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Why Working Memory Matters for Reading

If you sent your child to their room to get three things, would they come back with all three? At Helping Children to Read, we regularly ask parents this question because it gives us a picture of how strong the child’s working memory is. Working memory is your ability to hold information in your mind for a short period of time. When a child struggles to remember all three items, it can be a sign that he or she has poor working memory. And why does that matter in reading?

The connection between reading and memory is actually pretty straightforward. Our working memory plays a critical role in helping us digest the words we read, and a poor working memory can make it harder to decode new text and comprehend the information on the page. So if your child struggles with poor working memory, it can make reading – and comprehending – more difficult.

What is working memory and why does it matter?

Every day we rely on our working memory to juggle a barrage of information and tasks. Peg Rosen uses a helpful metaphor to explain just what working memory is, comparing it to a post-it note that we use to hold ideas in our mind for short periods of time:

Working memory is like a temporary sticky note in our brain. It holds new information in place so the brain can work with it briefly and perhaps connect it with other information.

Each different “temporary sticky note” helps us to retain small bits of information in our brain so that we can make bigger, longer lasting connections to the world around us.

When it comes to reading, one specific type of working memory – auditory working memory – plays a critical role. As patient advocate and former teacher Amanda Morin explains, auditory working memory helps children remember sounds and their associations to letters.

When children read long, unfamiliar words, they rely on their auditory working memory to hold the individual sounds in their minds, until they can put together the full word. For example, in a longer word like “cytoplasmic,” the child has to break the word into a number of discrete sound chunks: cy-to-plas-mic. Once they decode the “cy” and then the “to,” they have to hold those sounds in their minds until they work through “plas” and “mic,” and link the sounds together. The better a child’s auditory working memory is, the easier this process is.

Working memory is also important for remembering the sequence of what is being read. The team at All Kinds of Minds explains that working memory helps students juggle ideas and information while reading. Therefore, students who struggle with working memory may have a hard time remembering details or facts in their textbooks. This means that the student loses critical information needed to grasp the lesson.

Clinical neuropsychologist Matthew Cruger adds that in reading, strong working memory allows us to connect the text at hand with things that we already know. So the stronger a child’s working memory, the better they’re able to retain new material and apply it to future texts. The longer a child remembers the material they’ve read, the more likely they’ll apply it to new information.

Identifying memory issues

As a parent, identifying issues with your child’s memory may help you better support their reading progress. However, it can be tricky to determine whether your child has a working memory problem, or whether they actually struggle with attention.  For example, a child with an attention deficit will sometimes appear to be forgetful, when in fact, they are simply distracted by their environment. If you are concerned that your child has a significant working memory deficit, you may want to consider a professional evaluation to rule out other issues.

If your child struggles to read longer words, or string together sentences, or if they have a hard time remembering information that they read, there might be an underlying working memory issue. In order to help these children read successfully, consider teaching them reading strategies designed to support their memory needs.

David Morgan has a BSc in Mechanical Engineering and a masters degree in Education. David was a founding trustee of The Shannon Trust, set up David Morgan Education, created helpingchildrentoread.com and is the inventor of trainertext visual phonics (TVP).
In his spare time he likes to ski, sail, hit balls aimlessly, go to the theatre, read esoteric stuff and listen to music while moving embarrassingly.

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