Programme offers alternative learning at Dellwood
Today’s teachers often have to compete with cell phones, computers, and video game systems for their students’ attention.
Educators at Dellwood Middle School are fighting back with a special programme that uses computer games to improve students’ reading and comprehension levels.
The school implemented the Fast ForWord programme about two years ago, and has seen great success with its students.
“Dellwood has done something proactive to help their students to succeed, especially their struggling students,” said physiotherapist Andrea Cann.
As the programme manager at BerCon Ltd, the company behind Fast ForWord, she monitors students’ progress remotely.
“Fast ForWord is currently in four government schools and has been in seven of the public schools. Most of the schools have funded it themselves from their own budget. This is critical as we know that budgets have been slashed for all government entities.”
Some educators have criticised the use of similar programmes because they reduce the amount of interaction between students and adults, but Ms Cann said this is not the case with Fast ForWord.
“The software does what the software says it does, but it still needs the human element,” said Ms Cann. “The students still need a teacher who cares enough to emphasise what is important.”
Dellwood Middle School reading teacher Kimberley Manderson said students still get one-on-one attention away from the computer and also work in groups.
“It also doesn’t work for all students,” she said. “Some students need a different approach.
“I don’t rely on it entirely but we are in a time of technology and we have to use the tools at hand. If they respond to something in more of a game format then why not use it? At this point the holistic approach means including technology.”
The students themselves gave it mixed reviews. It might work, but that didn’t mean they had to like it.
“It helps me with my reading and my English,” said Kylea Scott, 14. “I don’t really have a favourite game on the programme. At first it seemed a little bit cool, but it got a bit boring after awhile, but the programme is still helpful.”
Jahnazae Swan, 14, said while he hadn’t noticed any improvement in his studies other than that the computer was making the games tougher.
However he said his teachers had noted a change.
“Teachers have said they notice a difference, such as with my reading and sounding out words,” said Jahnazae.
Tia Durham, 13, said before taking part in the Fast ForWord programme, she hadn’t liked reading very much. She now likes it “a little bit”.
Students keep a chart on how well they are improving on the different games that are offered. Some of the games take ordinary sounds like ‘ch’, ‘sh’, ‘duh’ and ‘buh’, and slow the sound down so the student has more time to hear and process the sounds. Then, over time, the programme speeds the sounds up.
“The programme adapts itself to each student,” said Ms Cann. “They might start at the same place on the first day, but by the end, the software has teased out their weaknesses. It works on things like working memory, language processing speed, attention or organisation, because you have to be able to organise information, to work effectively. It will hone in on those areas so they can be strengthened. A lot of neuroscience has been put into this.”
Each student has a chart that they fill in that helps them to visually monitor their improvements in the different games. The charts are all pinned to the wall so everyone can see their achievements.
Looking at the array of student charts, it was pretty clear that the most difficult game was ‘Stella’s Stories’. When playing this game, the student has to listen to a story within that game and answer reading comprehension questions.
There are grammar concepts, and questions about tenses and other things. There are actually five levels to Fast ForWord, with the fourth and fifth level reserved for students studying for standardised tests such as the Scholastic Achievement Test (SAT).
Teachers at Dellwood seemed more enthusiastic about it than the students. One M3 teacher, who did not wish to be named, said she’d noticed a remarkable difference in one particular student.
“She is able now to work with more confidence,” she said. “I am seeing some more improvement in another student. I can see some more focus, and settling down.”
She said with increased confidence often comes a decrease in behavioural issues in the classroom.
“The programme itself can only work if the student buys into it,” she said. “When they see progress being made, then they begin to take ownership. I would be sad to see it go, because I think it is a programme that is worthwhile. Of course, nothing can replace the classroom, but this gives them a boost and a jump-start.”
Spanish teacher Nishanthi Bailey, said she had seen improvements in one of her students in the programme. The programme helps students focus on sounds and the building blocks of words, so its benefits can spill over into learning a second language.
“The programme is in English, but it doesn’t matter what language it is,” said Ms Cann. “Phonemes [different sounds that make up language] are phonemes. English is the hardest language to learn. For a start, we don’t have enough letters in the alphabet for all the sounds we have.
“ In Spanish, the sound of the letter is always the same. It is amazing that any of us learn how to read and spell in English. It is an amazing feat because the rules don’t always apply even when we have a rule for the exception to the rule. It is no wonder children have difficulty.”
Useful websites: www.bercon.com, www.scilearningglobal.com.