The link between poor memory and dyslexia

The one issue I constantly come into contact with while parenting a child with learning difficulties, is the link between memory and dyslexia.

According to the International Dyslexia Association, dyslexia is a learning disability characterised by difficulty recognising words, decoding, and spelling.

At two years old, my son could not produce one single word of speech. Instead, he babbled!

It is expected that at 12 months old a baby will say ‘mum,’ dad,’ or both.  Other words will follow; and gradually the child will  move to two word, than three word sentences by age two.

There was a particular day in Spring just after my son celebrated his second birthday. While walking underneath the railway station, I noticed the recognisable voice of an acquaintance’s 18 month old little boy. He was talking endlessly about anything and everything as he and his parents walked up the path towards the railway station, and disappeared amongst the other voices.

This little boy’s brain could recognise words, process them, place them in the relevant areas of the brain, and remember them. My child’s brain couldn’t do this.

Dyslexia and working memory

Learning to read relies on working memory. A child needs to be able to match letters with the correct sounds, put the letters together to form a word, and remember it for future use.

The process of keeping multiple sounds and letters active is extremely difficult for most people with dyslexia, because they unfortunately have poor auditory working memory. This means they will find it increasingly difficult to hold all of the sound units in their brain. This makes it hard to read.

Poor memory recall: My son

However, in my son’s case, poor auditory working memory was making it hard for him to even process language

At the age of two I began teaching my son how to speak by using a very specific repetitive language method. I literally had to talk and talk and talk for an hour every day about my son’s activities (while he was playing) for six whole months. I spent a total of 180 hours saying words, sentences and phrases over and over again until the words began to stick in the relevant areas of my son’s brain.

Within two weeks of using this speech therapy technique, my son was saying ‘mum,’ and ‘dad.’ Within a month he had 50 words – and at the age of three my son had over 250 words in his vocabulary.

To me, the way my son was learning wasn’t normal. Repeating concepts one thousand times over before the brain finally computes them is not ideal.

By the end of kindergarten the link between my son’s poor memory and dyslexia had become quite significant. It was soon realised that my son couldn’t count in the correct order, was unable to retain the alphabet, and could barely read. Words remembered today, would most certainly be forgotten tomorrow.

Again, the repetition factor came up at the beginning of year one. Again, I had to intervene outside of the classroom, and help teach my son how to read. Conscientiously he read to me for nine months, every night for half an hour, until he could read fluently.

My son just couldn’t retain information in the time frame expected – and the link between memory and repetition grew.

Earlier this year, part way into grade two, I found out that my son can barely spell. He is also at the bottom of the class for maths.

Once back in the paediatrician’s office, it was finally confirmed that my son has writing dyslexia, (which is otherwise know as dysgraphia) and dyscalgulia (an inability to understand or to retain mathematical concepts).


Working memory and learning difficulties

There is a limit to the amount of information people can hold in their working memory. The capacity changes across the lifespan, and varies greatly between people of the same age.

For a child who is developing normally, working memory capacity increases progressively up till the age of 14/15 years old, where it will ideally reach an adult capacity.

For children with learning difficulties, working memory develops differently – resulting in a smaller capacity than usual for their age.

A deficit within the working memory is a common feature of developmental disorders, and more specific learning difficulties, including ADHD, dyslexia, specific language impairment, and reading and mathematical difficulties.

Consequences of poor working memory include poor results in class work, usually across all subject areas. Interventions attempt to target and train working memory function directly.

From my experience, children with working memory difficulties do eventually learn the required task. However, it takes a lot of persistence, and a lot of patience;  but, its worth it.

For example; I recently found out that my son could barely spell. He didn’t understand that a word is a sequence, and he was literally guessing the letters needed to form a word.  He didn’t even know his vowels.

While every other child in the classroom had the working memory  to retain the concept, and the ability to connect the sounds heard to the letters to form a word; my son was sitting in his seat, unable to process what he was being asked to do.

So, I knuckled down, and spent ten weeks teaching my son how to spell. Firstly, I taught him how to sound out simple words – each with a vowel sound. Every day we sat in a quiet room and sounded out words. This method directly involved his brain in the task. I was doing everything I could to encourage my son’s brain to start matching the letters with the sounds he was hearing.

He got there in the end! Last week he got seven out of nine in his spelling test.

People with dyslexia struggle with language order. Visually speaking, they walk into their brain and they can’t find the letters  needed to spell the word. Their brain can’t match the letters with the sound.

For someone with dyslexia, the letters are all jumbled up, and out of order. Dyslexics struggle with working out what letters to look for, how to find them, or where to put them once they do find them.

Signs and symptoms of dyslexia in children

  • Late to talk, and pronunciation problems.
  • Struggle to learn basic concepts including the alphabet, colours and numbers.
  • Poor handwriting, and fine motor.
  • Confusing letters such as ”b” and ”d,” or the order of letters within a word.
  • Difficulty in understanding the connection between a letter and the sound of the letter. 25% of people who suffer from dyslexia also show symptoms of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.





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