Archive for June, 2009

Impact of working memory deficits on learning

June 9, 2009

Over at SharpBrains, Dr. Tracy Alloway breaks down a recent study she published in Child Development about the relationship between working memory abilities and a range of academic skills, including reading, spelling and comprehension.

In screening of over 3000 school-aged students in mainstream schools, 1 in 10 was identified as having working memory difficulties. There were several key findings regarding their cognitive skills. The first is that the majority of them performed below age-expected levels in reading and mathematics. This suggests that low working memory skills constitute a high risk factor for educational underachievement for students. This corresponds with evidence that working memory impacts all areas of learning from kindergarten to college. It is a basic cognitive skill that we need to perform a variety of activities, and we use it in core subjects like reading and maths, as well as general topics like Art and Music. Crucially, this pattern of poor performance in learning outcomes remains even when students’ IQ is statistically accounted.

This fits well with evidence suggesting that working memory is even more important to learning than other cognitive skills such as IQ. For example, in typically developing students, I found that their working memory skills, rather than IQ, at 5 years old were the best predictor of predictor of reading, spelling, and math outcomes six years later.

Reading and math development are critical, but what about classroom and learning skills?

…teachers typically judged the students to be highly inattentive, and have short poor attention spans and high levels of distractibility. They were also commonly described as forgetting what they are currently doing and things they have learned, failing to remember instructions, and failing to complete tasks. In everyday classroom activities, they often made careless mistakes, particularly in writing, and had difficulty in solving problems.


…students with working memory difficulties take a much longer time to process information. They are unable to cope with timed activities and fast presentation of information. As a result, they often end up abandoning the activities all together out of frustration.

As it relates to reading, the criticality of working memory skills (and in particular auditory working memory skills) is not necessarily a new concept. Auditory working memory (the capacity to hold speech sounds in memory) is needed for tasks such as comparing phonemes, relating phonemes to letters, and sounding out words. Auditory working memory also helps listeners and readers understand sentences because it allows them to remember a series of words in order. It allows students to remember and manipulate sequences of sounds, associate spoken words with written words, retain new words while identifying their meanings, and remember the beginning of a sentence while listening to the end.

A program like Fast ForWord from Be Amazing Learning, which specifically targets auditory working memory development (along with other foundational cognitive skills like processing rates, attention and sequencing), can be an effective tool to remediate the working memory deficits that can lead to reading and other learning difficulties.


Exercises like Whalien Match in Fast ForWord Language, which resembles the memory card game but substitutes auditory cues for visual ones, develop critical working memory skills.

It’s important to note that the students in Dr. Alloway’s study were typically developing, but still struggled with reading, math and general learning due to their working memory deficits. And her data shows that 10% of mainstream educated kids have these deficits.

Clearly, we’ve got to get more of these kids on Fast ForWord!

“Now I have to pry the book out of his hands!”

June 7, 2009

“How do you know it’s going to work?” is a question we get asked a lot about the efficacy of the Fast ForWord programs we provide. Of course we can’t predict the impact the programs will have on an individual child, but we always point to study after study (after study after study), from initial university lab trials to national field trials, to countless studies performed in private clinics and public school districts worldwide that show that most kids make significant gains in language and reading skills (as measured by standardized assessments) after running the programs.

But whether the programs are effective for most kids doesn’t really matter when what you’re worried about is YOUR kid. Which is why we really dig stories like this one that we just received from the mother of a boy who is about 6 weeks into Fast ForWord Language:

So last night he was reading the second Harry Potter, which is frankly above his reading level, but he’s insisted on trying it again and is really progressing in it.  He walks in at 9pm (30 min past his bedtime, but it’s officially summer vacation) and says, thumbing through the pages left in chapter 6, “Can I read one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight?  Can I read eight more pages before I go to bed?”  I informed him that he could read until 10:00 pm and then he was to go to sleep even if he hadn’t completed the chapter.  So my husband was in the adjacent room listening to him read and was impressed by how smoothly it was going.  At 10:00 I walked in and he was just closing his book.  When I asked how far he’d gotten he proudly re-opened the book to show me his bookmark resting squarely over Chapter 7.  Heretofore, reading 4 pages in an hour was nigh unto impossible for that kid!   And he’d have rather opened a vein than read 4 pages at a sitting!  Now I have to pry the book out of his hands! I’m completely stunned and thrilled!

Test results are important. But reading all of chapter 6 of the second Harry Potter in a single sitting is really what it’s all about.

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