SSP and Working Memory - Wiring Brains for Reading and Spelling!
SSP and Working Memory.
Speeding up thinking speed, improving reaction times and memory.
You can think of working memory as the active part of your memory system. It's like mental juggling,
says H. Lee Swanson, PhD, distinguished professor of education with the Graduate School of
Education at the University ofCalifornia, Riverside. “As information comes in, you're processing it at
the same time as you store it,” he says.
A child uses this skill when listening to a story, for example. She needs to remember the sequence of
events and also think of what the story is about. Our questions, as the end of SSP readers, also help
to develop this working memory as children have to recall facts, interpret them etc, and go back to
find out where certain things happened. They become used to this type of questioning, and their
brains start to read the text, and predict what might be asked later, thus retaining and interpreting
info as they read it.
This is also why we include 'close your eyes and visualise' activities, during reading and also as a
random activity. They visualise a scene, but also symbols. This is what they are doing when taking
pictures of speech sounds, using the Speech Sound Camera. They listen, say the sound, close the
eyes and take a picture of that speech sound. What might it look like? Initially they might only see
one (the one taught explicitly) but as they move through, they will close their eyes and visualise
several- and usually link these with the word. So 's' - sugar 'sh' - shop 'ch' machine etc.
Brief by design, working memory involves a short-term use of memory and attention, adds Matthew
Cruger, PhD, neuropsychologist with the Learning and Diagnostics Center at the Child Mind Institute
in New York City. “It is a set of skills that helps us keep information in mind while using that
information to complete a task or execute a challenge,” he says. Working memory is like a
foundation of the brain's executive function. This is a broad and deep group of mental processes.
They allow you to do things like plan ahead, problem solve, organize and pay attention.
Types of Working Memory
Prep students at an SSP School use ipads and laptops to improve working memory. Here, they use Duck Hands to split the
words before they hear the sounds. The words are coded so that the brain can more easily see the phonemes/ graphemes
and link them with these speech sounds.
“You can't overemphasize how often working memory is used in the classroom,” says Cruger.
Children (and adults) use two main subtypes of working memory throughout the day. Both develop
at a similar rate during childhood, and often reach their highest level in early adulthood.
Verbal (auditory) working memory taps into the sound (phonological) system.
Saying the sounds, and then the word- when looking at the code words makes use of this system.
By adding in random clips we are speeding up this system, and also increasing interest and
Visual-spatial working memory uses a kind of visual sketchpad of the brain. It allows you to envision
something, to keep it in your “mind's eye.” Students use this skill to do math and to remember
patterns, images and sequences of events. We often ask children to close their eyes and visualise
standing infront of a door. They open the door- and something is there..the story/ journey builds
over a week or so. Who can go through the journey, remembering everything?
At a red door, open the silver round knob (we even talk about which way round it turns) and open it
to see a green field, with woods in the distance. There is a dog at my feet, and as I step forward (2
steps) I can smell ....
Make it as long and detailed as you want.
You can also then ask 'after you open the door, what is at your feet?
etc- so they have to fast forward the 'tape'.
Include smells, sounds etc.
They might use it to visualize the layout of the classroom during the first couple of weeks of school,
says Cruger. “A teacher says, 'Once you're done with this, go to the center area, take something to
do and then go to this table and work on this,'” he says. “That involves multiple steps where the
child is negotiating himself in the world.” If not identified, a deficit of this type is ripe for
misunderstanding, he says. For example, it might seem as though a child is simply not paying
SSP builds on working memory within just about every activity. The whiteboard lessons introduce
new ideas and skills, and these are then transferred to the table top and poster activities.
When we ask children to listen to a word, split it into speech sounds using Duck Hands, then draw a
line and number for each means they can start visualising this.
Last week I asked some of the Prep classes - listen to this sentence, tell me the word with a 'sh'
sound, and tell me the number.
They listen to 'I was rushing to the bank to get some money' - retain this, identify the word (rushing)
split the word using Duck Hands (r/u/sh/i/ng) and then 'see' in their minds the numbers/ or organise
placement - to say 'number 3'. Peter actually said 'third' - whoop whoop.
Those with weak working memory are likely to have learning disorders, too. In a government-funded
study, Alloway and colleagues tested more than 3,000 grade school and junior high children in the
U.K. They found that one in 10 had very poor working memory.
This turned out to be a reliable indicator of who would struggle in the classroom, she says. In fact,
when following up six years later, they found working memory to be a more powerful predictor than
IQ when it comes to learning.
“Ninety-eight percent with poor working memory had very low scores in standardized tests of
reading comprehension and math.”
These weaknesses may show up later, when executive skills of comprehension and analysis come
into play, says Swanson. “Schools do a pretty good job of drill and repetition and teaching kids
phonics, but when you get into things like comprehension, it can begin to fall apart.”
