(N.b. This page should be useful not just to students with dyslexia, but also to students with other Specific Learning Difficulties which can involve weak short term memory.)
What is short term memory?
Short term memory, (or short term, sequential “auditory” memory capacity, to give it its full name), is the number of small bits of information you have just heard (or read), that you can retain, in the same order, long enough to be able to work with them. Working memory capacity is the ability to work with those bits of information you have just heard in the last few seconds. Working memory can sometimes be used to refer to both of these things together.
Weak working memory or short term memory is different from long term memory – ability to remember where you were on your last birthday, or who you went on holiday to Spain with. You can remember lots of things from long ago and still struggle to remember what someone giving you directions said after: “Turn left at the roundabout, right at the petrol station and then….?”
Why is short term sequential memory important for literacy skills?
As well as confusing sounds in words when speaking or reading or spelling, many (but not all) students with dyslexia can struggle to remember what they have just heard. The “sequential” bit means they struggle to remember it in the right order. This will affect ability to learn in class, to make sense of what has been read, to remember how to spell words and to include enough details, in the right place, in written work. The good news however is that once you recognise this to be an issue, there are many memory strategies that can be learned to improve these skills.
We all usually only remember, what we interact with. Information doesn’t just magically go into long term memory storage. If you have just read something or heard something and it feels like “it went in one ear and out the other”, it is not that you can’t “remember it”. It is that you did not actively process it as you were reading or listening – your brain will therefore not know where to transfer information, so it can be lost. This can result in gaps in phonic knowledge, gaps in knowledge of spelling rules, difficulty remembering what you have read and difficulty remembering either what you are expected to write about or what to include in your writing.
How does short term memory work?
People who seem to remember everything they read or hear in class with very little effort can usually retain more small bits of very recent information on what we call their mental “short term memory pad” than others can. This is lucky for them. They might also be able to automatically engage with what they hear or read, without even realising they are doing so, making them more likely to lodge those things in their long term memory, so they can remember them later on.
If short term memory is an issue for you, or for your dyslexic child, you or they may have to explicitly learn how to actively engage with information when listening or reading, to achieve what others may have learned subconsciously. This is what we mean by learning memory strategies. It may also be necessary to use these conscious memory strategies more extensively than others, to compensate for less room on your mental short term memory pad. This is because the quicker you interact with new information effectively, using a memory strategy, the quicker it moves from short term to long term memory, leaving short term memory capacity free for the next load of data. This is more important, the less you can retain at one time.
But then, there are some things you can remember much more easily than other things, aren’t there? Did you ever wonder why you can remember what you are interested in, so much better than what you are not interested in?
This is also related to how memory works. When you already know a lot about something you love, your brain can subconsciously make sense of new information on that subject by relating it to other similar information. You are still actively processing the information, but it seems to take you very little effort to do so. You can file new facts and ideas in your memory, because the place to do so is well signposted given your knowledge and interest.
Even if you are new to your passion, a strong interest can result in you automatically, enthusiastically, asking yourself lots of questions about, or you starting a mental running commentary on what you are seeing or hearing on that subject: “How would this new approach he is describing improve my technique?” or “Ah, that’s how strikers make the ball go in the direction they want from a corner kick!” This is consciously interacting with information, and it tells your brain how to make sense of it and where to store it.
What types of memory strategies will help?
So how can we use this knowledge of how memory works, to help us remember what we may be less interested in, but which is vital to know, or what we don’t yet know enough about, to be interested in?
The answer is that you can get in the habit of consciously making an effort to interact with information, (replicating what you usually do subconsciously for what you are interested in).
The beauty of it is, it doesn’t matter how you try to interact with information. You can do something as silly as you like. Simply doing something active with information makes it more likely to be filed in your memory, where you will find it. These are suggested strategies:
1) REPEAT. You could decide to repeat something over and over again, out loud perhaps. That is a strategy most people already know.
2) VISUALISE You could make a conscious effort to picture what you are hearing or reading in your head. That is an active process, translating auditory (sound) information into visual information. Your brain can then remember the picture and you can ask yourself questions of the picture, to draw information out of it: “What colour was the flame?”; “How full was the tube?”; What shape was the curve on the graph? Did it curve inwards or outwards?” How many people were in the field in that passage?”; “Was she smiling or scowling?”.
3) PARAPHRASE You could put things into your own words as you hear or read them, to make sure they sink in better. Think of it like translating sentences into English from French! It helps to translate even those words you know well: by actively finding an alternative word, you have made your brain pay attention to the information. Just find a simile or near simile, even if this is less precise than the original word. Try it!
4) ASK YOURSELF QUESTIONS You can ask yourself questions about the meaning of what you are hearing:“How does what I already know fit with that?”; “In what way would that be useful?” “What else could I apply that to?”. Asking yourself questions is doing something active. It prompts your brain to link new information to existing information, so it is easier to file the new stuff and file it where you will find it later.
5) LIST/ NUMBER If you are not actually in a position to write a list, you can choose to make a mental list by numbering items to remember. If you are going to a shop and need to buy five items, repeat each item before you set off, pointing to a different finger on your hand. Then if you forget an item at the shop, look at your hand, go through the fingers, and when you come to the fourth finger, the item you listed when pointing at that finger at home a should pop into your mind.
6) MAKE A STORY In addition to numbering items, notice what letters items begin with, tell yourself why you need the items, notice if any categories of item are the same. For example: i) I need to buy cheese, bread, butter and a newspaper. C, B,B, N. Two items beginning with B, one with the letter after B. Plus an odd one out: N. Or ii) Three food items, one non food item: Or iii) 3 items to make the sandwich I want for lunch. A newspaper because I want to read the sport news during lunch. The possibilities are endless. As long as you have the thoughts, you will have helped yourself remember what you need. When you get to the shop and cannot think of more than two items you can go through prompts: OK I remember two items started with the same letter. Have I got both of those? Three items were to eat. Were they to cook dinner? No, I remember, they were for my sandwich!
7) CHUNK If you struggle to remember many small bits of information, think about “chunking” separate bits together. For numbers, maybe process the digits “3”, “5” and “7” and “three hundred and fifty seven”. Or imagine four digits as a calendar year: 1,9, 3,8 could be “Nineteen thirty eight, the year before the Second World War started. Going through this process clears space on your memory pad for the next few digits. Now what can you do with those…?
These are all well known memory strategies to train your brain to pay attention to what it hears, in order to be able to recall it later. They can be time consuming, but them ore you practice, the more automatic they become. You will eventually not realise you are doing it!
You will find many books about memory strategies for Children on the internet. Tony Buzan in particular, has written several, aimed at different ages or styles.
(N.b. Refer to the page on Study Skills to find out how older students can use memory skills when reading, writing and listening.)
(N.b Refer to the page on pre-literacy skills, to read more about simple memory strategies for younger students.)