Is Fast ForWord a backward step?

Is Fast ForWord a backward step?
20 April 2011

Fast ForWord, a program that aims to improve the skills of children who have language learning difficulties, is, say it developers, “based on over 30 years of neuroscience”. Unsurprising, then, that it’s now widely used in schools and clinics in the US, Canada, Australia and the UK. But a recent systematic review of the evidence casts new doubts on just how effective the program is and, indeed, whether its use might be counterproductive.

Fast ForWord is a collection of computer-based language intervention programs that target children’s reading and oral language skills through themed games and interactive activities. It is aimed specifically at children aged four to 14.

The program’s developers make ambitious claims for it. It “develops the cognitive skills that enhance learning”, they say. ‘The strengthening of these skills results in a wide range of improved critical language and reading skills such as phonological awareness, phonemic awareness, fluency, vocabulary, comprehension, decoding, working memory, syntax, grammar, and other skills necessary to learn how to read or to become a better reader.’

Launched as commercial product by the Scientific Learning Corporation in 1997, the claims for the success of the program are based on a number of privately conducted, in-house studies.

Now, though, a team of researchers from the Universities of York and Birmingham in the UK have undertaken a review of all reviews of evidence for the program. The results are not encouraging for Fast ForWord.

The team searched all relevant databases to obtain studies, systematic reviews and meta-analyses of program evaluations. To be included in the review, however, the study had to be randomised controlled trials or matched comparisons with a group receiving Fast ForWord and at least one other group receiving no intervention or an alternative treatment. The measures used had to be standardised tests of reading or oral language.

The initial search located 79 potential studies. After screening, only 13 papers were eligible. Of this total, seven further papers were excluded, either because they did not test the same version of the program or because they lacked equivalence between the intervention and control groups at baseline. The six remaining studies were used to conduct the meta-analysis.

The meta-analysis examined the impact of the program on children’s single word reading skills; passage reading comprehension; receptive language and expressive language. The researchers’ findings were stark. The program had no significant effects on any of these measures and, in fact, four of the effect sizes found by the team were negative, indicating that children who received Fast ForWord did worse compared to controls or other treatments.

The authors state that the pattern of their analyses is “clear and consistent: whether comparing Fast ForWord with untreated or alternative treatment control groups, we found no sign of a reliable effect of treatment in any analysis”. In addition, where alternative treatments were used as a comparison, the evidence suggests support for other remedial efforts with children who appear to have language learning difficulties.

In a commentary in the same journal, Professor Jim Stevenson argues that “the findings and conclusions of the meta-analysis were both accurate and fair” and that “it is time that children with difficulties in language and/or reading acquisition were given access only to teaching methods of known effectiveness”.

Strong, G., Torgerson, C.J., Torgerson, D. and Hulme, C. (2011) A systematic meta-analytic review of evidence for the effectiveness of the ‘Fast ForWord’ language intervention program, Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 52: 3, 224-235.

Stevenson, J. (2011) Commentary: A contribution to evidence-informed education policy – reflections on Strong, Torgerson, Torgerson, and Hulme (2011), Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 52: 3, 236-237.



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