Wednesday, December 22, 2004


Working memory and Learning disabilities: The correlation

Learning disability is a general term that refers to a “heterogeneous group of disorders manifested by significant difficulties in acquisition and use of listening, speaking, reading, writing, reasoning or mathematical abilities. These disorders are intrinsic to the individual, presumed to be due to central nervous system dysfunction and may occur across life span. Problems of social regulatory behaviors, social perception, and social interaction may exist in learning disabilities but do not by themselves constitute a learning disability. Although learning disabilities may occur, concomitantly with other handicapping conditions (for example, sensory impairment, mental retardation, serious emotional disturbance) or with extrinsic influences (such as cultural differences, insufficient or inappropriate instruction), they are not the result of those conditions or influence”. (National Joint Committee on Learning Disabilities, 1988).

Working memory (WM), the limited capacity system that allows simultaneous storage and processing of temporary information (Baddeley, 1986), has been the focus of many studies of children with learning disabilities (Keeler, & Swanson, 2001).Research examining specific subtypes of learning disabilities has found that working memory deficits underlie the difficulties of students with reading and mathematical disabilities (Bull & Johnston, 1997; Hitch & McAuley, 1991; Siegel & Ryan, 1989; Swanson, 1993).

As far as the working of the brain is concerned, many a psychologists have founded various models which try to explain the process of acquisition of information, storing and retrieval for future use. According to some psychologists, the process of acquisition of information passes through three major areas i.e. the short term memory, the working memory and the long term memory.The short term memory can store information for a very short period of time (in seconds). Moreover, the information is lost and cannot be retrieved again. However some of the information reaches the working memory which is the next memory station.

Working memory is associated with simultaneous storage and processing of temporary information. Different components of working memory are associated with different functions. Thus the working memory and its components are responsible for comprehension, attention, retaining and retrieving information. The various visuo-spatial functions like maintaining orientation in space, following patterns or directions and keeping track of changes in the visual field over time are performed by this component. (Kibby, Michelle, Marks, Morgan, & Long, 2004).
Thus after the information is processed, it reaches the long term memory where the information is stored.

Decades of research on learning disabilities and cognitive dysfunction indicate the importance of working memory in the processing and information storage. A strong correlation exists between the efficiency of the working memory and the individual’s ability to process information. Turner and Engle (1989) suggest that people are poor readers because they have a small general working-memory capacity and that this capacity is not entirely specific to reading (also see Cantor et al., 1991; Engle, Nations, & Cantor, 1990; and Engle et al., 1992). That is, poor readers have weaker working memory than skilled readers, not as a consequence of poor reading skills, but because they have less working-memory capacity available for performing reading and non-reading tasks (Swanson, &Siegel, 2001). The conclusions from approximately two decades of research indicate the correlation between the WM (working memory) deficits to the fundamental problems of children and adults with Learning Disabilities (Swanson, & Siegel, 2001).

With the strong correlation between the working memory and the learning disabilities, more needs to be done to improve the instructional procedures favorable to enhance the individual’s efficiency of grasping more information. The classrooms should be geared up to focus on structured, research-based instruction, which enhance the “on-task behavior”. Cognitive strategies like mnemonics, keywords have proven to be very effective in reducing the workload on the working memory. This helps the individuals to easily retrieve the old information and spend their attention on processing the new information. Ample positive feedback and methods of scaffolding can enhance the productivity of the working memory and result in an overall improvement and the overall achievement of an individual.

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