Fast ForWord for reading disabilities and language delays: Does it work?

By Nestor Lopez-Duran PhD

Monday BRIEFS: Quick musings in child related research.

Fast ForWord is a series of computer programs designed to improve language and reading skills in 4-14 year-old kids with language difficulties. The system is sold and marketed by the Scientific Learning Corporation (www.scilearnglobal.com/the-fast-forword-program/).

The system has been adopted extensively by schools across the USA, Canada, and Australia. Yet, despite such popularity, there is significant controversy regarding the effectiveness of this intervention as the evidence for its efficacy is mixed at best.

In the last issue of the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, Dr. Gemma Strong and her colleagues at the University of York and the University of Birmingham in the UK published the largest comprehensive meta-analysis of the past studies that have tested whether Fast ForWord is effective. A meta-analysis is a statistical process that groups the results from all previous relevant studies to provide an overall conclusion regarding the outcome of interest. In this case, the authors were interested in four specific outcomes; namely, whether Fast ForWord was effective in improving:

  1. Standardized measures of single word reading
  2. Passage reading comprehension
  3. Receptive Vocabulary
  4. Expressive Vocabulary

The meta-analysis was conducted with 6 studies that met a strict inclusion criteria. The studies had to include a comparison group (whether active or non-active treatment) and had to include a baseline measure that allows for the examination of change from before to after the intervention. Out of 79 potential studies, only 6 met the inclusion criteria. The rest were eliminated because of lack of control groups, lack of baseline measures, poor randomization, and inadequate sample size.

The results:

After the intervention,

Kids using Fast ForWord did not differ from untreated controls participants in word reading (Effect Size = .07)

Kids using Fast ForWord did not differ from untreated controls participants in passage comprehension (Effect Size = .17)

Kids using Fast ForWord did not differ from untreated controls participants in receptive vocabulary (Effect Size = .01)

Kids using Fast ForWord did not differ from untreated controls participants in expressive vocabulary (Effect Size = -.04)

Likewise, when compared to treated controls, kids using Fast ForWord were not better at any of the four outcomes.

The authors concluded:

We believe that the pattern shown by our analyses isclear and consistent: whether comparing Fast For-Word with untreated or alternative treatment control groups, we found no sign of a reliable effect of treatment in any analysis. There is no evidence from this review that Fast ForWord is effective as a treatment for children’s reading or expressive or receptive vocabulary weaknesses. In contrast, evidence suggests that conventional forms of therapy can effect modest but reliable improvements in these skills.

The last sentence is key. The authors argued that there is more evidence for more conventional methods, such as phoneme awareness training and phonetically-based reading instructions, than for Fast ForWord, and thus parents and educators should utilize conventional methods when addressing reading and language difficulties.

The reference:
Strong, G., Torgerson, C., Torgerson, D., & Hulme, C. (2010). A systematic meta-analytic review of evidence for the effectiveness of the ‘Fast ForWord’ language intervention program Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry DOI: 10.1111/j.1469-7610.2010.02329.x