Dyslexia and Working Memory

Working memory is our ability to store, order, recall, and work with information we have been given. It is the brain’s proficiency in juggling and manipulating information as well as discriminating what we should be focusing on.

Verbal short-term memory holds information that can be expressed verbally, for instance in numbers, in words, and in sentences.
Visual-spatial short-term memory holds information that can be expressed visually and spatially, for instance in maps, in comparisons, in images, in pictures, and in information about size, order, or geographical location.
In general, working memory also has components that helps us remain focused when engaged in memory-rich tasks.

Many people with dyslexia have very poor working memory, which may affect their ability to remember sequences of information, especially information that is presented verbally, such as instructions, new lexis, and even names. Poor verbal working memory can manifest itself in problems repeating new or unfamiliar verbal information, new or unfamiliar words, or even remembering questions.

This is partly because verbal working memory requires a proficiency in decoding and recalling speech sounds, and where those with dyslexia struggle with phonological processing challenges, speech sounds are a particular challenge, as they are with Auditory Processing Disorder (ADP), a condition many with dyslexia also have. In fact, 25% of all children tested for learning disabilities were found to have coexisting APD and dyslexia. The compound difficulty of processing verbal information while remembering it, rather than merely remembering it, causes unusual levels of cognitive stress.

Where short term memory is required for sequential recall, such as directions, mathematical operations, and ordering, then the stresses of combining working memory with sequencing problems can contribute to confusion and even lowered levels of comprehension.

Examples of everyday activities that may require working memory include:

  • ✳️ Remembering and following complex directions
  • ✳️ Remembering question long enough to formulate an answer
  • ✳️ Carrying out the steps in a process with no instructions
  • ✳️ Engaging in mental arithmetic

Strategies to mitigate against working memory disorder may include:

1. Flag up tasks in advance
2. Repeat and review instructions
3. Make information obviously cumulative
4. Make learning connective with other learning
5. Make learning multi-sensory

6. Make learning active
7. Make sure sequential tasks reinforce, rather than supersede, learning
8. Break down tasks into manageable, bite-sized chunks
9. Reduce the amount of information given at any one time
10. KISS – Keep It Short and Simple

See for instance: