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  • Julie Knight

Working Memory and Dyslexia


What is working memory?

Working memory is the information you can consciously hold in your mind in any

given moment. It’s like a workspace where we temporarily keep information we’ll

need only for a short time. Having a strong working memory is having the ability to

retain fresh information long enough to do something with it.

Why is working memory important?

Poor working memory is the cause of many in the classroom. Students who have trouble following directions, struggle with multi-step directions, forget things they were just taught or have trouble copying information and taking notes often have poor working memories. They can also often lose their place in tasks, need constant reminders about what to do, and have difficulty retelling stories and explaining strategies they used. Kids who exhibit these behaviors fall behind in their academics, especially in reading and maths.

Most of the time, we never make the connection that working memory is part of the

problem. We don’t realise that when kids appear to be daydreaming and not

attending to a task, it’s sometimes because their working memory is full. Their brains

simply cannot hold any additional information, and because they literally can’t follow

along, they just tune out.

If we support children in developing a strong working memory, they’ll be able to:

  • apply previously learned information to new situations

  • stay focused and on-task

  • reorganise their thoughts to accommodate new information

  • take better notes and copy information more accurately

  • follow complex and multi-step directions

How does poor working memory impact on dyslexia?

Working memory is important for children with dyslexia as it helps them take their learned reading strategies, decode words, and then make sense of what they said. When teaching dyslexic children how to read, I often find that while they start to decode text with competence, they lag when asked comprehension questions on the same piece of text. It’s the ‘making sense of what they said’ that suffers at the hands of a full working memory.

Maths is also deeply impacted by a poor working memory. It makes it harder for them to learn basic math facts, and then apply them to a math problem. Children with strong working memories have a large mental blackboard available to them to hold on to numbers and strategies and then solve problems. A poor working memory means that this blackboard is tiny or non-existent.

A poor working memory can also mean a child with dyslexia has poor organisational skills. They may struggle with routine, lists of instructions, or writing using a logical order or process.

How can working memory be improved?

The good news is that improving working memory is one of the fastest and easiest things you can do to help a struggling child. Saliminen, Strobach, and Schubert confirmed in a 2012 study that building a strong working memory takes only 5 to 10 minutes of practice a day for 8 to 12 weeks.

I use two strategies to improve working memory in my students.

The first is to play regular memory games with my students, and encourage them to carry them on at home. Students who join in with these games (and practice them) improve their ability to remember lists, objects and information in a very short period of time. I’ve seen massive improvements in as little as a few weeks.

The second strategy is to teach explicit memory strategies that are suited to the way their brains work. Some dyslexic children have strong visual memories, while others respond well to music, and still others respond to movement.

There is plenty of information on the internet, and I find Pinterest very useful. Just search ‘working memory activities for kids’ and you’ll be swamped with a ton of great ideas. If this is too overwhelming, I’ll list some ideas in an upcoming blog.

How else can I help?

Children with poor working memories can also benefit from a number of accommodations, both at home and in the classroom. Some of these include:

  • Use a visual representation of a task. Taking photos of what a clean room looks like, or drawing a chart with the process of how to get ready for school are both ways to visually help a child with a poor working memory.

  • Present tasks or facts in a vertical way, down a page. This is an easier way for students with dyslexia to visualise information. Maths problems should be listed in columns, not across rows.

  • Reduce the number of problems a student has to answer on each page. A hundred problems squeezed onto a page is overwhelming and will lead to a student not attempting the work. The same students could easily complete a shorter task using flash cards.

  • Provide sample maths problems to support working memory. But providing a worked out answer as an example, the students will be able to see the steps to solving the problem.

  • Cooperative learning. Students can work together to learn how to apply worked out answers to new maths problems. This approach lessens anxiety, and studies have shown that maths reasoning skills improve.

  • Give students a broad lesson outline, so they can fill in (or doodle in) extra information where needed. When dyslexic children are made to take notes, their working memory is often filled with the act of note taking, instead of understanding what is being said.

  • Speak more slowly than you would usually. Students with dyslexia take longer to process information, so speaking quickly will hinder their ability to remember a full set of instructions.

  • Use speech to text for writing narratives and essays. Students with dyslexia often have great oral communication skills, but there is a huge disparity between their written and spoken work.

  • Make information concrete to reduce working memory processing. Use numbers instead of bullet points for multi-step activities, and use different colours for different steps.

  • Allow the student to listen to audio books for novel studies and assigned texts where available. If the purpose of the task is comprehension, there is little benefit to filling the working memory with decoding.

  • Minimise distraction so working memory is not overwhelmed. A child with a poor working memory should not be seated facing a sports field, window, or be in a group with all their mates.

Do you have any more ideas? I’d love to hear them.

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