• Liz Murray

Help me remember! Unravelling Dyslexia - Part 2 #verbalmemory #workingmemory #dyslexiaawareness

Updated: May 8


Supporting Poor Verbal and Working Memory for Dyslexic Children

In my previous blog, ‘Unravelling dyslexia,’ I explain the many ways that dyslexia can present. Readers got in touch to ask for support with individual elements, so this post is the first in a series to do just that.


Let’s start with a definition of dyslexia that is widely recognised and accepted:


Dyslexia is a learning difficulty that primarily affects the skills involved in accurate and fluent word reading and spelling. Characteristic features of dyslexia are difficulties in phonological awareness, verbal memory and verbal processing speed. Dyslexia occurs across the range of intellectual abilities. It is best thought of as a continuum, not a distinct category, and there are no clear cut-off points. Co-occurring difficulties may be seen in aspects of language, motor co-ordination, mental calculation, concentration and personal organisation, but these are not, by themselves, markers of dyslexia. Jim Rose (2008)

Poor Verbal Memory and how this links to Working Memory

The Rose report identified that having a poor verbal memory is a characteristic feature of dyslexia but what does this mean in practice? In its most simplistic form, it means not being able to remember (and therefore, process) verbal information or instructions.


It helps to have a look at how memory works:


The Performance Juxtaposition Site: http://www.nwlink.com/~donclark/index.html


Sensory Memory: We receive information through all of our senses, but we only hold this information for between 1 and 4 seconds and only a fraction of this is transferred into our Short-Term Memory. This is the reason why it can be useful to present information in a multi-sensory way and why teachers will often provide a visual or a kinaesthetic aid to encourage sensory memory to push the information through to Short-Term memory.


Short Term Memory: This is where information is held while it is being processed and where we establish meaning. For example, if someone gives you their telephone number, you then connect the telephone number to that person.


Our Short-Term Memory only has a limited capacity though, being able to hold about 7 items at one time and for a limited time; about 20 seconds, and we then need to make an active decision to retain or lose information.


So, if we decide that we want to memorise that phone number, we might write it down, look at it, repeat it back to ourselves and, if we do this often enough, we can ‘bank’ this information first into, our short term memory, and then into our Long-Term memory and retrieve it when we need it. The same process is used by teachers for teaching spellings with the 'look, cover, write and check' method.


If we are given too much information at once, we simply can’t hold, process or retain it without strategies to support us. This is why, in an academic lecture, being able to listen and take effective notes is essential. The trouble is, if you are dyslexic with a poor verbal memory, and the information is being presented quickly verbally, you are going to struggle to do this.


Working Memory: This is one of the brain’s executive functioning skills, so it allows the brain to decide what it should hold onto and what it can dismiss. It is a temporary place where ideas are stored while they are manipulated or used as part of an activity. In short, working memory helps us to organise, plan and act on information.


Here’s an example of how it might work in practice:

Your child’s maths teacher asks the class to add 21 and 13 in their head, and then subtract 6 from the sum.

Working memory enables your child to hold on to and visualize the numbers the teacher has called out. It also allows her to remember what the sum of 21 and 13 is, so she can then take away 6.

Your child might not remember any of these numbers by the next class or even 10 minutes later. And that’s OK. Working memory has done its short-term job and allowed her to tackle the task at hand. Peg Rosen (https://www.understood.org/en/learning-attention-issues/child-learning-disabilities/executive-functioning-issues/working-memory-what-it-is-and-how-it-works)


So, if a child has a poor verbal and/or working memory, they might struggle to complete tasks, not because they don’t have the foundational knowledge, or don’t have the intelligence, but rather because they can’t hold and manipulate the information given.




It should be noted that poor working memory and poor executive functioning skills, impacts learners with other difficulties. Attention and concentration play a large role so children with attention difficulties, ADHD, ASD also may struggle in this area.


The Curve of Forgetting!

The opposite of the Learning Curve, this graph demonstrates how quickly the average person forgets when we make no effort to retain information.


The Curve of Forgetting - Ebbinghaus, 1885

What do we learn from this?

· 40% of new material is lost after 20 minutes

· 80% is lost after a day


So, if someone with an average memory is only retaining 20%, how much are the learners with poor working memory retaining?




What might you notice if your child is struggling with poor verbal/working memory?

· Unable to retain information given verbally for more than a few seconds.

· Difficulty applying concepts. For example, using already learned multiplication tables when answering a maths word-based problem.

· Difficulty following instructions, especially if several instructions are given at once. This could be in class or at home.


What helps?

· A slower pace of spoken language for verbal information

· Instructions should be short, clearly phrased and given one at a time if possible, they should also be repeated but in exactly the same way (not rephrased in different ways as this is confusing)

· Regular review of learned facts or foundational knowledge (eg. Multiplication tables, spellings)

· Memory can be improved by ‘overlearning’ repeatedly teaching the same ideas in different ways

· Using ‘memory tags’ such as associated visual images, repeated to help recall a concept or idea

· Understanding of tasks should be checked before the learner begins tackling them

· Planning should be actively taught

· Effective note taking should be explicitly taught

· Time should be given to allow for thinking, processing and planning

· A quiet learning environment with minimal distractions can help

· Where possible a multi-sensory approach can be helpful

· Where possible personalising learning can help to create autobiographical memories

· Strategies for remembering should be taught (more on this in a later blog)!


References/Useful Links:

Identifying and Teaching Children and Young People with Dyslexia and Literacy Difficulties An independent report from Sir Jim Rose to the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families June 2009, page 10

The Performance Juxtaposition Site: http://www.nwlink.com/~donclark/index.html

Understood – for learning and attention issues: https://www.understood.org/en/about

Peak Memory - https://peakmemory.me/2013/06/29/hermann-ebbinghaus-and-the-forgetting-curve/

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