Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Working Memory - Part 4 - Planning

Planning involves the ordering of existing prior knowledge. It requires thinking ahead by anticipating, prioritising time, and focusing attention on the most important information. This may take the form of attending to; instructions, text structure, or pictures. Children may also use diagrams or write notes, draw pictures, or visualise content.


Help children develop planning skills by:
  1. Focusing attention on the instructions by asking the child/ren to listen carefully (by using the suggestions in part 3 of this series).
  2. Breaking the instructions up into clear steps and encouraging them to visualise themselves going through the motions.
  3. Making notes the steps needed to perform the set task.
  4. Deciding on the type of information to be found.
  5. Looking at the pictures and diagrams and link to new ideas.
  6. Prioritising the key ideas and being ready to connect others.
  7. Looking at the text structure e.g. is it a story (narrative) or a non-fiction text (list, problem, etc.) and finding clues as to how the information is structured.
  8. Making a list of unfamiliar words that are in the text  (making a concept map - see photograph above).
  9. Discussing likely scenarios (after viewing the pictures and /or diagrams).
  10. Fostering high but realistic expectations.
These steps will encourage children to focus attention, activate background knowledge, and link new information to existing information. When children are made aware of the fact that information has form or structure this they will be more likely order their knowledge more efficiently. 

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Making executive (memory) functioning more efficient

To achieve success with any academic task  requires learners to plan, allocate their time, organise their mental resources, prioritise information, flexibly apply thinking strategies, monitor their progress, and reflect upon meaning. This is part of the executive functioning of working memory and for children to use their thinking processes more efficiently they may need to be shown how to develop these skills. 

However, many children with learning difficulties struggle with some or all of the following working memory functions:

Before the learning activity (Conceptualise)
  • Attending:  focusing attention on the task and excluding extraneous information.
  • Planning: ordering information (what is known) and prioritising time. This may take the form of writing notes, drawing diagrams, visualising.
  • Goal setting: prioritising and setting goals for the activity. 
During the learning activity (Organise)
  • Organising: sifting the main ideas from the details,  by shifting and categorising.
  • Encoding: arranging information and linking with background knowledge from long-term memory, encoding and storing information into long-term memory.
  • Monitoring: checking whether the encoding process is making sense and whether the reading or writing strategies are adequate or whether an alternative strategy will work better.
After the learning activity (Reflect)
  • Reviewing: Recollecting the events of a story or the ideas presented in an article.
  • Reorganising: Reframing the recollections in a way that is more meaningful and connected to one's life experience.
  • Reflecting: Thinking about what has been learned and forming an opinion, making judgements, and predicting outcomes.

    In this blog I will focus on attending.

    The central executive determines what to focus on when performing a particular task. If we were not able to focus our attention then we would very quickly overload working memory with too much information.

    What can I do to help children focus their attention?
    1. Make the question or task simple and not too long.
    2. If the stated task has a number of steps then break it up into a small number of short sentences.
    3. Draw a diagram, picture, or sequence of symbols to accompany the directions.
    4. Ask the child to repeat the directions.
    5. Ask the child to take notes and repeat the directions.
    6. Give prompts.
    7. Say, "What do you have to do first? What do you need to do next? and What is the last thing that you have to do?"
    8. Make sure that the content of the directions are familiar and meaningful to the child.
    9. Make sure that the directions are naturally sequential and logical.
    10. Reduce distracting or extraneous material that is unnecessary.
    N.B. Above all, be patient and have realistic but have high expectations. Children often try and meet your expectations particularly if they are challenged.

    For more information on the COR Reading Framework see 'Catalyst' (pages 24-27) at 

    Wednesday, March 7, 2012

    Working memory - Part 2 - How does chunking help?

    What is working memory and how does it function?

    As mentioned in part 1, working memory is where most of the thought processes take place moment by moment. Working memory temporarily stores information while it makes decisions or solves a problem. For example, while reading, the word "bow" is stored in verbal short-term memory while the reader decides if it is part of a boat, something that one ties, or a weapon that fires arrows.

    This diagram is a simple model of working memory showing the three main parts. The central executive is the decision maker that directs attention, selects and sends information to the two storage components. The two storage components are referred to as the visuo-spatial short-term memory and the verbal short-term memory. The visuo-spatial short-term memory stores information in the form of pictures such as objects, people and places whereas the verbal short-term memory stores speech information such as letter sounds, words, phrases, or sentences. Both parts have limited storage and work quite differently. They are connected to the central executive where the two types of information can be linked in some way.

    We will now focus on verbal short-term memory in part 2 of this series.

    Verbal working memory is quite limited in that it can store approximately 5 items (give or take 2). During reading this can become a problem when large words are sounded out letter-by-letter. For example, when a reader attempts to store each letter of a 7 letter word as separate bits of information the reader's working memory may be overloaded and some of the letters may be lost, thereby making word decoding quite difficult. This strategy may work, to some degree, with smaller words but readers will find it increasingly frustrating when words become longer.

    This problem can be overcome by chunking as many of the word elements together in the form of syllables or even whole words. Chunking groups of words in the form of phrases or whole sentences is even less demanding on storage space.  For example, a single letter can be stored as one item in verbal short-term memory and a whole sentence may take up the same amount of space.  Chunking is also important for reading comprehension because words, phrases, and sentences carry more meaning than single letters. Thus, the bigger the chunk the more meaningful it will be and the less space it will use in verbal short-term memory.

    To overcome these storage problems readers should be encouraged to go beyond letter-by-letter sounding out to recognising whole words, then to whole phrases (see the earlier blog on highlighting phrases) to recognising whole sentences (see the earlier blog on repeated readings). This will free up working memory space to allow other thinking and problem solving to take place.

    Alan Baddeley on the development of the working memory model