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.
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!