Does Dyslexia Affect Memory?
Updated: Mar 5
You may suspect that your child has dyslexia or perhaps they have just been assessed as such.
There is one aspect which strikes you as really strange - why can't they remember spellings and facts that they have been given to learn when they can remember exactly what happened at Nanny's birthday party two years ago?
The key reason for this is memory and the fact that dyslexic's have a key weakness in one type of memory - working memory.
What is working memory?
Working memory is our ability to work with information ( definition by Alloway) ie how good our brains are at juggling and manipulating information as well as discriminating what we should be focusing on.
It is nothing to do with short term memory which is our ability to remember information for a short period such as someone’s name at a party – after the party your brain will ‘ditch’ the information. It is also not the same as long term memory which is basically all the knowledge you have learned over the years stored away to be recalled when needed.
Working Memory is the 'go between' to long term memory.
Working memory is linked to long term memory because it is the system that retrieves information from your long term memory and also the system that is used to transfer new information into long term memory .
Learning styles and Working Memory
Working memory is also the area which allows you to adapt your learning style to a task, so that you use the best one for that particular task. For example, we learn by doing when in a cookery class and learn by listening in a language class. A weak working memory will make it harder for you to do this.
Your dyslexic child will have a weakness in their working memory - this is part of the assessment and a weakness has to be found here for your child to be dyslexic.
This working memory weakness leads to these difficulties:
1. Doing things which need lots of brain processes to be juggled at the same time ( reading,spelling and writing)
2. Being able to make learning stick by putting it in long term memory and retrieving learning from long term memory
3. Not being able to adapt their learning style to suit the task they are doing - instead they may have one best way of learning which they try to apply to all tasks for example
What will you see as a result?
- Your child will know how to spell words one day and forget them the next
- They will have difficulty with writing their ideas down on paper, doing mental maths, spelling in longer pieces of writing and even have problems with reading and remembering what it was about
-In exams and tests, your child won't do as well as expected and they become frustrated because they know they put in more effort than everyone else.
- Your child may give up on trying to learn their work because they can't find a way to do so
- In extreme cases, this could lead to behaviour issues at home and school because you have a frustrated child on your hands
What do the teachers say?
If your child has a working memory issue, then you may be told by their teachers that:
- your child understands the work and can tell the teacher all about it verbally, but the piece of writing which is then produced is short ( maybe a few sentences long) and doesn't match up to the child's verbal abilities.
- they know how to spell words when given as a single word spelling but they continuously get it incorrect in their writing.
- your child is not learning their spellings ( when you know that you have both spent every day learning them) because they were all incorrect.
- their exam results were poor and they could do better with more effort.
- your child is lazy and not trying very hard!
If your child's teachers are saying these kind of things then alarm bells should start ringing - they should start ringing for the teachers too but your child is often one of 30 ( or more) children in that class and the teacher has to try and sort out all of them. As a parent, you are only sorting out your child and you also know how much effort your child is putting in at home.
A weak working memory does make learning more difficult for your child, but it doesn't mean that they can't learn. To help make their learning effective:
1.Chunk tasks down into manageable amounts. This includes chunking down the writing process, the word problem solving process, the word which they are trying to spell, the spelling list for that week ( perhaps it is too many for your child, in which case learn 2-3 really well, the times table they are trying to learn ( 2-3 facts at a time) and so on.
2. Repeat and review learning. This is essential if you want to put your learning into long term memory. A good technique to use is spaced learning to ensure your child is retaining the learning - this is where you test their learning on day 1,2 and 3 and if they remember it ( can be spellings, times tables, history facts, scientific terms......) then leave asking them for 24 hours; if they still remember at this time, leave for 48 hours and ask again; if they still remember ask again in 7 days. If they still remember, then it is in long term memory.
3. Make learning as active as possible. Your child may have had enough of sitting down and reading over things at school so at home and for revision, the learning needs to be made as active as possible.
This can literally mean moving around ( try jumping on chalked letters outside for spelling or assigning a fact to each piece of furniture in the house and then walk around to recall them).
Active reading means having a set of questions about the text around what you need to know from it - highlighting up key points and then testing yourself to see if you can remember what the text is about.
4. Understand how your child learns. Most children will use a combination of learning through seeing ( visual), by hearing ( auditory) and by doing ( kinaesthetic) and will switch how they learn according to the task. Your child will find this difficult, and in my experience they will have a stronger way of learning. Your job is to discover whether that is visual, auditory or kinaesthetic. Once you know this, you can make sure that, at home, your child learns in the way which is best for them.
In summary, your dyslexic child will have a weak working memory - other memories are unaffected ( as far as we are aware at the moment). This affects taking in and retrieving learning; it affects how much your brain can do at once and it affects how much you can adapt your learning style to the task.
This means that learning is made effective by chunking down into manageable parts ( including chunking down processes) ;that learning needs to be repeated often and reviewed regularly; that learning needs to be made as active as possible and finally, that understanding how your child learns is key.
If you would like to learn more strategies to help your child's learning to stick then you may be interested in our programme ' How to Learn with Dyslexia'. You can learn more about it here.