Monthly Archives: November 2013

Is Working Memory more important than IQ?


boy remembering

Yes, Yes, Yes, according to the leaders in working memory research! I just attended a conference where I had the privilege of hearing several of the world’s leading experts on working memory present their perspective on the link between Working Memory and ADHD (Dr.s Rapport, Tannock and Fassbender/Schweitzer), the state of Working Memory and increasing cognitive skills (Dr. Klingberg), and Working Memory in the classroom and an increase in academic scores (Dr. Gathercole).

Basically the new research points to this:

  • A child’s suc­cess in all aspects of learn­ing comes down to how good their work­ing mem­ory is regard­less of their IQ score. This means that having a good work­ing mem­ory at the start of for­mal edu­ca­tion is a more pow­er­ful pre­dic­tor of aca­d­e­mic suc­cess than knowing the child’s IQ score in the early years.
  • The studies also found that, as opposed to IQ, work­ing mem­ory is not linked to the par­ents’ level of edu­ca­tion or socio-economic back­ground. This means all chil­dren regard­less of back­ground or envi­ron­men­tal influ­ence can have the same oppor­tu­ni­ties to ful­fill poten­tial if work­ing mem­ory is assessed and prob­lems addressed where necessary.
  • As many as 10% of school age children may suffer from poor working memory, British researchers found, yet the problem remains rarely identified. “You can think of working memory as a pure measure of your child’s potential,” Dr. Tracey Alloway of Britain’s Durham University studies said of their results. “Some psychologists consider working memory to be the new IQ because we find that working memory is the single most important predictor of learning,” Alloway added.
  • Many children that had been thought to be lazy or underachievers really were found to have poor working memory ability.
  • Another finding was that with early identification and formalized memory training, these poor memory skills can improve and problems in ADHD, math, reading comprehension and overall learning speed also improved!What is working memory?

Working memory is described as “the ability to hold several facts or thoughts in short term memory while solving a problem or performing a task.” We use our working memory all day long without thinking about the process. People with working memory problems can’t “hang onto” the information long enough to do that.

For example, here is a working memory task.  An adult would listen to this sequence of numbers and letters, “4-B-1-D-5” and then repeat them by first putting the numbers in order from low to high and the letters in order at the end from A-Z. The answer is “1-4-5-B-D. After 12 to 15 trials of this, the mind starts to fatigue. You are in trouble because you can’t just guess at the answer to get it right; you actually have to be actively engaged with the material! Other working memory tasks might be that you are shown a series of 6-8 pictures, then the cards are shuffled and you need to put them back in the correct order or you hear words like, “cat-green-bowl-jump-boat” and then you are asked, “What was the second word? What is the fourth word?”

This “being engaged” with the material and mental fatigue is why new studies on ADHD point to working memory deficits as being one of the main causes of that disorder. Once the mind fatigues, the person stops listening or performing the task because it’s too hard. With less to attend to, the child becomes focused on other things that don’t require diligent brain work.

We know that besides having a huge impact on attention and focus, working memory deficits also impact:

  • Reading comprehension because it’s too hard to remember the characters in the story, the sequence of the plot and the order of the syntax.
  • Understanding spoken language because the listener needs to track the meaning in the speaker’s words long enough so that there is meaning and not just a bunch of little phrases being processed.
  • Writing because a person needs to recall perhaps one or two thoughts or main ideas as he is putting them on paper. To write a paragraph or a story, a person needs to remember the overall story, the order in which he needs to tell it and the characters, events, the rules of writing, the grammar, etc.  It’s too much to remember!
  • Problem solving because it requires that you cling to clues in your head while deducing or inferring from a small amount of information at hand.
  • Math because so much of arithmetic is a two or three step operation. Any part of a problem that should be rehearsed while doing the next step has a very good chance of being forgotten in a person with poor working memory skills. (Like in real life. If you have forty dollars and you’re shopping and you are keeping track of what you have spent so far, that’s working memory.

The question many researchers are struggling with is how to help people with this problem. In the past, children have been taught compensation techniques like rehearsing everything they hear and see in order to keep it active in the mind, but this isn’t very efficient and the carry-over to performance is slow or non-existent.

Dr. Mel Levine, co-founder of All Kinds of Minds, in Durham, North Carolina says, “In children with learning difficulties, working memory becomes a huge issue, especially around middle school where the demands on working memory grow dramatically.” Short term memory can become overloaded if everything circulating there is not moved on to long term memory areas. By making the working memory process more efficient or fluid, this frees up the ability to take in more information faster.

