CNN Food and Health

Computer games helping children conquer language disabilities

January 5, 1996
Web posted at: 5:25 a.m. EST


From Correspondent Gary Tuchman and wire reports

NEW YORK (CNN) -- Specially designed computer games may be able to help children overcome dyslexia and other language difficulties by teaching their minds to understand the rapid sounds of normal speech.

Developed by the University of California, San Francisco, and tested at Rutgers University, the games use computer-generated speech that slow the consonant sounds that usually slide across the tongue within microseconds and cause problems for children with language disabilities.

The findings appear in the Friday issue of the journal Science.

Talla Dr. Paula Tallal of Rutgers University said children with language disabilities have a hard time understanding certain sounds because their brain cannot process them quickly enough. She emphasized that usually, these children were not hearing- or speech-impaired.

"Here's a problem in the way in which their brain is organizing sounds, particularly in one area," she said.

Without being able to quickly organize incoming sounds, language is stunted, and many such children will eventually be diagnosed with dyslexia, a reading disability found among school-age children. An estimated 8 percent of children, or 7 million, in the United States have language-based learning impairments.

The games force language-disabled children to concentrate on sounds such as "da" and "pa," which helps train the brain to grasp the slight differences. (60K AIFF sound or 60K WAV sound)

Training for just a month on the colorfully animated games enabled a group of 29 children to advance their language skills significantly.

In one month of computer training, 6-year-old Keillan Lecky has nearly caught up with her friends in language skills.

Lecky Her mother, Betty Ann Lecky, is thrilled with the results. "She loves school," she said. " She did not like kindergarten. She felt very overwhelmed, but now she's a very happy little girl when she goes to school." (68K AIFF sound or 68K WAV sound)

Gonzalez Another member of the experimental group, Stephanie Gonzalez, is engrossed in a game in which high frequency sounds go down, and low frequency sounds go up. She needs to push the arrows that correspond with the two sounds.

And, when she wins the game, there is a high-tech reward that makes it all fun.

How does a game work? For example, said researchers, if a child is playing a game, they would hear "pack, pack, pack, pat." At the sound of the last word, which is slightly different from the other three, the child is supposed to react and press a button. If they do that, they get a point.

Researchers said the games, in effect, focus sound for the language-learning impaired children, in the same way that eye glasses refocus light. They hope that the games may actually teach the brain to process subtle sounds that previously were not grasped.

Language-learning costs society about $7.5 billion annually in remedial training and other expenses, according to researchers.

The game therapy is expected to be available in one year.

AP contributed to this report.


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