Dyslexia and memory: lessons to learn?

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What works for dyslexics and literacy is well documented.

Increasingly, a personalised provision within a structured, multi-sensory program is viewed as a ‘critical driver’ in the teaching of literacy (Rose, 2009). Continual formative assessment is also vital. It is generally accepted that the most effective interventions for dyslexia have the following elements :

  • Multi-sensory
  • Phonics based (especially early in reading i.e. KS1)
  • Systematic (structured, cumulative and sequential)
  • Include opportunities for overlearning/’little and often’.
  • Teaching learning strategies is also considered important – this might also be considered ‘metacognition’.

(Rose, 2009, Singleton, 2009)

Many programmes are available, however Conquering Literacy (Kelly and Phillips, 2011) contains all these elements to excellent effect, addressing the weaknesses dyslexics are known to experience, whilst harnessing their strengths.

With budget cuts, schools cannot afford specialist literacy teachers, what can be learnt from specialist practice and applied to Quality First Teaching?

The Rose Report (2009:33) attempted to provide a working definition for dyslexia. The characteristic markers of dyslexia are specifically said to be difficulties in:


  • Phonological awareness
  • Verbal Memory
  • Verbal processing speed

(Snowling, 2008, Vellutino et al., 2004)


Phonological awareness is the ability to identify, process and manipulate, speech sounds. To understand how letters and sounds relate to each other, the child needs to also understand the alphabetic principle – the fact that letters represent sounds. Verbal (phonological short-term) memory, is the ability to retain an ordered sequence of verbal material e.g. list or instructions, this implicates working memory. Verbal processing speed is the time taken to process familiar verbal information. Ramus (2014) found that it was access to phonological representations i.e. retrieval, which was problematic for dyslexics, rather than the representations themselves.

Rapid automised naming tasks (RAN) are used as measure of speed of processing (Bowey, 2005). Wolf and Bowers (1999) suggest a ‘double deficit’ wherein some learners have poor phonological awareness and poor rapid naming.

A 2001 description (Peer 2001:3) mentions slow processing, short-term memory, visual and auditory difficulties and sequencing as some of the additional difficulties dyslexics experience. This definition says of these children, ‘All have strengths’. A sound intervention should build on an assessment which has highlighted both strengths and weaknesses in the individual (Andreia et. al., 2004).

Reading and phonological skills are interrelated. Phonological skills do develop with reading but struggling readers do not get the same practice. Analysing what ‘good readers’ do can be misleading, non readers will of course have poor phonemic awareness. Nevertheless, studies looking at predictors of reading success give valuable insight. Muter et al (1998) found that letter knowledge and phonemic segmentation skills work together to advance a child’s proficiency in reading. As a result, both fluency around grapheme-phoneme correspondence and letter knowledge, must be taught. A study by Torgesen et al. (1999) indicated that the most effective one-to-one intervention includes direct and focused instruction in phonemic awareness and decoding (phonics).

It is useful to look at reading models to better understand the acquisition of reading.

In Frith’s 1985 model of reading, children learn to read whole words first, perhaps by their shape and form, using first and last letter clues – the logographic stage. They learn to read certain words by sight. It is thought that as they then learn the alphabet, this takes them naturally on to the next stage which is phonetically decoding or ‘sounding ‘out’. It is believed that dyslexic learners can become arrested in the logographic stage, as the alphabetic principle needs to be explicitly taught.

Torgesen (2005), one of the most eminent researchers in the field, sums it up thus:

“We know…that it is possible to teach almost all children to accurately apply the alphabetic principle in decoding novel words, even if they have struggled to acquire this skill during the first 3–4 years of schooling”.

The Magnocellular theory (Stein, 2001) suggests that abnormal magnocells distort temporal processing – involving visual and auditory information. Difficulties might present in eye tracking, keeping place in text, transposing letters, reversing, and letter confusions e.g. b/d m/n. The latest expression of the theory suggests that as magnocells are present throughout our bodies, the cerebellum and co-ordination are implicated. This brings the theory closer to the Cerebellar theory (Nicolson and Fawcett). I have always felt the obsession with visual processing is a bit misleading as we read with our brain, not the eyes.

Stein (2008) claims that the differences in dyslexic profiles (visual, auditory, phonological, kinaesthetic, sequencing, memory and motor), are due to the particular magnocellular system they have inherited. It points to the need to tailor learning. Conquering Literacy has eye tracking exercises when a new letter or sound is introduced and this will help the learner to co-ordinate movement of the eyes. It will also help them build scanning skills for reading text.

