Elementary school students at Korematsu Discovery Academy in Oakland are working on Fast ForWord, software designed to strengthen literacy skills and brain processing.
"I looked into the research and, on paper, it looked really exciting," said Korematsu Principal Charles Wilson, "but I didn't want it to take the place of instruction."
Wilson liked the idea of building neuropathways into the brain to improve reading, so with a $30,000 technology grant from the district, Wilson made the Fast ForWord program available to nearly half his students before and after school over the past year.
Wilson says he saw reading test gains of a year and a half from where they started on average.
"You don't normally see those kinds of gains," Wilson said. "I mean, these kids -- a lot of them -- have a continued history of not being able to catch up, and it's not the kid's fault. It's the system's fault for not providing the interventions that they need."
Fast ForWord was created by Oakland-based Scientific Learning which turned decades of neuroscience research into a practical application for children.
"We wanted an intensive learning experience that was individually adaptive, that had feedback, lots of learning trials, opportunities for learning and was regular," said Dr. William Jenkins with Scientific Learning. "That has happened every day."
At least two studies have tracked the impact of Fast ForWord on children with dyslexia who struggled with reading. After using the program for eight weeks, brain images of dyslexic children in the study showed physical changes.
"The interpretation by the researchers was for these children, the brains were now operating more like typically developing readers," said Wilson.
It's research that appealed to parent Lissa Merit, whose 7-year-old daughter Samantha was struggling with her reading.
"It just sounded like it was something that would, hopefully, put her back on track and would fit the areas she needed help in," said Merit.
The six-to-eight week at-home online program called BrainPro costs around $1,500 and requires a 30 minute commitment five days a week. Children get on-screen rewards for right answers and earn points that they can cash in for prizes later on.
"My kid is highly motivated by money and rewards, so this was a super good fit for us," said Merit.
Jenkins says the programs can be ought to learn as it equates to exercise for the brain.
"There are a lot of things that you try to do to get yourself to go to the gym, but often times that's boring as well," Jenkins said.
For those who are able to stick with it, the results can be impressive
"When I was little, I never read," said student Claudia Borquez. "I was like 'nah,' and I just put my face in the book because I didn't like reading. Now I like it. I read out loud too, like in my classroom."