are automated – cognitive loading
  • Natural learning – discovery not instruction

Cognitive Research

Fast ForWord co-founder, Dr. Paula Tallal, was the first to recognize that reading difficulties are mostly related to an inability to process language accurately.  This was her Auditory Temporal Processing Theory.

Using this theory, many Fast ForWord exercises work on helping children distinguish between similar sounding phonemes, the smallest units of sound that can change the meaning of a word, such as “ba” and “da.”  By improving these processing skills and phonemic awareness, children build a foundation for reading.

Neuroscience Principles

Fast ForWord Dr. Michael Merzenich, has devoted his career to the discovery and understanding of brain plasticity, the ability of the brain to change. Some liken it to a muscle. With the advent of fMRIs that can track brain activity in real time, his research focused on the kinds of patterns that help the brain learn.  Dr. Merzenich talks about neuroplasticty and reading in this video.

Fast ForWord neuroscience principles include:

  1. Neuroplasticity: This principle states that learning is not fixed (MIT study here). The brain is capable of changing and reorganizing itself throughout an individual’s life in response to learning and experience. Fast ForWord is designed to exploit this principle by providing intensive, targeted exercises that aim to strengthen the neurological pathways associated with language and reading.
  2. Adaptive Learning: The software adapts to each student’s performance in real time, providing an individualized learning experience. When a child struggles with certain tasks, the software slows down and breaks the tasks down into manageable pieces. As the child improves, the tasks become more complex. This dynamic adjustment is based on the principle that learning is most effective when tasks are challenging but achievable.
  3. Attention and Engagement: Neuroscience research suggests that attention and engagement are key factors in learning. Fast ForWord uses a game-like interface with immediate feedback to keep children engaged and motivated.
  4. Repetition and Intensity: For neuroplastic changes to occur, practice must be intense and repetitive. Fast ForWord uses highly repetitive tasks to facilitate the required neural changes.
  5. Simultaneous Development of Skills: The program integrates a variety of tasks to simultaneously develop multiple cognitive and language skills. This is based on the idea that these skills are interconnected and that improvements in one area (like phonological awareness) can support improvements in other areas (like reading comprehension).

Rewards – Dopamine

Fast ForWord exercises all have frequent breaks with reward sounds and signals that aim to stimulate dopamine, a type of neurotransmitter, in the brain. Dopamine is often referred to as the “reward molecule” because it’s involved in the brain’s reward system, motivating us to seek out and work for things that satisfy our needs and desires. Here’s a brief explanation of how dopamine can aid learning:

  1. Reward Prediction: Dopamine neurons become activated when we expect a reward. If the reward is greater than expected, these neurons increase their activity, helping to reinforce the association between the action taken and the reward. If the reward is less than expected, the dopamine neurons decrease their activity. This process helps us to learn to predict rewards based on our actions, effectively promoting behaviors that lead to positive outcomes.
  2. Motivation: Because dopamine is associated with the reward system, it influences motivation. Higher dopamine levels generally lead to increased motivation to perform actions that may lead to a reward. This is crucial for learning, as it encourages engagement in behaviors and activities that result in positive feedback and learning.
  3. Memory Consolidation: Dopamine is also believed to play a role in memory formation. Research suggests that dopamine facilitates the consolidation of memories for events associated with rewards. Essentially, the pleasant feelings associated with reward stimulate dopamine release, which in turn helps to consolidate the memory of what led to that reward. This helps individuals remember and repeat behaviors that led to positive outcomes.
  4. Focus and Attention: Dopamine is associated with maintaining attention and focus, both crucial for learning. Appropriate dopamine levels can help individuals stay engaged in tasks for longer periods, allowing for more effective learning.

In summary, dopamine helps us learn by reinforcing rewarding behaviors, increasing motivation, helping with memory consolidation, and enhancing focus and attention.

By applying all of these neuroscience principles, Fast ForWord seeks to address the root causes of language and reading difficulties, rather than merely addressing the symptoms. It has been found to be effective in helping many children improve their language and reading skills.

Cognitive Loading

The limit to the amount of things the brain can engage in is limited by working memory.  And in reality, there is a limit to the number of things a brain can attend to at once. This includes only doing to one of decoding words or understanding words.

The brain’s solution is to automate as many tasks as possible.  For good readers, decoding is automated, pushed to the subconscious, freeing up the brain for comprehension.

Fast ForWord helps the brain push reading to automaticity, with thinking while reading tasks, e.g., categorizing words where a child is asked to read words and put them into categories while reading.

Natural Learning

This is the way that humans learn since birth. Natural learners set their own objectives in response to needs, frustration, and curiosity. They find and engage in tasks that help them to learn and seek feedback to monitor their progress and improve their performance.

Practically, this is learning through active discovery, figuring things out.

Fast ForWord is a unique opportunity to learn through discovery, in a world where there is so much instruction.


Fast ForWord was developed over a number of years, and has been adapted to take advantage of new technology, including going online.   Our testimonials speak for themselves, and the research is compelling.