I have recently listened to two podcasts about working memory and they’ve made me think how we teach reading, specifically, how we help children with blending sounds into words:
Evidence Based Education Podcast – Trialled and Tested: Working Memory: https://evidencebased.education/working-memory/
In her podcast, Dr Tracy Alloway explains working memory as “… your ‘active’ memory. The memory you use to work with information….” I really liked her image of working memory as ‘post-it notes’ stuck on a board. Working memory has two important features: 1. It has limited space. 2. It is used as temporary storage, like a holding zone. We either keep the information and store it some where safe for later retrieval (long-term memory), or we lose it if we haven’t engaged with it enough.
Another fascinating podcast was by John Sweller. The eLearning Coach – What You Need to Know About Cognitive Load with John Sweller: http://theelearningcoach.com/podcasts/55/
He explains that working memory is limited to 2-4 items of new information and it can only hold onto them for 20 seconds! Yes just 20 seconds! He also explained that long-term memory is limitless and what we do is dip into long-term memory to retrieve information and work on it within working memory. The more useful information is stored and can be retrieved from long-term memory, the easier the working task is in working memory. He describes a situation when too much information creates a bottle neck that working memory just can’t handle, which is called cognitive overload. Do you have children that seem stressed, confused, or disengaged when reading? They may be experiencing cognitive overload!
What does this mean for teaching reading?
Many children find blending very difficult and it can be a real stumbling block. Why is it hard for some children to blend and how is this connected to working memory? Working memory is the post-it board with those flaky post-it notes (letter/sound correspondences) that if not secured, will fly off the board. As teachers, we need to find ways to secure those post-it notes, letters/sounds, and help children hold on to them for as long as they take to blend sounds together into a word.
It is difficult to really know what is going on in the brain, but what we do know is that in order to decode words efficiently, children need:
- An automatic recall of letter sounds so that when they see a squiggle or a string of squiggles on the page they know what sound these letters represent. This has to happen at great speed.
- An ability to hold a number of sounds together in working memory for long enough to blend them together into a word.
- The ability to retrieve and match a meaning for the word they have sounded out.
How can we help children who struggle with blending?
Fluent readers do this automatically and without thinking, but for some novice readers, a lot is going on in working memory. How can we help children who struggle with blending? Firstly, making sure they have automatic recall of letter/sounds is imperative to speed up the process. Secondly, making sure children have a sufficient vocabulary so they can identify the word they have just blended is also important. But what about the blending part? How can teachers help here? There are three ways of helping children blend sounds into words. The first puts more load on working memory. The next two put less load on working memory:
- Decode and blend – the child sounds out the sounds in the word separately and blends them together.
- Stretch and blend – the teacher helps the child stretch the sounds into one another.
- Add and blend – the teacher asks the child to blend first two sounds and then adds the next.
See the graphic below that explains how to teach the three methods of blending.