Monday, January 4, 2016

Working-memory, attention control and reading comprehension.

There is a condition often referred to as the year four slump which affects a large number of students and their reading ability. Many of these children enter grade four with identified reading difficulties despite having adequate phonic and decoding skills.  One reason for this is the increased complexity of sentence structures at this stage and that reading for understanding rather than learning to read becomes the focus.

Often general language problems are the basis for student difficulties rather than inadequate phonic skills. Research suggests that these children have inadequate oral language skills including verbal knowledge, and listening comprehension. This is because listening comprehension requires the learner to encode incoming words using aural signals, transform the coded information into a mental representation, integrate this representation into existing knowledge structures and store the new knowledge into long-term memory. Poor listening comprehension has a negative impact on the ability to read for understanding. This is because listening comprehension facilitates reading comprehension and shares many of the same cognitive processes.

Working memory also influences the ability to process incoming information during listening or reading. It has a limited capacity for holding information while readers process aural or written meanings, particularly when it is necessary to think about or solve problems while mentally processing the message. One factor that limits working memory capacity is the ability to attend to information that is central to the reader's learning goals. Obviously, if working-memory has a limited storage capacity then it is absolutely imperative that the reader/listener is able to filter and attend to the most important information. One major problem is that many students either attend to unimportant information or mind-wander while reading. Obviously, if readers do not have clear goals and are not motivated to achieve them they will be more likely to take in superfluous information or develop mind-wandering tendencies while reading. Mind-wandering takes place when the reader/listener entertains thoughts that are irrelevant to the task at hand. This will occur in individuals who lack prior experience with the topic or interest.

Self-efficacy influences reading attention effort, reading engagement, and persistence in the face of distractions. It is related to a person's belief in his or her own ability to perform a task at a desired level.  As students become more self-aware those with learning difficulties will, most likely, have lower self-efficacy. This will affect the willingness of individuals to develop adequate goals, persist at attaining those goals and allocate attention effort.

How then can we support the student who is affected by this reading comprehension slump?
  1. Give the student reading material that is at a reasonable level of ease. A rule of thumb is that word accuracy should be around 90-96% accuracy level. 
  2. Develop an interest in the topic, or develop a topic around the student's interest. 
  3. Make sure that the student is familiar with the language and that unfamiliar words are discussed. Adequate discussion before a reading activity is just as important as the reading activity itself.
  4. Fill in the knowledge and experience gaps before reading e.g. go on an excursion or watch a video and follow-up with lots of discussion. Students can learn a lot from each other if they are given an opportunity to share their experiences.
  5. Develop shared and clear learning goals. Make sure that the students are taking responsibility for their goals. Readers will generally persist in the face of difficulty if they have a goal that they value.
  6. Develop self-efficacy by encouraging them to be reflective learners. Always give feedback by relating success to the amount of effort that students expend.
For more about this topic read:

Cho, E., Roberts, G. J., Capin, P., Miciak, J., & Vaughn, S. (2015). Cognitive attributes, attention, and self-efficacy of adequate and inadequate responders in a fourth grade reading intervention. Learning Disabilities Research and Practice, 30(4), 159-170.

Robinson, M. K., & Unsworth, N. (2015). Working memory capacity offers resistance to mind-wandering and external distraction in a context-specific manner. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 29, 680-690.

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