Supporting pupils with memory difficulties

Auditory, or verbal memory, is the ability to ‘take in’, process and retain what is said and then recall it. It is how we remember and process information that we hear. It is closely linked with attention and listening as a pupil needs to be able to attend to spoken information in order to be able to understand and remember it. A child who has difficulties with auditory memory may find it difficult to follow instructions with several steps such as “go upstairs, clean your teeth then put your pyjamas on”. Parents often comment about this difficulty during feedback meetings with specialist teachers from the Dyslexia Team.

Inefficient auditory (or verbal) memory has long been implicated as one of the underlying factors in dyslexia. It is a key characteristic mentioned in ‘The Rose Report (2009).  Many of the pupils the Dyslexia Team teachers assess perform less well on digit or letter span tests than their peers. These tests require a pupil to recall a series of digits and then letters in the order they heard them. Auditory memory is used to hold new information in mind, such as:

  • the name of someone you have just been introduced to;
  • new subject words;
  • verbal instructions;
  • digits – whilst doing mental arithmetic.

Dyslexia Team teachers also assess for Working Memory difficulties. Working Memory describes the ability we have to hold in mind and mentally manipulate information over short periods of time. Gathercole and Alloway (2007) describe it as a ‘mental workspace’ or ‘jotting pad’. An example of the necessity for working memory could be attempting to multiply 43 and 27 together without the use of a pen or calculator.

Here are some warning signs to look out for which could indicate a memory difficulty. Remember there could be some pupils in your class struggling with a memory difficulty who have not been formally assessed.

  • Is the pupil easily distracted and struggles to stay on task?
  • Do they forget the content of messages and instructions?
  • Can they retell stories or recount an event/incident that happened in school?
  • Are they looking at others work?
  • Do they lose their place and struggle to get back on track with what they were asked to do?
  • Do they give up easily on tasks?

How can you help pupils with memory difficulties in the classroom environment? Here are some strategies you could consider. Please be aware that not all strategies would be suitable for all pupils; some discretion and consideration of age are required.

Avoid overloading.  Sometimes memory is described as being like a shelf – if we cram too much on the shelf it collapses and we lose everything.

  • Get the pupil’s attention first. 
  • ‘Chunk’ information and instructions into shorter, more manageable amounts. Too much information can lead to overload, and then information will be lost. 
  • Try to avoid giving new information while a child is still processing.
  • Repeat whole-class instructions individually. 
  •  Pre-teach vocabulary before topic-specific lessons to reduce processing demands. 
  • Highlight key vocabulary at the start of each lesson for the child to ‘look out’ for to keep them on task 
  • Summarise the key points at the end of the lesson. Knowing this will happen can be reassuring, and reduce distraction through anxiety.

Be aware of the environment.  Sitting next to a humming computer or an open window or door could be distracting.  Distractions, both auditory and visual, can lead to information being lost. So consider the class seating plan.

Multi-sensory teaching and learning approaches seek to stimulate all available senses simultaneously. Multi-sensory methods link the auditory, visual and kinaesthetic channels and have been positively evaluated by researchers. Some examples of activities which use different sense include:

Auditory learning:

  • speaking aloud  
  • using a voice recorder
  • talking or explaining to others
  • debating or questioning
  • use of rhymes, jingles, raps or songs.

Use visual strategies and resources to support verbal information. Consider the use of:

  • charts   
  • diagrams
  • pictures
  • posters
  • in maths, provide multiplication tables, operation guides, number lines, calculators.
  • support writing with personalised word banks, sentence starters, visual prompts or genre ‘tool kits’ from Talk for Writing.
  • mind maps
  • videos
  • written  or voice recorded information / task instructions for the pupil to refer back to. 
  • handouts which link pictures to words

Kinaesthetic learning can be used to support auditory and visual information. 

  • create pictures, charts or labelled diagrams
  • use cards which can be moved or sorted
  • use sticky notes or highlighter  pens.
  • create mind maps
  • ‘hands on’ practical activities , for example model making
  • movement, actions, dance, role play.

Consider creating:

  • ‘Tricky word reading packs’ which incorporate mnemonics or cartoons which help pupils to remember spellings of exception (irregular or ‘tricky’) words. Many English words cannot be spelled using phonics. Mnemonics are best when they begin with the target word. Lidia Stanton has produced books of exception word spellings in cartoon form which some pupils may find helpful.
  • Reading packs containing picture cue cards which link a sound to a grapheme, a picture and a memory phrase. 
  • Visual timetables or day checklists. These support pupils with day to day organisational issues. 

Examples of activities which integrate auditory, visual and kinaesthetic learning include:

  • Simultaneous Oral Spellingspellings of exception words are taught  using a multi-sensory approach: look, say, spell, trace, cover, write, check. The multi-sensory spelling grid is a useful tool.
  • Story mapping strategies (such as ‘Talk for Writing’). Story mapping links oral retelling with pictures and actions.
  • Teaching letter and sound links using picture cue cards with memory phrases and actions.
  • Older pupils may benefit from memory techniques such as ‘The Memory Palace’. A useful video giving more information and guidance on this strategy can be found here: 

As well as auditory and working memory difficulties, pupils the Dyslexia Team teachers assess may also have difficulty transferring information from short term memory to long term memory. They seem to need many more exposures on average before they can remember, for example:

  • days of the week;
  • months of the year;
  • the alphabet;
  • counting to ten;
  • multiplication tables.

Overlearning and repetition is essential, with some pupils requiring a slower pace of learning. 

Cochrane (2021) suggests teaching pupils to complete a multiplication square within a set time period. This would need to be built up over weeks and months but means a pupil could note this down at the beginning of an assessment, making good use of any additional time they are allowed. 

References and Further Reading:

Cochrane, K. (2021) ‘Supporting children with memory difficulties’.
Found online at: Accessed January 2022.

Corbett, P. (2022) ‘Talk for Writing’ 
Found online at  Accessed January 2022.

Gathercole, S. and Packiam Alloway, T. (2007) ‘Understanding Working Memory  – A Classroom Guide’.
Found online at:  Accessed January 2022.

Leeds NHS (no date) ‘Supporting Auditory Memory and Language Processing Difficulties.’
Found online at: Accessed December 2021.

Rose, J (2009) ‘Identifying and teaching children and young people with dyslexia and literacy difficulties: an independent report’.
Found online at: Accessed January 2022.

Stanton, L. (2017) ‘Tricky Spellings in Cartoons for Children.’ 
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