Recent research out of Sweden and other big universities in the United States demonstrated that children with ADHD, academic problems and adults with symptoms of stroke all greatly benefited from working memory practice from a program called CogMed. (

Poor working memory has been proven to influence a person’s ability to learn or to pay attention to a task for a longer period of time. Poor memory can come about because of Dyslexia, ADHD, a brain injury, people recovering from chemotherapy, or persons with generalized specific learning disorders. Whatever the cause, we now know that greater focus needs to be paid to the working memory ability of an individual instead of the person’s IQ or intellectual function.

Working memory is the new IQ.

 photo © Can Stock Photo Inc. / kennykiernan

Dysgraphia – when a pencil becomes an enemy

broken pencil

Kyle is in first grade and sitting in his Friday morning spelling test; a test he knows he is about to fail.  It’s not that he hasn’t studied the words for this week because he can spell them forward, and if his teacher asked, backward as well.  His pencil sweats in his hand because he’s trying to make it spell out the word ‘circle’ and his hand won’t cooperate.  Of course, he doesn’t know that other children around him aren’t having the same problem—their pencils are scratching along on their papers while his sits paralyzed.  Now he’s just feeling stupid again.  When the test ends, Kyle has only a few letters on the page but no whole words.  This isn’t a spelling problem; it’s dysgraphia.

Dysgraphia means a dysfunction in the ability to write or recognize graphemes, which translates to mean, any written material.   Dysgraphia is a lesser form of the more serious disorder called Agraphia, where the person is totally unable to write, hold a pencil or copy even a simple line.

Although the cause of Dysgraphia is still not know, just by correctly identifying it and then introducing therapeutic measures and accommodations, a child can function very well in the class.   Studies show that there is a slight decrease in this problem around puberty.  One interesting fact is that more than 75% of children with dysgraphia are male. (A percentage that stays fairly constant when studying ADD, speech and language problems and stuttering.)

Many students with or without this disorder struggle with producing neat writing that concisely expresses thought.  So why is there such an emphasis on writing?  There are very good reasons why writing is such an important part of any academic program: It helps with memory, thought and concept organization, and visual processing as well as fine motor coordination.  The act of writing engages a part of the brain that helps absorb and solidify the material being written.  Writing takes the child from being a passive listening to an active learner.   Unfortunately, the child who struggles with dysgraphia may laboriously complete the assignments but not have learned anything about the content of what he wrote.

Some of the signs of Dysgraphia are:

  • Overall illegible writing, even when the child gave it his best effort
  • Inconsistent mixtures of upper and lower case letters, printing and cursive, irregular size and shape of letters and the slant may change within the same line
  • Unfinished words or letters or whole words are left out of a sentence
  • Inconsistent spacing between words and letters
  • Unusual position of the writing on the page.  They may not use the lines or the margins correctly
  • Using a cramped or unusual grip on the pencil, such as, holding it too close to the paper or using odd finger holds that make him write from the wrist
  • Strange paper, body or wrist positioning
  • Talking to himself while writing
  • Watches his hand while he writes, almost like he has no feedback as to what it’s producing unless he can see it
  • Slow or labored copying or writing
  • The content in the finished project is not equal to the higher ability of the child’s language

What should you do if your child has dysgraphia?

            School Accommodations:

  • Allow more time for written tasks which includes note-taking, copying and tests.  Allow a classmate to be a ‘note-taker’ or allow a tape recorder.  Give large projects to the child earlier than the rest of the class to allow time to complete them.
  • Encourage good keyboarding skills to increase speed and legibility.
  • Teach your child to prepare his assignment papers ahead of time with his name and numbering already in place so that he won’t be stuck concentrating on writing his name when the teachers is ahead of him dictating words.
  • Have the teacher provide an outline for your child on which he can take notes or a math paper with the problems already written down.  This reduces the need to take down the full set of information first.
  • Allow oral testing or allow your child to dictate to a ‘scribe’ what he wanted to write.
  • Remove neatness or spelling as a part of your child’s grading criteria.
  • Allow abbreviations or shorthand in you child’s work and have your child develop a list of these that he can keep in his notebook and refer to during writing assignments.
  • Have the teacher provide a ‘model’ of the finished product that your child may keep in a binder.  This allows him to have a working template so he’s not re-inventing each assignment from scratch.
  • Allow the child to use cursive or manuscript skills, whichever one is easier.  (Cursive is often easier to manage because once the motor flow starts, it can trigger the rest of the word.)
  • Allow colored paper or colored ink if it helps your child see the paper easier.   Try using different pencils, pens and pencil grips.
  • Word processing is a solution for many children. Teach the use of ‘spell-check’ as early as possible.

Remember, Dysgraphia, doesn’t put an end to your child’s ability to learn, to achieve great things or to believe in himself.  With the correct identification, treatment and accommodations, your child can also have the ‘write’ stuff!

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