Memory problems

Discussion in 'Special Ed 101' started by Sheila, Sep 22, 2007.

  1. Sheila

    Sheila Moderator


    By Glenda Thorne, Ph.D.

    Students who have difficulty with memory may have deficits in encoding or registering information in memory, in storing or consolidating information in long-term memory, or in retrieving or accessing information from long-term memory.

    Problems with Encoding Information in Short-term Memory

    In order for information to be encoded in memory, it must first be attended to. Thus, children who have deficits in attention often have trouble with this first memory process. Many children and adults with attention deficits report that they have trouble remembering events that took place within the past 24 hours. Students also often have "gaps" in their knowledge of basic skills because they tune in and out in the classroom. They are often reluctant to engage in tasks, such as schoolwork and homework, which require sustained mental effort. Even when children with attention deficits attend to the appropriate information, they may only attend at a very superficial level. Therefore, they fail to elaborate on the incoming information. They do not activate prior knowledge and relate it to the to-be-learned information. For example, if a student is reading about the Battle of New Orleans, he may fail to retrieve information he already knows about war, New Orleans or Andrew Jackson from his long-term memory store. This failure to sufficiently elaborate on incoming information often results in deficits in long-term memory storage and retrieval.

    Students who have deficits in encoding information in memory may have trouble remembering directions or what they have just read. They may also have trouble remembering what their teachers said during class lectures. Further, they may have trouble remembering what others said during conversations. Their deficits may be more pronounced in certain sensory systems or modalities, such as visual, auditory or kinesthetic. Most of the children I see in the clinic who are having school problems have relative weaknesses in their auditory short-term memory, and because much of the information that is presented in the classroom is presented in an auditory/verbal format, this weakness leads to significant functional problems for them.

    Often children who have encoding deficits fail to use memory strategies. For example, they may not form visual images when reading. They may not "chunk" or recode incoming information into semantic or meaningful units.

    Problems with Working Memory

    Deficits in working memory may be manifested in a number of ways in the school setting. Students may have trouble with following through on directions even if they understood them. They may have trouble with solving math calculation problems that involve multiple steps, such as long division or problems in algebra, because in order to solve these problems they need to access information about math facts from long-term memory while remembering what they have just done and what they need to do next. They often have tremendous trouble with word problems in math because they are unable to keep all the information on their mental "plate" while they are deciding what information is most relevant and what process they need to use to solve the problem. They may have functional problems with reading comprehension because they fail to remember the sentences they just read while reading the sentence they are reading. Writing composition is often an arduous task for them. It requires them to retrieve their ideas from long-term memory while simultaneously recalling rules about capitalization, punctuation and grammar and writing their ideas down. In class, they must remember what their teacher has said while taking notes. They must remember the teacher's questions while searching long-term memory for the answer. If they are looking up a word in the dictionary, they must remember the word while looking it up. Similarly, when they are answering questions in the back of their textbook chapters, they must remember the question while searching the chapter for the answer.

    Students who have difficulty with working memory also experience problems with many higher order thinking tasks such as problem solving and comparing and contrasting ideas. When solving problems, students must be able to hold the components of the problem in mind while generating possible solutions and making decisions about which solution would be best. When comparing and contrasting ideas, they must be able to hold the information about both ideas/concepts in mind while making comparison between the two. Thus, the demands on working memory not only for school children but also for all of us are endless.

    Problems with Long-term Memory Storage

    Deficits in the encoding process lead to problems with consolidation or storage of information in long-term memory. Students who have deficits in long-term memory storage frequently rely too much on rote memorization. This strategy may be adequate for keeping information in short-term memory, but it leads to poor storage in long-term memory.

    If we think of our memory as a network of connections, when we place something in this network, it is best if we have multiple pathways to access it. One way to create multiple pathways is to place the new information in several categories. For example, if the class is studying alligators, a student who actively elaborates by categorization would think about the alligator he saw in the reptile house at the zoo and would categorize alligators as reptiles. He might think about the Honey Island Swamp Tour that he went on with his family and categorize the alligator with "things that live in swamps". Further, he may have eaten alligator soup and categorize it with "unusual things to eat". If new information is not categorized, there are not multiple pathways through which to reach it, thus recall may be very slow and sometimes impossible.

    Students who have deficits in long-term memory may also have trouble with recalling what the memory research literature has called paired associates. Paired associates are two entities that "hang together". For example, a name and a face are paired associates. Other examples of paired associates are states and their capitols, countries and their continents, language sounds and language symbols, vocabulary words and their definitions and historical events and the dates they occurred.

    Additional storage deficits in the semantic memory system include problems with remembering rules, such as rules of grammar, punctuation and capitalization. They might have trouble remembering spelling rules or the rules for sounding out words.

    Deficits in memory storage may be more problematic for information in certain modalities or formats. We know that we have both auditory and visual short-term memory systems. We are also able to store information in visual, spatial and visual-spatial format.

    Deficits in categorization or storage of paired associates fall under the conceptual umbrella of the declarative semantic memory system. Students who have deficits in memory storage may also have trouble with storing information about events or episodes in their lives. For example, they may have no recollection of what they ate for lunch earlier in the afternoon. They may not remember that they went to the zoo while visiting their grandmother last summer.

    Deficits may also occur in the storage of information in the nondeclarative memory system, especially with memory of skills or procedures. For example, children may insufficiently store the cognitive procedures for solving long division or algebraic problems in math. They may not adequately store the motor procedures for writing letters, for tying their shoes or for riding their bikes. These latter skills also involve the haptic or kinesthetic memory system.

