Working Memory Limits Affect College Students’ Reading — by Betsy Hill

A researcher from the University of Alberta describes the problem this way, “The students invest most of their time on reading and they forget the meaning.  They read and they decode the whole passage.  So, by the time they get to the end, they forget what the first paragraph was talking about.”  Startlingly, the students he is discussing are college students.  After screening 400 students at the University of Alberta, George Georgiou and J.P. Das found that five percent of them were experiencing problems reading.  But the description sounds much like the problems of students at much earlier stages of their academic careers – all the way back to learning to read in the first place.

As the researchers analyzed the students’ difficulties, the culprits emerged.  Difficulties in working memory and simultaneous processing were noted.  Working memory and a variety of other cognitive skills are essential for comprehension: seeing the big picture, visualizing the relationships among ideas, and the sequence of events, as examples.  These cognitive skills are essential for remembering the beginning of the paragraph until we get to the end of the paragraph, and building meaning as we go along.

Another culprit is the absence of relevant content knowledge to provide context for what the students are reading.  Georgiou recommends reading more to build background knowledge, but there are many ways that students can build background knowledge that will then aid them in building meaning and relevancy out of text that they encounter in school or elsewhere.  This would seem particularly important for younger students as they practice decoding, fluency and comprehension.

The solution to developing content knowledge in a subject area is part and parcel of our education system.  Unfortunately, building working memory, attention, simultaneous and sequential processing, visualization, and other cognitive skills is not.  Knowing that deficits persist into college and surmising that the problems are much more pervasive earlier on, the need for cognitive skills training to improve reading comprehension is increasingly evident.


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