Addressing Weaknesses in Working Memory

Feb 15, 2018

Previously, we discussed the important role working memory plays in reading, impacting both accuracy and comprehension. The question remains, how to best support the development of reading skills among those students with weaknesses in working memory.


Training Working Memory Is Ineffective
To date, there is no substantial evidence to suggest that discrete skill-building in working memory via "training" programs like CogMed translate to improvements in linguistic tasks. In fact, existing research has shown that despite short-term gains, improvements typically do not transfer to standardized measures of achievement (Chacko et al., 2014), and diminish over time (Melby-Lervag & Hulme, 2013).

Therefore, support must come in the form of interventions that contain the characteristics essential for effective learning despite working memory deficits.
Essential Characteristics of Effective Interventions
Individuals with weaknesses in their working memory require scaffolds or support to assist with managing many cognitive tasks related to reading. Scaffolds include (but are not limited to): visual aids, kinesthetic techniques, mnemonic devices, and repetition & appropriate pacing. Any intervention designed to remediate the reading abilities of students with weaknesses in working memory requires such scaffolds in order to be effective.

1. Visual Aids: Instruction that pairs visual and oral information together provides students with an additional cue to remember factual information. Many aspects of foundational reading skills rely on learning decontextualized knowledge. For example, pairing up letters and their corresponding sounds is quite natural for adults, but its a fairly arbitrary process for children. One example of a curriculum that integrates many visual aids into its phonics program is Lively Letters.  

2. Kinesthetic Techniques: The multi-sensory, kinesthetic techniques such as the articulation exercises that support students' understanding of sound production in the phonological program LiPS, and the hand gestures that support writing in the program Framing Your Thoughts, offer another layer of support to students who struggle to recall linguistic strategies for reading and writing.

3. Mnemonic Devices: A quick story or rhyme can support memory of rules or spelling patterns. Everyone remembers the spelling generalization for i/e - I before E except after C, unless pronounced /A/ in 'neighbor' or 'weigh'. The program Sight Words You Can See, pairs visual cues with mnemonic devices to help support the fast recognition of commonly occurring words that should be recognized by "sight".

4. Repetition and Appropriate Pacing: A curriculum that is appropriate for students with weaknesses in working memory should structure tasks so that previous content is continually reviewed, and new concepts are introduced in an incremental manner. Visualizing and Verbalizing, which supports the comprehension of texts through explicit instruction in visualization, introduces texts that incrementally increase in complexity. The program begins with simple sentences and builds to full passages.
Remediation programs that contain these characteristics will support the efficient acquisition of skills among students with working memory weaknesses. Yet, beyond specialized interventions, classroom accommodations and modifications can also go a long way to support learning and we will highlight them in the next blog post.

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