Can we truly transform the life of a child with a Reading Disorder?
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My reflection on an online software-based therapy during COVID19 crisis
– Uma Sharma*
“Reading or written language is a cultural invention that necessitated totally new connections among structures in the human brain underlying language, perception, cognition, and, over time, our emotions”– Maryanne Wolf
It was the summer of 2018. I was working with an NGO. They had invited Dr. Vinay Singh as he was on a speaking tour in India. He was to unravel mysteries of “Reading Brain” and give us a demo of a new software-based cognitive therapy. As I am practicing theories of neurosciences and neuro rehabilitation for a long time and am a firm believer in neuroplasticity, I was curious to know about his program and was ready with my list of queries. The brief demo session was finished with a long and intense conversation, but it was still not convincing enough for me. I was excited, confused and more questions were added on my list.
My journey started as an educator to know more about how the brain learns to read and what happens when a young brain can’t learn to read easily, way back when I switched my working domain from IT to Special Education. I was yet to accept digital therapy but not in denial for sure.
Soon I got an opportunity to get trained under Dr. Vinay Singh as a trainer for his cognitive therapy software. I learnt about ReadON, how it works on brain plasticity and science behind it. Now I was aware of more facts and fewer questions in my list, but I still needed more figures and data to accept ReadON completely.
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Reading is an acquired skill. We human beings were never born to read; we invented reading and then had to teach it to every new generation. Each new reader comes to learning with a ‘fresh’ brain – one that is programmed to speak, see, and think, but not to read. Reading circuit is not given to human beings through a genetic blueprint like vision or language; it needs an environment to develop. Further, it will adapt to that environment’s requirements – from different writing systems to the characteristics of whatever medium is used. Reading requires the brain to rearrange its original parts to learn something new. Typically, when you read, you have more time to think. Reading gives you a unique pause button for comprehension and insight. By and large, with oral language – when you watch a film or listen to a tape – you don’t press pause.
I am fascinated by Dr. Michael Merzenich, a professor emeritus neuroscientist at the University of California, San Francisco for his work in the area of neuroplastic research and interventions. He talked about people’s ability to think and perceive by redesigning the brain by training specific processing areas, called brain maps so that they do more mental work. To understand how brain maps can be changed, we need first to have a picture of them. Neurosurgeon Dr. Wilder Penfield at the Montreal Neurological Institute discovered that sensory and motor brain maps, like geographical maps, are topographical, meaning that areas adjacent to each other on the body’s surface are generally adjacent to each other on the brain maps. He also discovered that when he touched certain parts of the brain, he triggered long-lost childhood memories or dreamlike scenes — which implied that higher mental activities were also mapped in the brain.
When we have any function, whether it is language or vision or cognitive functions like memory, we aren’t dealing with a straight line to the brain that says, ‘This is what I do.’ The brain builds a network of connections, a network of neurons that have a particular role in that function. When we learn, we increase what we know, but we can also change the very structure of the brain itself and increase its capacity to learn. Unlike a computer, the brain is constantly adapting itself. It helps children with learning issues improve their cognition and perception with interventions.
As I was already working with children with learning issues and studying about neuro-rehabilitation, I decided to do more research and collect data of results with ReadON as a part of my intervention. So what is ReadON, and what caught my attention about this particular digital therapy program? “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence,”
ReadON is a computer program for people with learning differences. It is an unprecedented and engaging, process-oriented program that uses fast-moving graphics, differential sound and a multisensory approach to build phonemic awareness, graphonemic knowledge and language structure. It’s a game-based platform, which keeps students engaged and motivated for the duration of the program.
ReadON uses brain plasticity principles to create connections that are responsible for reading and comprehension. It works in both the auditory and visual areas, identified by brain imaging research as being key causes of reading disorders, including dyslexia. ReadON improves reading fluency, comprehension, math skills, attention, focus likely via improvement of executive functions and working memory.
All my students loved this program as it looks like a computer game and they are saved from many forceful/repetitive and boring therapy sessions. All my clients never had to drag or bribe their kids to bring them to our centre because they were also able to do the program at home which was remotely managed by my team.
There are eight gameplays in cognitive therapy of ReadON. Each gameplay stimulates the different area of the brain, which contributes to reading. Saccadic eye movement, tracking and conversation, visual perception closure, auditory processing speed, visual speed, visual components plus blended contrast, decoding of the auditory and visual, visual closure, working memory, word attack, word recognition, decoding, coding and comprehension, active and increased working memory, visual discrimination, visual placement and auditory processing are some of the areas where ReadON shows improvement.
And the results were phenomenal. ReadON worked on phonemic awareness by separating words into individual sounds and gradually introducing blends. A targeted multisensory approach created connections between the auditory and visual pathways required for fluent reading. Its process-oriented gameplays are specifically designed to strengthen coding and decoding skills. It improved eye movement control with gameplays designed to enhance eye tracking in all directions. It helped in improving executive functioning skills through multiple simultaneous demands, performance feedback and problem-solving.
As there are many cases and clinical trials are also going on, many different parts of the world. I am not including each and every case I worked with, but after seeing improvements, I could not resist myself in writing this piece and sharing my experiences.
What is impressive about ReadON is how quickly the change occurs. In some cases people who have had a lifetime of cognitive difficulties get better after only fifteen to forty five hours of treatment. Unexpectedly, the program has also helped a number of children with their handwriting skills. I am going to further research how a software program intended for reading improvement is also improving handwriting, but I guess it must have something to do with ReadON’s ability to improve visual processing and mid-line crossing. One thing is sure that ReadON has transformed the lives of so many students around the world.
Dr. Merzenich says, “Everything that you can see happen in a young brain can happen in an older brain.” The only requirement is that the person must have enough of a reward, or punishment, to keep paying attention through what might otherwise be a boring training session. If so, he says, “the changes can be every bit as great as the changes in a newborn.”
I am starting to believe ReadON is responsible for so many general improvements in thinking, in part because it stimulates the control system for plasticity to keep up its production of acetylcholine and dopamine, I guess we need more biochemists and neuroscientists to prove my assumptions. Anything that requites highly focused attention will help that system — learning new physical activities that require concentration, solving challenging puzzles, or making a career change that requires that you master new skills and material.
To keep the mind alive requires learning something truly new with intense focus. That is what will allow you to both lay down new memories and have a system that can easily access and preserve the older ones. Our neglect of intensive learning as we age leads the systems in the brain that modulate, regulate, and control plasticity to waste away. So, what if we give ReadON to seniors to improve memory, cognition, and perception? We surely need more research if ReadON can help with dementia. Hopefully, Dr. Vinay Sigh will read this article and add something here for all of us to know.
The Brain is structured by its constant collaboration with the world, caused by our experience, travels deep into the brain and ultimately even into our genes, moulding them as well — a topic to which we shall return in my study may be in a few years from now.
Most Govt. and private schools in India are struggling to implement online education platforms, and many teachers realize that EDUtainment is not a solution for students with special needs. There are limited options for online remedial interventions for students with a learning disability. During lockdown online interventions can help. Online interventions are usually relatively affordable and convenient since the child is at home and will be attending therapy sessions online in the comfort of his own home. The parents can also engage in the learning process by scheduling therapy sessions for times that are the most convenient for them.
The unprecedented COVID-19 crisis and lockdowns have disrupted the lives of millions of students in India. More vulnerable special needs students are, in particular, affected where one-on-one tutoring-based programming is the norm and not always useful. I wonder if the training for teachers and special educators will include curriculum on newer advanced neuroplasticity-based intervention, including online-solutions.
*Uma Sharma is a New Delhi-based certified disability expert, psychologist, trainer, consultant and author