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Working Memory: A Key to Reading Success

Kids struggle to understand what they read for a variety of reasons. If they still have difficulties decoding with automaticity, this can have a significant impact on their reading. Once students are fluent decoders, many of them still struggle remembering and understanding

what they read. A common misconception is that repeated readings or “more practice” will somehow improve comprehension.

For some students, particularly those with vocabulary deficits or learning a second language, more reading can be very beneficial because it develops their vocabulary, which, in turn, can improve their comprehension. However, for many students who struggle with comprehension, the culprit is often untested and overlooked--working memory. Students will dyslexia or other language-based reading disabilities will need a much more structured approach to improving their reading comprehension skills.

de Jong (2006) purports that dyslexia involves a deficit in auditory working memory (via the phonological loop

) and working memory, so targeting this cognitive process can have huge benefits.

Working memory is a subset of executive functions. It is the ability to pull up and store information long enough to use it. There is both auditory and visual-spatial working memory. If you are listening to the teacher give directions for your assignment, you would use auditory working memory to remember those directions to use them. Auditory working memory is also used for decoding and spelling. Visual-spatial working memory is used to solve complex math problems,

write essays, and make sense of what we are reading.

A good analogy

for working memory is that it is like making cookies.Working memory is the kitchen counter of the brain. You have to put all of the ingredients on the counter to be able to use them to complete the recipe. If the counter isn’t big enough, there won’t be enough space to get all of the ingredients out and your cookies will not turn out correctly. Cognitively, if our working memory is impaired, we aren’t able to store all of the information we need to in order to complete a tas

k efficiently and effectively.

Let’s look at reading specifically. Joseph is reading a passage about the Lewis and Clark expedition for his

4th grade social studies class. As he is decoding the words, he comes across a sentence like this: “Although the winter was harsh, Lewis and Clark’s crew was able to survive the brutal weather and continue their journey in the spring with the help of their Native American guide.” In this sentence, Joseph has to remember that “although the winter is harsh” is a clause and is not the subject of the sentence; the “crew” is the subject. He has to also remember what the function of “although” is and how it affects sentence meaning. There is also a possessive in this sentence and a compound predicate (“able to survive” and “continue their journey”). These complex sentence structures are very taxing to working memory and can significantly impact reading comprehension.

Semantics, or word meaning, plays a role here as well and puts a high demand on working memory as well. Some reading, such as a passage about photosynthesis, might be very dense with content-specific vocabulary such as organelle, chloroplast, and wavelength.

So, now we have syntax (word order and sentence structure), semantics (word meaning), and then we add in punctuation, prosody, and the act of decoding. It is clear why this is such a complex task.

How can we support working memory through instructional practices?

1. It is imperative to make sure that the text you are working with is at the student’s independent or instructional reading level when doing explicit instruction. Be sure to choose text that is not overloaded with complex sentence structures so these can be taught and practiced.

2. Provide a clear

purpose for reading. For example, “students, we are going to read this article about photosynthesis. We are reading this to find out how plants take sunlight and use it to make energy through a process called photosynthesis.”

3. Provide an advance organizer with an outline of main points. This will help students chunk the information into meaningful pieces

4. Provide students with opportunities to engage with academic text in a meaningful way. This includes highlighting main ideas in information text, circling key words, writing one sentence summaries in the margins of each paragraph, or writing “thought bubbles” in the margins when they have an idea or connection.

5. Teach metacognitive strategies for self-regulation and understanding. A great example of this strategy is Dr

. Sharon Vaughn’s Collaborative Strategic Reading. Students work in small groups with defined roles. As they read through the text, they identify “clicks” or “clunks”, recognizing when they do or do not understand what they read. The students work through the text in a collaborative manner to make meaning.

6. Teach complex sentence structures such as dependent and independent clauses, and various types of phrases. Students need practice constructing and deconstructing sentences. For example, we might begin with the simple sentence “the dog walks.” Ask students to add a phrase that explains where the dog walks and you might get “The dog walks through the field.” Now add on when he walks and students might come up with “The dog walks throu

gh the field after dinner.” Finally, add in a dependent clause that might explain who he walks with like this, “When his owner lets him, the dog walks through the field after dinner.” Providing students with sentence parts and having them construct them is also a very powerful activity.

7. Outline the main ideas in a passage using a simple structure, such as the color-coded approach in Step Up to Writing. Again, this activity requires higher-order thinking to determine what

is a main idea and what is a supporting idea.

8. Provide ample practice in writing summaries. This can easily be done using the outlines created in #7.

9. Create structures for students to discuss academic text in meaningful ways. This might be a think-pair-share, the CSR strategy mentioned above, or other cooperative structures. Using sentence stems or frames can help students with expressive language impairments or second language learners engage in the activity more actively.

10. Access and build background knowledge. Contextual knowledge reduces the demands on working

memory (Miller, Cohen & Wingfield, 2006). Showing video clips, brainstorming existing knowledge and completing KWL charts are all examples of ways to access and develop background knowledge. For example, before reading the novel Peak by Roland Smith, we watched several short videos about climbing Mt. Everest, read a short article about mountain climbing equipment, and read a blog by an experienced extreme climber. This contextual knowledge helped prepare them for the academic language in the story and helped reduce the demands on their working memory because they had schema to access.

The main point here is to be intentional about lesson planning and delivery. Students with reading difficulties will not improve their comprehension skills by chance or exposure. They need a structured and explicit instructional program much like they did to learn to decode. Phon

emic awareness and phonological processing must be addressed first, then phonics and decoding skills, and then reading comprehension. Using these strategies can provide students a path to reading success!


de Jong, P. (2006). Understanding normal and impaired reading.

development. A working memory perspective. In Working Memory and Education (33–60). doi: 10.1016/13978– 021554465–8/50004–1

Miller, L., Cohen, J. & Windfield, A. (2006). Contextual knowledge reduces demands on working memory during reading. Memory & Cognition. 34(6) 1355–67. doi: 10.3758/bf03193277

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