Children with learning disabilities generally have difficulties processing information accurately and automatically, and as a result tend to make more mistakes or take longer to complete tasks than children without learning disabilities. Many children with a learning disability also have a weakness in working memory, and students with an SLD with impairment in reading and/or written expression tend to have difficulties processing speech (phonological processing) and they may also struggle to process and recall the letter patterns used in written language (orthographic processing).

Working memory is the ability to hold information in your mind and manipulate it as necessary for a brief period. It is a person’s mental workspace. A child’s working memory capacity depends on their age and innate abilities. Young children are only able to hold, manipulate and recall a small number of items or ‘chunks’ of information (e.g. two or three items) whereas older children can deal with more (e.g. four or five items). No matter what the age, there will be some children with larger working memory capacities than others.

Working memory is important for a number of day to day activities including a high proportion of tasks in the classroom, such as remembering multi-step instructions, recalling details from a spoken passage or story and performing mental maths sums. While it is resistant to change, there are a number of strategies and accommodations that can be made to support a child with poor working memory both at home and at school.

Phonological processing comprises three areas of functioning:

  1. Phonological and Phonemic Awareness – how we perceive and work with the sounds (phonemes) in words. This includes rhyming, working with syllables and isolating individual sounds. The ability to work with syllables, and to blend and segment phonemes in words, is critical to the development of good reading and spelling skills. Students need to learn that the sounds they are making when they speak relate directly to the letters they use when reading and writing. Essentially, we blend to read (e.g. the sounds /sh/ /o/ /p/ form the word shop) and we segment to spell (e.g. “How many phonemes in block?” – four: /b/ /l/ /o/ /ck/).
  2. Phonological Memory – the ability to hold on to speech-based information in short-term memory. We rely heavily on our phonological memory when reading and spelling as we need to be able to hold the sounds in words in order to blend and segment those sounds accurately.
  3. Rapid Automatised Naming – the ability to retrieve words quickly and easily from long term memory. Children with a weakness in this area tend to have difficulties in reading and writing fluently which often become apparent later in a child’s education.

Students who have a weakness in one or more of these areas are likely to experience literacy-learning difficulties.

Becoming a fluent reader requires both the capacity to utilise sound-based decoding strategies (‘sounding out’) and the ability to accurately recognise familiar letter patterns either as whole words (e.g. ‘was’) or within words (e.g. the ‘igh’ in night). The ability to rely less heavily on sound-based decoding strategies is very much dependent on the development of orthographic processing.

Orthography refers to the conventional writing system of any given language and includes rules around letter order and combinations as well as capitalisation, hyphenation and punctuation. Orthographic processing is the ability to understand and recognise these writing conventions as well as recognising when words contain correct and incorrect spellings.

Children with weak orthographic processing rely very heavily on sounding out common words that should be in memory, leading to a choppy and laborious style of decoding. Delays in orthographic processing are also linked to ongoing difficulties in letter recognition and letter reversals. If the shape and orientation of a letter is not fully consolidated and stored in visual memory, then a child is more likely to make reversal errors and be unable to recognise when they have made a mistake.

As skilled readers need to recognise words and/or components of words automatically, there is a heavy reliance on orthographic processing in the development of reading fluency. Delays in this area are likely to inhibit a child’s applied reading skills and ultimately affect his/her reading comprehension skills.

In addition, poor orthographic processing will almost certainly result in both a high rate of spelling errors and poor written expression. Children find it difficult to remember the correct spelling pattern for a particular word and don’t seem to benefit from the editing tool, “Does it look right?”. Rather they demonstrate the tendency to over-rely on phonological information, writing words like ‘rough’ as ‘ruff’ and ‘night’ as ‘nite’.