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Working Memory, Part 1: Literacy, Learning, & Dyslexia

Today's topic is seldom discussed as a primary factor in literacy struggles among students with (and without) dyslexia: working memory.

There are several aspects we can examine here - what working memory is, why it's important, how it is connected to dyslexia, and what you can do to help support your child's working memory at home (or at school, teacher friends!)

What is working memory?

According to the International Dyslexia Association, working memory is the brain's ability to "hold and manipulate information mentally over short periods of time."

This is important because working memory is the crucial link between holding (storing, memorizing) information and actually using that information to complete a task. You need a strong working memory to actually do something with what you know!

If working memory is poor, you may see a child struggle with: organization; multi-step directions (especially if delivered orally); following and contributing to a group conversation; holding and sequencing sounds for spelling words; comprehending texts; and more.

Specifically in the area of literacy, poor working memory can make it more difficult for children to read and spell words proficiently. The ability to take apart and manipulate sounds in words requires a strong working memory! If working memory is poor, it can affect both reading and spelling.

As a side-note: if you have a child who reads fluently, but claims not to "remember anything" afterward, this may also be an indicator of a weak working memory, even though the child does not struggle to decode words. This is because, when reading a passage, working memory is what enables the reader to connect information read at the beginning of the passage with that which is learned later in the text. Therefore, it is possible to have a poor working memory in spite of strong decoding skills.

How is working memory connected to dyslexia?

Children with dyslexia have a higher rate of working memory concerns, because the phonological weaknesses associated with dyslexia can impact the phonological loop (where verbal information is stored) in working memory.

It requires a considerable amount of working memory space for children to hold on to speech sounds, while connecting with letters, while applying to words in spelling and reading. For children with dyslexia, in the presence of a weak working memory, this task can become overwhelming.

However, fear not! There are many things you can do at home (or at school) to help support your child's working memory. In my next post, I will share practical advice and tips for supporting your child's working memory. Come back soon to learn more!


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