• Question: I work with children who have specific learning difficulties, dyslexia, dyscalculia etc those with most difficulties have poor working memories. I am interested what neuroscience can tell us to provide robust and reliable teaching strategies that can be used one to one and within the classroom whilst teaching a very fast paced curriculum.

    Asked by sun21 on 22 Apr 2015.
    • Photo: Joseph Devlin

      Joseph Devlin answered on 22 Apr 2015:

      That’s the £1million pound question — how do we teach better and what is the evidence that supports it? Sadly, I don’t think neuroscience has a good single answer to offer. Let me take a stab at one part of the question.

      Although there is no clear consensus in the literature, my reading of it suggests that developmental dyslexia is not caused by a single underlying deficit — there are multiple problems that can potentially lead to difficulty learning to read. If true, we need to establish a standardised battery of tests for diagnosing what the cause(s) of an individual child’s dyslexia is/are and then use that information to develop a customised intervention. For instance, many children appear to have “phonological deficits” in the sense that their understanding of the parts of words (phonemes) isn’t as good as the other children. Presumably, games and tasks based on trying to improve this phonological knowledge will help the child bootstrap her/his phonics better than other interventions. For another child with a visual/perceptual difficulty, this intervention won’t help whereas a different one might. So I think that neuroscience/psychological science offers the potential to better diagnose individual deficits and provide customised interventions that would help guide teachers in selecting the most robust and reliable teaching strategies for individual children. At the moment this seems to be mostly potential and promises — I am not aware whether any classroom trials use this approach and any outcome measures they may have produced. Hopefully Sarah will chime in — she’s an expert in this area.

    • Photo: Iroise Dumontheil

      Iroise Dumontheil answered on 22 Apr 2015:

      Sue Gathercole in Cambridge and Patricia Alloway have been doing research on the impact of poor working memory in the classroom and have been trying to suggest approaches teachers can take to remediate this.

      One particular point they make I think is that as much as possible, teachers should take into account the low working memory demand of the children they teach (e.g. especially the youngest children) and adapt their tasks accordingly, for example avoiding listing a whole series of tasks to do, using shorter sentences, making use of external memory aids etc. I think the two documents above should be helpful.

    • Photo: Sue Fletcher-Watson

      Sue Fletcher-Watson answered on 23 Apr 2015:

      I’m going to offer a tech based solution because this is a major focus of my research!

      There are a few fantastic apps – Educreations and Explain Everything are good examples – which allow a teacher to create an interactive lesson which a pupil can then replay, annotate and embellish to support their personal study. This is a great way to overcome working memory problems. The student has access to the original teacher demonstration of a new topic or concept and can use this to build their own work during the lesson. The tablet is unobtrusive and doesn’t draw attention to the fact that they are getting some additional support. It also provides a way to present the information in multiple formats. For example, the student can use speech-to-text to record notes, or text-to-speech to get written instructions played as audio. Great for dyslexia and similar difficulties.

      I’d recommend CALL Scotland as a fantastic place to secure training and information about tech based classroom supports for individual learners.

    • Photo: Chris Jarrold

      Chris Jarrold answered on 23 Apr 2015:

      This is something that we’re definitely interested in in our work – some of our research suggests that individuals who have working memory difficulties might struggle in the classroom because of speed of processing difficulties (which we know affects working memory) rather than necessarily having a ‘memory’ problem per se.

      As Iroise has already said, you should definitely look at the material that Sue Gathercole has published. Another link to her work that you could follow is this one:

      In addition, we have recently put together a set of resources that relate to some of these issues. These are designed primarily for educational psychologist but might be of interest to you.

      The video and associated material on ‘strategies’ would be particularly relevant.


    • Photo: Sarah Kuppen

      Sarah Kuppen answered on 28 Apr 2015:

      Hi, sorry for coming late to this discussion. I can see that you have already been pointed to some very helpful documentation regarding practical techniques to use in the classroom, whether one to one or in groups. I will just add to this slightly.
      My specific area of interest is in developing classroom programmes to support literacy development. We have recently built a programme of spoken rhymes which while intended for whole classroom use, will be particularly helpful for children with working memory difficulties. These bespoke rhymes which use age appropriate language are learned over the course of a semester in Year 1. Children are led through two sessions, morning and at the end of day, where they speak highly rhythmic rhyming speech and often using claves (sticks) to tap the beat. The rhymes are short, use memorable, relevant topics (which tie into the larger schemes of Year 1 work) and are composed of the language sounds they are using in their synthetic phonics programmes. Repetition of language and beat support children’s learning throughout and visual memory aids are projected at the front of the class. Our early evaluations have demonstrated that children undertaking our spoken rhyme programme show an associated increase in phonological awareness, one of the primary building blocks of literacy. If you are interested, the programme of rhymes will be freely available once fully evaluated. Further information can be found here http://ww2.anglia.ac.uk/ruskin/en/home/faculties/fst/departments/psychology/tune_time.html

      In terms of further teaching strategies based on neuroscience, the Wellcome Trust and Education Endowment Foundation have recently funded a robust evaluation of six teaching programmes based on neuroscientific principles. Short descriptions of these projects can be found here http://www.wellcome.ac.uk/Education-resources/Education-and-learning/Our-work/Brains-and-thinking/WTS040353.htm
      The EEF website in general is a great place to find information on teaching strategies which have undergone rigorous assessment. You might like to take a look at their outcome reports which will indicate effectiveness, many of these programmes relate to supporting literacy and numeracy.

    • Photo: Duncan Astle

      Duncan Astle answered on 9 May 2015:

      Not too much to add to these excellent points and suggestions.

      We run some workshops for practitioners that relate directly to this issue – next one is on the 16th of June, I think. You and any colleagues would be very welcome to join us. http://calm.mrc-cbu.cam.ac.uk/

      That is a great space for picking the brains of the scientists, and getting some good tips.