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.xResearchBlogging.org

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

  1. William M. Jenkins says:

    Within the scientific community, it is common for researchers to disagree on the theoretical assumptions that are at the foundation of controlled investigations, to disagree on optimal study methodology, and to disagree on the interpretation of outcomes. Scientific debate of this kind is healthy and, when it is unbiased and factually based, it can propel science forward. However, some debate is biased and not based on facts; occasionally even research publications fall into this category.
    The publication by Strong, Torgerson, Torgerson, & Hulme is a meta-analysis that summarizes six studies. The studies are on two of the eleven FastForWord products. The two products are the first product in the Fast ForWord Language Series (Fast ForWord Language which has been replaced by Fast ForWord Language v2) and the first product in the Fast ForWord Literacy Series (Fast ForWord Middle & High School which has been replaced by Fast ForWord Literacy). The authors refer to these old versions of the two products with the all-encompassing term “Fast ForWord”. The authors concluded that “there was no significant effect of Fast ForWord on any outcome measure in comparison to active or untreated control groups.” The analysis failed to find positive effects of the Intervention because of issues with the studies the authors selected and problems with the way the results were combined in the analysis.
    The publication is misleading in several ways. Most of the studies that were selected had very poor implementations, and therefore are not representative of performance improvements following proper usage. Studies on the effectiveness of educational interventions are inherently difficult, in part because of the many skill sets required to conduct these studies. University-based researchers know how to design studies and analyze the results, while k-12 educators know how to motivate students and implement interventions. Among the many high quality studies of the Fast ForWord products, it is notable that some of the strongest results have occurred when the products were implemented by k-12 educators who had returned to universities for advanced training, while weaker results have often come from studies orchestrated by university academics.
    Strong et al. applied extremely restrictive study selection criteria to a corpus of more than two hundred studies on eleven Fast ForWord products – only six studies were included in their report and only five were included in their meta-analysis. The selection criteria were statistically inappropriate (such as excluding randomized studies if the randomly assigned groups did not meet desired criteria) and biased. Published between 2004 and 2009, the five studies looked at the impact of two old Fast ForWord products that students used prior to 2005. By focusing only on selected studies that had been published in peer-reviewed journals, they excluded numerous high quality studies that were reviewed and published elsewhere, including studies published in the dissertations of k-12 educators who had returned to universities for further training (Slattery, 2003; Rogowsky, 2010; Marion, 2004), studies performed by regional consortiums or state education departments (Schultz Center for Teaching & Leadership, 2009; Nevada Department of Education, 2010), and other studies that met the criteria of agencies specifically set up to review educational research (What Works Clearinghouse, 2006, 2007, 2010). These selection choices significantly bias the results of the meta-analysis, and exclude the updated products (Fast ForWord Language v2 and Fast ForWord Literacy) as well as the other nine Fast ForWord products. Furthermore, five of the six studies selected for Strong et al.’s review had poor implementations. In two studies (Borman et al., 2009; Rouse & Krueger, 2004), the researchers acknowledged their implementation problems and conducted additional analyses to examine the relationship between Fast ForWord product use and reading gains. Both groups found greater impacts on reading scores among students who had better product use. For example, Borman et al. found a statistically significant effect of program completion on reading comprehension; completing the program had a moderate to large impact on reading comprehension (effect size of d = 0.50). The updated products have proven more efficient, thereby making them easier to implement in school settings, reducing or eliminating some of the challenges faced by these earlier participants.
    Of the studies included in the Strong et al. meta-analysis, Gillam, et al.’s 2008 study had the best implementation. In that study, students who used the Fast ForWord Language product achieved statistically significant improvements in language and reading skills – improvements comparable to receiving 50 hours of one-on-one intervention with a certified and licensed speech and language therapist. Discussing the results of this study, the lead author noted, “It is clear that a large majority of the children in our study who received treatment with Fast ForWord Language showed substantial improvements, reversing a long-time trend… 74% of the children in our study who received Fast ForWord Language had follow-up scores that were significantly greater than their pre-test scores six months after treatment ended. I judge that to be a substantial benefit.” Overall, the studies reviewed by Strong et al. illustrate that Fast ForWord products positively impact students’ language and reading skills – but only if students actually use the products as intended.
    In the years since these studies were conducted, Scientific Learning has improved the Fast ForWord software and released a number of new products and services. These changes have helped schools to achieve high-quality implementations and helped students to complete more content in less time. We encourage scientists and educators to consider the entire corpus of more than two hundred studies on Fast ForWord products that are available or summarized on the Scientific Learning website. Those studies demonstrate many benefits that accrue from newer versions of Fast ForWord Language and Fast ForWord Literacy, as well as the benefits from implementing multiple Fast ForWord products in educational and clinical settings. You can find the references and a more detailed discussion here.

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