The Conquering Literacy programme is fully multi-sensory, engaging all the senses (touch, sight, sound, kinaesthetic). Multi-sensory teaching is an important aspect of any programme and helps to ensure information goes into long term memory by using as many senses as possible simultaneously. Gillingham and Stillman were pioneers in multisensory teaching. Their technique:

“…is based upon the constant use of associations of all of the following: how a letter or word looks, how it sounds and how the speech organs or the hand in writing feels when producing it”. (Gillingham and Stillman 1956, p17)

The intervention reviews by Brooks (2007) and Singleton (2009) show the sheer number of different interventions available. They include primarily reading interventions e.g. Toe by Toe and FFT Wave 3/Reading Recovery, spelling interventions such as Individual Learning Styles in Learning to Spell (Brooks and Weeks, 1999), and programmes to build reading fluency e.g. Phono-Graphix programme (McGuinness & McGuinness, 1998). The impact is mixed and no one intervention suits all pupils. This is why personalisation is the key to success.

Working with alphabet letters, using the tactile sense, helps my pupils to build automaticity around the alphabetic principle. Regular visual and auditory memory work has helped to improve strategies for memory retention. Sometimes ability to recall letter strings as auditory input is stronger than visual. An auditory presentation indicates a basic ability to remember and use phonological information. Visual presentation assesses the strategic use of phonological coding in the short term memory (Henry, 2012) this indicates that some of my students’ difficulties are linked to visual memory of graphemes.

The Baddeley model of working memory (2000) shows short term memory (STM) as split between visual semantics (Visuospatial sketchpad) and the verbal STM (Phonological loop). These two areas are not directly connected but interact with the episodic buffer, which transfers information to the long term memory. It would appear that in dyslexia, certain information does not get readily stored in the long term memory (LTM). The phonological loop has 2 components: the phonological store and the articulatory rehearsal mechanism. Auditory information is held in the store where it rapidly decays. The articulatory mechanism rehearses the information so that the rapid decay is avoided. It also recodes, turning symbols into speech. In dyslexia, this is thought to be impaired, as tested using Nonword Repetition (Roodenrys and Stokes, 2001).

However, there is evidence to show that the visuospatial sketchpad is not impaired in dyslexia and may even be a strength (see meta-analysis by Swanson, 2006). This is important as it suggests that this can be used in interventions to boost confidence and improve outcomes, using areas of strength to support weaker areas, i.e. Hebb’s law: “Neurons that fire together wire together”. When taught simultaneously with the strong one, the weaker modality becomes strengthened.

Functional brain imaging studies show less activation during reading in the left hemisphere temporo-parietal regions in dyslexics, compared to controls (Price and McMcCrory, 2005). In interventions, possible dyslexic strengths, such as visual and kinaesthetic methods of learning can be used to bolster working memory, this will lead to better connections between the left and right hemispheres.

Within the Conquering Literacy programme, there are opportunities to use visual information to boost memory. The Reading cards (used to build fluency in letter sounds) have a clue word and picture on the back. If my learner struggles to remember the sound, I encourage them to visualise the picture. The alphabet is laid out in an arc so that the student has it all in their gaze, helping them to visualise it in their mind. The Concept Cards, which supplement Teaching points (points of spelling and grammar), have pictures on the front so that pupils can fix the concept to something concrete.

The programme can be personalised by using unifix cubes to help the student when remembering a sentence. A cube is placed down to represent a word, the student rehearses (encouraging the phonological loop), pointing to the cubes. I use an easi speak mic to record sentences for rehearsal and to record letter names in Simultaneous Oral Spelling (SOS – a multisensory spelling technique where learners use letter names).

When planning worksheets, I ensure pictures are included. I either draw my own, or print them off the internet. I enjoy being creative with learning, helping information to be retained. Gathercole and Packiam Alloway write about using LTM to boost WM (2008), they suggest chunking information gets it into LTM. I also like to use humour and harness autobiographical memory e.g. if teaching a high frequency word, I ask the pupil to make up their own mnemonic. Discussion also boosts memory (Reid, 2009). A dyslexic student’s episodic and semantic memory is thought to be good.

Another way to boost memory and self esteem is to give the pupil control over learning. When I assess my students, they often say, “I don’t know”, or “I can’t remember”. They are discouraged by memory failure and low self esteem impairs their ability to form strategies, rendering them helpless. Through the discovery learning component of the programme, where the pupil uses clues to predict or guess new learning, the pupil becomes empowered and more engaged in the learning process.

Metacognition is encouraged i.e. learning/thinking about how one likes to learn. I make the learner explicitly aware of learning modalities and we discuss how they like to learn. Recently, when trying to remember something a student said, “have we got an action for it?”. I encourage my students to actively engage their memory and have explained that trying to remember and make connections will make their memory more efficient.