    Problems with Long-term Memory Retrieval

    Children who have deficits in the retrieval of information from long-term memory more often than not receive grades that do not match the time and effort they spend in study or preparing for tests. These children and their parents frequently tell me that the students "knew the information the night before the test, but could not remember it when taking the test". Students who have trouble with memory recall often report "test anxiety". Test anxiety is also often a common complaint of many students who have attention deficits. The two frequently co-occur.
  2. Sheila

    Sheila Moderator

    Working Memory, Language and Reading
    May 2000
    by Maxine L. Young

    "Eight-year-old Jennifer listened carefully as the teacher said, "After you are done with your math worksheet, get out your reading book and finish answering the questions on page fifteen, at the bottom of the page." Other children quickly went to work but Jennifer timidly raised her hand and asked the teacher to repeat the directions. Even though she is a bright child, routine oral directions such as this are hard for Jennifer to follow. Was Jennifer having trouble paying attention or did she simply forget what was said? The fact is that Jennifer is a bright child who has problems with working memory. This makes routine tasks, such as following lengthy oral directions, complicated and frustrating.

    What is working memory?

    Is working memory different from short- or long-term memory? How does it affect language and reading ability in children? In the 1980s, two English researchers named Baddeley and Hitch coined the term "working memory" for the ability to hold several facts or thoughts in memory temporarily while solving a problem or performing a task. Baddeley's research also showed that there is a "central executive" or neural system in the frontal portion of the brain responsible for processing information in the "working memory." He coined the term "articulatory loop" for the process of rapid verbal repetition of the to-be-remembered information, which greatly helps maintain it in working memory.

    For an example of working memory, consider the following. Imagine you are lost while driving to a meeting. You stop at a service station and the attendant says, "Make a right at the first red light. Go three blocks until you see a stop sign and make a left turn onto Willow Street. Then look for a large green sign about two and a half blocks down Willow, and enter the parking lot." Even as you read this, some of you are imagining repeating the directions over and over, under your breath, as you drive to your destination, using your own "articulatory loop". The type of memory needed to hold such information in one's mind while working on it is called working memory. Short-term memory holds information in mind for only a few seconds as it is processed. Long-term memory is where such processed information is permanently stored. Working memory is an intermediary and active memory system in the information processing area of the brain. It is an important memory system and one that most of us use every day.

    Language, Learning, and Working Memory

    Working memory weaknesses, however, plague many school-aged children and adults. Working memory is required to understand spoken language; to comprehend what is read; to write sentences, paragraphs, and stories; to do problem-solving tasks, and perform some math operations. Research on children with language delays, that is children who develop language much later than the norm but who have normal nonverbal intelligence, shows that they have working memory problems. They are referred to as having specific language impairment (SLI) and are at risk for having reading disabilities. Research has also shown that children between the ages of 4 and 6 with SLI and limited working memory capacity, have delays in vocabulary development.

    The syntactic development of children is affected by working memory. Syntax refers to the order of words in sentences that contributes to meaning. The difference between the following sentences, "The dog bit the boy", and "The boy bit the dog" is due to the order of the words, or the syntax, in each. Research with school-aged children who have reading problems shows that they also have syntactic comprehension problems linked to working memory capacity. In the classroom, students with limited working memory capacity may become lost listening to lectures that introduce new concepts and vocabulary. In the adolescent and college student population, many studies have traced problems with note taking and reading comprehension to limitations in working memory. Studies on adults with reading disability also identified them as having working memory deficits.

    Working memory plays an important role in math also. When a child does a page of simple single-digit math, with alternating rows of addition and subtraction problems, it is working memory that helps the child remember to add or subtract the entire row. Children use a form of working memory, called serial memory, to count the number of cookies on a plate when figuring out how many are left for lunch the next day. Remembering not to count any cookie more than once is also a function of serial memory. Adults use working memory when keeping the total price of groceries in a cart in mind, as each new item is added, so as not to exceed a predetermined amount.

    Sentence comprehension relies heavily on adequate working memory. For example, working memory is required to comprehend sentences that are complex in structure such as, "The clown that is hugging the boy is kissing the girl." It helps us interpret sentences that are lengthy, "Do every other problem on page fifteen and all of the problems on page sixteen before checking your answers in the back of the book." We use working memory when preservation of word order (syntax) is important to correctly understand a sentence like; "It was the boy's ball and not the girl's, that was dirty." Working memory permits the listener to hold verbal information in mind long enough to make sense of the sequence of words, process them for long-term storage, and to perform verbal problem-solving tasks.


    With repeated and extensive practice at processing information some tasks require less effort and become more automatic. Examples are learning the alphabet letter names, the addition facts or multiplication tables, and sight word vocabularies. When such skills become automatic, the brain is relieved of having to process individual units of information. This permits the brain to perform more complex processing and problem solving tasks. It also improves the efficiency of the working memory system. Some research has suggested that increased processing and working memory ability in an adult's brain is a result of greater automaticity. For children with auditory processing problems, working memory abilities often suffer. Understanding spoken language for these children is not fully automatic. They must spend so much energy processing each word sound-by-sound that language comprehension suffers.

    Reading comprehension is highly dependent on working memory ability. Children who have reading comprehension problems are of concern to parents and educators. Some children have comprehension problems because they struggle when sounding out words, syllable-by-syllable, from one page to the next. Others may not have developed an adequate sight word vocabulary. Children with weak vocabulary development are also at risk for having reading comprehension problems. Yet there are many children and adults who can sound out words accurately, have well developed vocabularies, and can read sentences fluently, but who do not remember or comprehend what they read. For them it is a limitation in working memory capacity that prohibits print from becoming meaningful.