How Does Working Memory Relate to Learning Disorders?

 

Working memory is a cornerstone for learning of all kinds, from reading and notetaking to math calculations — but if you’re new to the world of learning disabilities, this specific type of memory can be a foreign concept.

To clarify what working memory is and how it relates to dyslexia, dysgraphia, dyscalculia, and other learning disabilities, we talked with learning expert Michele Berg, PhD. Dr. Berg founded the Center for Learning Disabilities at the Family Service and Guidance Center and has presented at a number of national conferences about the relationship between reading skills and working memory functions.

Michele Berg, PhD, is a learning disability consultant and Churchill partner.

Michele Berg, PhD, is a learning disability consultant and Churchill partner.

Churchill: What exactly is working memory? Can you give us an example?
Michele Berg: I think the simplest way to think about it is working memory is the kind of memory we have to have when we’re trying to hold onto information and work with it at the same time.

If a teacher says aloud, “five, nine, four, eight,” and asks the student to repeat those numbers back, that’s short-term memory. If a teacher says, “seven, four, three, six,” and asks the student to answer what that adds up to, this is an example of working memory because you have to hold onto the numbers and do something with them.

It’s like in college when you’re trying to listen to a lecture and take notes at the same time. So you’re trying to hold onto what they’re saying, then you’re trying to summarize it in your head, then you’re trying to write it down. That’s working memory.

“Working memory is the kind of memory we have to have when we’re trying to hold onto information and work with it at the same time.”

Churchill: What is the relationship between learning disabilities and working memory?
MB: It relates on a number of different levels. Probably one of the easiest to understand is reading comprehension. For somebody to understand what they’re reading and remember it, you have to read the first sentence, understand it, hold onto that, read the second sentence, relate it to first sentence, and do that all the way down the paragraph. When you get to the end of the paragraph, now you’ve got to integrate that paragraph with the next paragraph you read. If your working memory is weak, you can get to the end of the paragraph and say, “I don’t even know what I just read.”

Working memory can relate to reading and math, particularly things like long division that have many steps. If you’re doing long division, you have to pull up math facts, and sometimes they can’t pull up those facts and hold onto them while they’re remembering which steps they’re doing in the calculation. Students will literally get lost and they can’t remember which step they just did.

“If your working memory is weak, you can get to the end of the paragraph and say, ‘I don’t even know what I just read.’”

Churchill: What are some strategies for supporting working memory in students with learning disabilities?
MB: There’s a lot of controversy about whether or not you can actually increase working memory. There are a number of computerized programs now that you can purchase to try to do that. The research on that is variable, but you can certainly teach people strategies.

For example, one that I really like for reading is Post-It Notes. If you’re reading chapter four of world history, at the end of the first page, you can write a Post-It Note that says, “Here is the main idea or here are the main facts.” Do that for six pages and then just take your Post-It Notes and read through them. That’s a way to help boost your memory.

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