I frequently see a variation of the following question on a variety of speech language forums: “My student scored within the average range on all the tested subtests with the exception of working memory and sentence recall. What other testing do you recommend to determine whether these difficulties are impacting their academics?”
First, lets provide a definition of working memory (WM). WM is the memory used for temporarily storing and manipulating information so we can perform a particular task. It’s one of the executive functions (EFs) and contains two important subcomponents: a phonological loop that stores verbal information and a visuo-spatial ‘sketchpad’ which stores visual and spatial information (Baddeley & Hitch, 2007). Together they are responsible for acquisition of sound-letter correspondence, phonemic awareness and ultimately reading comprehension since WM influences the duration the information stays in memory as well as its eventual transfer (or lack of thereof) to long-term memory.
In other words, students with adequate working memory will have enough capacity to appropriately decode, fluently read and adequately comprehend text while students with poor working memory will expend all their capacity on basic tasks such as decoding, which leaves them with very little capacity to devote to comprehension of read material.
Outside of testing, WM deficits typically become glaringly apparent as students move up grade levels and are given challenging subject-specific abstract texts, requiring in-depth analysis. This is when parents and professionals start to see that in addition to experiencing difficulty comprehending the read texts, students with poor WM also tire easily when presented with lengthy texts, and tend to evidence increased frustration and decreased self-efficacy during reading tasks.
Now let’s get back to our original question: “What other testing do you recommend to determine whether these [memory] difficulties are impacting their academics?”
Typically when asked that question I always tend to recommend that the therapist (an SLP trained in reading disorders) or a related special educational professional (e.g., learning specialist) preform a series of tests aimed to determine whether the student presents with reading deficits.
In my clinical experience (which is of course substantiated by research) in 99% of cases, reading disabilities are the hidden culprit behind seemingly average oral language skills and working memory deficits. For more information on what testing is recommended to tease out the presence of reading disorders, see my series posts on Comprehensive Dyslexia Testing (HERE) as well as on the validity of (C)APD diagnosis (HERE).
So the next time you encounter this perplexing pattern of strengths and weaknesses don’t just ignore it as inconsequential and not recommend or dismiss the student from language services. Delve into it further! You will often find that it is representative of reading difficulties, the cumulative impact of which may significantly affect the student’s academic performance and ultimately school outcomes, unless appropriate therapeutic interventions are provided.
- Baddeley, A. D., & Hitch, G. J. (2007). Working memory: Past, present…and future? In N.Osaka, R. Logie & M. D’Esposito (Eds), Working Memory – Behavioural & Neural Correlates. Oxford University Press.