Teaching the rules of grammar and spelling helps pupils to attach learning in semantic memory is important. Conquering Literacy also teaches syllable division, analogy (words in words) and morphology (smallest units of sound with meaning), it encourages students to generalise, analyse words and look for patterns. When writing letters, after being given the sound prompt, the student has to identify where the sound is found in words i.e. Beginning, Middle or End, and this further encourages word analysis.

Nunes and Bryant (2006) have found that where children have been taught grammar and morphology in spelling, this leads to better and sustained positive outcomes for all. Berninger et. al. (2009) even suggest that having a ‘deep’ orthography in English i.e. complex, could be an advantage if morphological approaches are taken, building bridges between language and comprehension. This fits with the Simple View of Reading *Hoover and Gough (1990), whereby reading and comprehension are interrelated as two axis, both with a ‘poor’ to ‘good’ continuum.

Whilst much attention has been given to reading, problems with spelling tend to persevere for longer and cause more frustration for dyslexics (Ellis, 1993). Nicolson and Fawcett’s cerebellar theory (2006) highlights the importance of automaticity around learnt (procedural) skills such as reading and writing. This points to overlearning and is a recognised characteristic of an effective programme. It is suggested that it will take a dyslexic person much longer than the average  person to learn a procedural skill like writing (Nicolson & Fawcett,2006:87).

In Conquering Literacy, reading and writing of the same letters is practiced at every session. The letters and sounds are built up gradually, in a sequential manner so that the learner does not get overwhelmed. All reading and writing is ‘in structure’. Only sounds that have already been taught are used in the programme, apart from known HFW, or any shared reading. The sequence of letters and concepts introduced has been carefully thought out. In this way, confidence and mastery can be achieved, as the pupil builds steadily on prior knowledge in a process of overlearning i.e. repeatedly going over the same knowledge in reading and writing. As this process becomes automatic, it frees the pupil up to process the rules of spelling and grammar and to generalise.

The automaticity theory (Nicolson and Fawcett, 2006) might in addition go some way to explaining the problems with sequencing/coordinating sounds in reading and writing that dyslexics experience, presenting with particular difficulties reading consonant clusters and multisyllabic words (Miles, 2006). Overlearning of this in a structured programme such as ‘Conquering Literacy’ can help to build mastery.

New letters/ sounds are practised with the Stimulous Response Routine (SRR) as they are introduced. This is excellent for building automaticity. The routine involves all of the senses ensuring full knowledge of a letter becomes embedded in memory: letter sound, name, grapheme and clueword are all practised.

Self esteem is connected to being a successful and independent learner (Burden, 2008). If my learner hasn’t understood a concept, I know I have not taught it correctly. In my planning and sessions I strive to build confidence in my learner by helping them to achieve success. The relationship between teacher and pupil is integral: 

Building strong and trusting relationships between teacher and child is an essential prerequisite for accelerated learning (Brooks, 2007: 31).

Another important consideration is clarity. As the working memory is already under strain, it’s important to keep instructions brief and to the point. Within the tight structure of the Conquering Literacy programme, I am always striving to make learning meaningful. I have tried to engage my learners in the structure of the programme so that they know what comes next and they anticipate it.

In conclusion, the key elements of teaching literacy to dyslexic learners are:

  • Multi-sensory
  • Phonics based (especially early in reading i.e. KS1)
  • Sequential
  • Include opportunities for overlearning/’little and often’.
  • Metacognition


Much can also be done to personalise learning and this is one of the great privileges of working one to one. However, there is also a move away from differentiation to personalisation in classrooms. By working closely, one can be dynamic in delivering learning so that it has maximum impact on the learner. I feel that the learner has as much to teach me, as I have to teach them.


Appendix A: Conquering Literacy Lesson Plan – one hour


Lesson Plan for 1 hour

Name ____________________________________________ Date ___________________________ New Teaching Point(s)

Time Content/Item Comments
1. Alphabet/dictionary (8 mins)
2. Memory training (4 mins)
3. Revision (5 mins)
4. Reading Pack (2 mins)
5. Spelling Pack (3 mins)
6. New Teaching Point (10 mins)

· Discovery Learning

· Tracking/relevant exercise · Listening activity

· Make new Reading Card · Cursive writing

· New Spelling Card


7. Handwriting (3 mins)
8. Reading in structure (3 mins)
9. Written exercise to practise new learning (3 mins)
10. Spelling in structure (3 mins)
11. Dictation in structure (5 mins)
12. Quick review (2 mins)
13. Supported reading (4 mins)
14. Game (5 mins)



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