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Dyslexia and memory – Working memory and how teachers can help

Neil MacKay explains why the issues experienced by dyslexic learners in the classroom can often stem from their working memory – and what teachers can do to support them…

Neil MacKay
by Neil MacKay
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Pupils on the dyslexia spectrum are easy to spot. They tend to think faster than they can read, write, spell and get their ideas down on paper – which resonates well with the Scottish HMIE’s description of dyslexia as “Marked differences in terms of competencies in certain areas, especially with regard to oral versus text-based skills.”

Another common marked difference in competency involves a a pupil’s age/ ability-appropriate verbal or perceptual reasoning coming up against unexpected issues relating to their working memory and processing speed, as highlighted in 2011 book The Dyslexic Advantge by Brock and Fernette Eide.

Dyslexic pupils can present as not understanding, when in actual fact they have often forgotten what to do next. In effect, they are ‘quick forgetters’. The challenge is to overcome the ‘forgetting curve’.

The forgetting curve shows how pupils forget 20% of a lesson upon leaving the room, a further 20% during a 20-minute playtime, and can only recall around 33% of the lesson come the next day. That’s one reason why our content-heavy National Curriculum is so difficult to cover without applying some research validated principles to our teaching – and it also explains why pupils on the dyslexia spectrum can struggle to show their true ability.

There are, however, three ‘memory-light’, dyslexia-aware approaches that can enable quick-forgetters to keep their learning uppermost in their minds – ‘mastery learning’, ‘spaced review’ and ‘assessment for learning’.

1 | Mastery learning

Mastery learning is based on the premise that most pupils can learn most things, given enough time and appropriate teaching. To that end, learning becomes the constant and time the variable, especially when grooving in key skills, but there’s an opportunity cost involved. In this case, the ‘cost’ is teaching less content in the early stages, balanced against the opportunity to teach a little less a little more effectively, safe in the knowledge that the pace can be picked up once core skills are embedded. Mastery learning for dyslexic quick forgetters will therefore involve the following four principles:

A) Each lesson begins with a quick demonstration of mastery. Working with a partner to jot down three important points from the previous lesson, without needing to be told, is a quick demonstration of mastery. This helps bring quick forgetters up to speed.

B) Each lesson also ends with a demonstration of mastery. This enables teachers to assess the impact of their teaching and sets imperatives for subsequent differentiation and personalisation. Research has shown that ‘low stakes/ no stakes’ quizzes at the end of lessons can double the rate of retention. Getting pupils to create the questions themselves further increases this impact by harnessing the power of peer tutoring.

C) Ideally, only 15% of a lesson should be new; lessons should re-visit up to 85% of the content, knowledge, skills and concepts from the preceding lesson and continue in that vein. By teaching less content early on in a Key Stage, schools can ensure that core skills are properly taught, firmly embedded and ready for development later in the syllabus. From the perspective of dyslexic quick forgetters, this memory-light approach provides frequent opportunities for re-visiting. ‘Overlearning’ in this way also creates episodic memories based on what’s gone before, which is a very dyslexiaaware strategy.

D) The final principle is to adopt the ‘I say, we say, you say’/‘I do, we do, you do’ mantra, rather than ask “Who can tell me?” The former ensures that pupils start with a correct model and get it right first time. Dyslexic quick forgetters are liable to remember things that they’ve learnt incorrectly and have to be subsequently corrected, such as their spelling of ‘eny’ (any) and ‘thay’ (they). Rather than attempting to change the habits of a lifetime, it’s better to get everything right first time.

2 | Spaced review

The next step towards empowering quick forgetters is to ensure their learning is checked regularly throughout the lesson. Spaced review consolidates learning and highlights any problems and misconceptions, giving teachers regular feedback on the impact their teaching is having.

The ideal ‘space’ between each review depends on the attention span of the class and/ or individual. There’s a simple formula you can use for this:

Attention span (in minutes) = chronological age + 2

The typical attention span of an 8-year-old will therefore be 10 minutes, and so on. Although pupils will appear to concentrate beyond this notional figure, each minute thereafter becomes subject to the law of diminishing returns.

Having begun with a demonstration of mastery from the previous lesson, after every 10 minutes or so we will therefore need to inject quick ‘assessment for learning activities’ to check our impact so far. The feedback from these activities will then determine the direction of the lesson for the class and/or individuals, as it becomes clear that some are ready to move on while others need more time.

3 | Assessment for learning

Dylan Wiliam suggests that formative assessment can double the speed of learning, because it builds on all the principles outlined above.

Using a range of formative strategies helps to gauge the impact of teaching and ensures that we teach the pupils, rather than the lesson. A 60-minute memory-lite lesson for 13-year old-quick forgetters (with a notional attention span of 15 minutes) might therefore look like this:

Minute 1: Quick demonstration of mastery – three key points from last lesson.

Minute 16: “Tell your neighbour the most important point so far – then share with the table.” Warn some quick forgetters that they’ll be asked to share with the class, but check discreetly that they’ve got a good answer before going public.

Minute 31: ‘Muddiest point’ – pupils work with a partner or their table to identify one thing that isn’t clear. This harnesses the power of peer tutoring; anything which can’t be resolved this way obviously needs re-teaching, so it’s a win-win.

Minute 46: Prepare a quiz question that a teacher might ask.

Minute 59: Quick demonstration of mastery using pupil generated quiz questions

To reiterate, there’s a cost to working in this way, in that less subject content can be covered during the early months of the year, but an opportunity in that what you teach will be remembered much more effectively. The teaching and learning can then accelerate as the year unfolds.

Dyslexic students are too often criticised for lacking in concentration or motivation, because they appear to be struggling having got off to a good start. The reality is often that they’ve forgotten what to do next – the solution to which is to become a ‘memory-light classroom’.

6 quick fixes for quick forgetters

  1. Check mastery at the beginning and end of lessons.
  2. Use the ‘attention span rubric’ to chunk more – aim to teach a bit less, a bit more effectively.
  3. Use a range of ‘assessment for learning’ activities to monitor the impact of your teaching.
  4. Plan accommodations around ‘dyslexia time’, working on the basis that it will take twice as long to produce half as much.
  5. Use a ‘hands down’ approach to class questions – allow pupils time to process, take up and think, before telling their partner and then the rest of their table.
  6. Focus on your quick forgetters by telling them ‘The next question is yours’ – but only ask it after allowing them take up and discussion time, and discreetly checking that the answer will be correct. There should be no putting pupils on the spot for quickfire answers unless the individuals are sufficiently confident.

Neil MacKay is an experienced teacher and freelance consultant and trainer; for more information visit or follow @ActionDyslexia.

Find out more about Dyslexia Awareness Week.

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