This is why I am constantly bugging everyone to stop teaching phonics in isolation, outside of
meaningful context. I see far too many children being tested for their 'sounds' but have no idea how
to use them.
As already discussed, children often misunderstand the links they are supposed to be making. They
say 'choo choo' when looking at a train, and think the train has some connection with the sound pic
'ch'. They see 't' and say 'tennis' - and move heads from left to right- or say 'nnn' when flying a plane-
because the PLANE is supposed to 'say that'. The focus should be on the sound pic - n - and the
speech sound it represents. Period.
Many children understand the links DESPITE this teaching, but why make the process even harder
Also why I am not a fan of PM readers until the children get to SSP Yellow and Blue Code Levels.
Scaffolded readers are vital, from SSP Green (s,a,t,p,i,n)
Students decode rapidly, as the words are all built using the sound pics they know or are learning,
and this means they can also visualise what is happening, and comprehend. A child who has to keep
slowing down to decode, will forget what they have already read, and miss the meaning.
If a child has a learning disability, weak working memory can add insult to injury. For example, a fifth
grader who is still sounding out words while reading is relying heavily on working memory to help
compensate. This puts a huge tax on the working memory system. At this stage, you want reading to
be more automatic. You want to be able to look at a word and recognize it, and not have to recruit
attentional or working memory resources to the task. But for a child who needs to compensate but
can't rely on working memory, the process can become all the more painful. Again, why I push for
speedy decoding (follow the sounds, say the word) even with helpful words (high frequency). Asking
children to memorise sight words does NOT equate with 'recognition'. Recognition is automatic
when the child knows the word- so they know the code in the word.
Alloway says. “I've worked at schools where the average 10-year-old can remember and process four
pieces of information, but one with poor working memory can look like an average five-year-old,”
So we build this up, from pre-school. Much of the work is oral and auditory when aged 3 - 5.
Combine working memory challenges with high anxiety, which also puts demands on working
memory, and it becomes more than a double whammy. “Your emotional state can play a role in
working memory performance, which can in turn influence performance on tests,” says Alloway.
Again, why the environment within an SSP classroom is fast paced, busy, positive and encouraging.
When children struggle we ask 'what, as teachers, do WE need to change' - not 'why can't he hurry
up- what's wrong with him?'
The Working Memory Rating Scale (WMRS), helps teachers identify this problem by listing behaviors
that are typical of someone with poor working memory such as:
Abandons activities before completing them
Looks like he's daydreaming
Fails to complete assignments
Puts up a hand to answer questions but forgets what she wanted to say (This is typical for a five-
year-old, but not for an 11-year-old, for example.)
Mixes up material inappropriately, for example, combining two sentences
Forgets how to continue an activity that he's started, even though the teacher has explained the
Students should always be compared with peers to know what is typical for a given age group. That's
because working memory develops over time. The average five-year-old can hold and process one or
two pieces of information. But a 10-year-old can do this with three and a 14-year-old with four.
If testing, make sure you are testing working memory and not just short-term memory. The test has
to involve interpreting information as it is coming in.
Assess both types of working memory. From an educational perspective, it is important to know the
difference between them because children with different learning needs may have very different
working memory profiles.
“A student with a reading disorder can have a weakness in auditory working memory but relative
strengths in visual spatial working memory,” says Alloway. “But another student with dyspraxia may
have deficits across the board but particularly with visual spatial working memory.”
Also be aware that auditory working memory usually affects learning more so than visual-spatial
working memory. That's because, with so much information relayed verbally in school, it's harder for
a student to easily find ways to compensate.
Without intervention that specifically addresses this weakness, students with poor working memory
won't catch up over time. Fortunately, any students using SSP, will receive an 'intervention' as part
of their normal day to day SSP session.
Working memory involves the ability to maintain and manipulate information in one's mind while
ignoring irrelevant distractions and intruding thoughts. Multiple research studies show that the
inability to control one's train of thought has important real world consequences, from poor reading
comprehension to unhappiness.
Come and watch a class using the SSP Posters - all are so engaged that they often find it difficult to
then switch off and stop the task when told to 'stop!'. A teacher could walk through the room naked
most wouldn't notice.
You can see this developing here, in a Prep class, after 4 weeks of using SSP. This clip is on the new
school SSP channel, managed by the school, and used to share the learning journey of their students
and to develop stronger partnerships with parents and carers.
Idea to try today- with sound pics the child knows. They use the speech sounds (not letter names)
when telling you the order.
eg put these on the table - magnetic letters - cards
s p n a i t
Let them look at the sound pics for 5 seconds, cover them, and ask the order. You could ask them to
actually put them on the table (have spare magnetic letters) and then look at the line you chose,
with their line underneath. What needs to change?
Miss Emma BEd Hons. MA Special Educational Needs.