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Teaching Tiny Sounds Via Computer Games

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Could a computer game help dyslexic children learn to overcome their disability? That is the hope of two researchers who are using the technique with children who are "language impaired" or have difficulty learning speech.

Some studies have suggested that as many as 8 percent of all children may be language-impaired. Of this group, more than 85 percent may also have reading disabilities.

Paula Tallal, a co-director of the Center for Molecular and Behavioral Neuroscience at Rutgers University in Newark, N.J., has long theorized that the problems of language-impaired children stem from an inability to process speech rapidly.

She is not one of the researchers who receive funding through the National Institutes of Health's research program on learning disabilities. But her theory is not inconsistent with those researchers' idea that reading-disabled children's crucial problem is their difficulty distinguishing phonemes--the small individual sounds that make up speech.

Ms. Tallal, however, takes the idea further by emphasizing the role of timing in processing phonemes. She believes language-impaired children cannot process brief sounds--a weakness that creates a fuzzy representation of the speech they hear. But they can distinguish phonemes if the sounds are drawn out.

"We wondered, can you train these children out of this acoustic weakness? It turns out that you can," said Michael M. Merzenich, a professor of neuroscience at the University of California, San Francisco. He teamed up with Ms. Tallal and other scientists in 1994 to create computer games designed to do just that.

Talking Clowns

In one program with a circus theme, for example, a clown says similar-sounding phonemes, but the sounds are lengthened so that the language-impaired children can understand them. Once children can accurately distinguish those sounds, the sounds are progressively speeded up until they resemble normal speech.

In one study of the approach, 10 of 11 children acquired two years' worth of language skills in 50 hours of computer training, Mr. Merzenich said. A control group of students given the same therapy but without the drawn-out speech sounds did not progress as dramatically.

The success of their experiment prompted the researchers to form a San Francisco-based company, Scientific Learning Principles, to develop and market a CD-rom and to train educators in using the technology with children. So far, 3,000 children have undergone the training.

But some experts on reading disabilities contend that Mr. Merzenich and Ms. Tallal may be prematurely trumpeting their program as a possible "cure" for dyslexia. "People think if you just do that, other parts of reading will come along naturally," said G. Reid Lyon, the chief of the child-development and behavior branch at the NIH's National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. "But it's a naive approach--like you're expecting to put eyeglasses on the brain."

"In general, it's absolutely right to say it's premature to make any grand claims about it," Mr. Merzenich responded. "But what have we measured? We've measured progress in an ability defined by others to be correlated with reading success."

"If I had a kid with this problem," he added, "his butt would be on the chair immediately."

--DEBRA VIADERO

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