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  • Writer's pictureChelsea DiMarzio

Beyond Dyslexia: Working Memory

Welcome back to Beyond Dyslexia! In our ongoing series, we're helping you unravel and better understand the intricacies of other factors that contribute to reading difficulties. Our aim is to equip you with the knowledge needed to identify and support students struggling with reading beyond the realm of Dyslexia. This time, we'll shine a spotlight on Working Memory, a cognitive function that plays a crucial role in the reading process.



While Dyslexia often takes center stage in discussions about reading challenges, Working Memory quietly operates behind the scenes, influencing a student's ability to process and retain information. Working Memory can be thought of as the mental workspace that temporarily holds and manipulates information during cognitive tasks. It's like the brain's notepad, allowing us to remember and work with information in real-time.


It can be tricky to identify the need to look closely at Working Memory because it operates in the shadows. When Working Memory is impaired, almost all aspects of learning will be influenced to some degree. In other words, a student's difficulty in school could present as a learning disability, but the root cause can be impaired Working Memory. This is why comprehensive assessments are so vital. It's incredibly important for educators, speech pathologists, and parents to understand how a student's Working Memory is operating so that we know where and how to intervene.


If we have Working Memory deficits, we need to be addressing them, not just how they present in a learning disability or trouble following directions. (This isn't to say we don't address the learning disability or the struggles in school though. That gap still needs closed, too.)


Quick jump to:


Identifying Working Memory Deficits


Working Memory, though often working silently in the background, can manifest its challenges in various ways. Recognizing the signs of working memory deficits is crucial for educators, parents, and professionals in order to provide targeted support and interventions. Here's a closer look at how these deficits might present themselves:


  • Forgetfulness and Forgettable Moments: One of the hallmark signs of working memory deficits is forgetfulness. Individuals with challenges in working memory may struggle to remember information for short periods. This can manifest as forgetting instructions soon after receiving them, misplacing items frequently, or struggling to recall recently learned facts. These forgettable moments can impact both academic and daily life.

  • Multitasking Mishaps: Working memory is heavily involved in multitasking and holding multiple pieces of information simultaneously. Individuals with deficits may struggle when faced with tasks that require juggling various elements. This could result in difficulty managing assignments with multiple steps or challenges in transitioning between different subjects or activities.

  • Incomplete or Inaccurate Task Execution: Working memory is crucial for holding and manipulating information while executing tasks. Students with deficits may demonstrate difficulties completing assignments accurately. They might make errors in calculations, misinterpret instructions, or overlook crucial details due to challenges in maintaining information during task execution.

  • Inability to Follow Multi-Step Instructions: Tasks involving multiple steps can pose significant challenges for individuals with working memory deficits. They may find it challenging to follow and remember a series of instructions. This difficulty can impact academic performance as well as everyday activities that involve sequential steps.

  • Attention and Concentration Struggles: Working memory and attention are closely intertwined. Individuals with working memory deficits may experience difficulties sustaining attention on tasks that require active manipulation of information. This can lead to daydreaming, zoning out during lessons, or an overall struggle to stay engaged in cognitively demanding activities.

  • Slow Processing Speed: Efficiency in processing information is another aspect affected by working memory deficits. Students may take longer than their peers to understand and respond to information. This can result in a slower reading pace, challenges in problem-solving, and difficulties in keeping up with the pace of classroom activities.

  • Poor Academic Performance in Complex Tasks: Working memory deficits may become more apparent in tasks that demand higher cognitive load. Students might excel in simpler tasks but struggle when faced with complex assignments that require active manipulation and integration of information. This discrepancy in performance can be a red flag for working memory challenges.

  • Emotional and Behavioral Impact: The frustration stemming from working memory challenges can have emotional and behavioral repercussions. Students may exhibit signs of stress, anxiety, or avoidance behaviors in response to tasks that tap into their working memory difficulties. Understanding the emotional impact is essential for creating a supportive and empathetic learning environment.


Identifying working memory deficits requires expertise from professionals such as psychologists, educational diagnosticians, and speech-language pathologists. These specialists are trained to conduct comprehensive assessments, including standardized tests and clinical observations, to pinpoint challenges in working memory.


Additionally, teachers often play a crucial role in identifying working memory deficits. Classroom observations can provide valuable insights. Teachers may notice a student's hesitation during discussions, frequent requests for repetition, or challenges in keeping up with the pace of instruction. These observations contribute to a more comprehensive understanding of a student's cognitive profile.


By combining insights from classroom observations, standardized assessments, and behavioral feedback, a complete picture of a student's working memory abilities emerges. This collaborative approach sets the stage for tailored interventions and strategies that empower students to navigate academic challenges successfully. A collaborative and empathetic approach ensures that appropriate interventions are implemented to support the development of working memory skills and facilitate academic success.


The Link Between Working Memory and Reading


Working Memory plays a significant role in reading comprehension and fluency. Here's how it impacts various aspects of the reading process:


  • Word Recognition and Decoding: Working Memory helps individuals recognize and decode words by holding the sounds and letter patterns in mind. Students with poor Working Memory may struggle to retain these details, leading to difficulties in reading fluently.

  • Sentence Comprehension: Understanding the meaning of a sentence or paragraph requires holding information about the beginning of the sentence while processing the end. Weak Working Memory can hinder this process, impacting a student's ability to comprehend complex sentences.

  • Integration of Information: Reading often involves linking information across sentences and paragraphs. Working Memory facilitates this integration, allowing readers to connect ideas and understand the overall narrative. Weak Working Memory may result in fragmented comprehension.

  • Reading Speed and Fluency: Efficient reading relies on the ability to quickly process and remember information. A strong Working Memory contributes to reading fluency, while a deficit may lead to a slower reading pace and frequent re-reading of passages.

  • Vocabulary Development: Working Memory aids in storing and recalling word meanings. Students with poor Working Memory may struggle with vocabulary development, affecting their ability to understand and use a diverse range of words.


Interventions for Working Memory Challenges


Once Working Memory issues are identified, targeted interventions can make a significant difference. Here are some strategies to support students with Working Memory challenges:


  • Chunking Information: Break down information into smaller, manageable chunks. This reduces the cognitive load on Working Memory, making it easier for students to process and remember.

  • Visual Aids and Organizers: Utilize visual aids, diagrams, and organizers to represent information. Visual cues can provide additional support and enhance memory retention.

  • Repetition and Practice: Repetition helps reinforce information in Working Memory. Encourage regular practice of key concepts to strengthen memory recall.

  • Multi-Sensory Learning: Engage multiple senses in the learning process. Incorporate hands-on activities, movement, and other sensory modalities to enhance memory encoding.

  • Mindfulness and Relaxation Techniques: Stress and anxiety can further strain Working Memory. Introduce mindfulness and relaxation techniques to help students manage stress and optimize cognitive function.



In our next installment, we'll delve into another aspect of the Beyond Dyslexia series, exploring new dimensions that impact the reading journey. Thank you for joining us on this educational exploration, and stay tuned for more insights, strategies, and a deeper understanding of the factors influencing learning differences beyond Dyslexia.

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