My Top 10 Auditory Working Memory Strategies (for students)
Auditory working memory is the memory used to remember and work with information that you hear, but it’s the information that does not have a lot of meaning. Meaningful information, such as a funny story, goes to your verbal memory. It is easier to remember because the story ties itself to other memories, leads to visual images, or triggers an emotion (a fun one for a funny story). Auditory working memory is for the information that does not have much meaning or connection, such as phone numbers, foreign language, strings of numbers, or even people’s names. It’s called auditory WORKING memory when you need to hold the information online in your head while working with it, such as solving a math problem in your head. Some of us have a good auditory working memory. Some people can remember phone numbers easily, never forget a name, or can solve complex math problems in their head. Many of us can’t do it easily and some of us are really bad at it.
When a child has a weak auditory working memory, it will impact several academic skills.
- In early reading, the child may have trouble remembering which sounds go with which letters. Frankly, that ‘buh’ goes with ‘b’ and ‘duh’ goes with ‘d’ is pretty random. If auditory working memory is weak, linking all those letters with all those sounds is tough. You can see how this weakness is related to dyslexia (though is not quite the entire story). Spelling and writing can be even more affected.
- A few grades up, the child may struggle with memorizing math facts. Addition and subtraction facts can be hard enough, but multiplication facts can be particularly tricky. Simple math facts, such as 2 x 2=4, can be “seen” mentally. But few of us can “see” that 8 x 7=56. We have to memorize these facts that feel rather random to a young child. These facts are stored in the auditory memory.
- Then there is working math problems out in your head. If the problem is written down and you can visually check the numbers, it may not be SO bad. However, if someone is rattling of a few numbers and a problem to be solved, those numbers may go in one ear and out the other.
- Learning new words can be hard. When the child hears a new word in science or history, that new word is just hard to hold onto.
- Copying from the board can be hard because the student cannot remember a long string of information. There is a lot of looking up, looking down and copying a word, then looking up to check the copy, find the next word or two, write those down. Because the task is so arduous, the student really cannot comprehend what is being copied. Later, there are worse problems when trying to take notes during lectures. The student typically cannot listen and write at the same time, so . . . notes just don’t get taken . . .at least with any completeness.
- Following directions can be hard. In early grades, a teacher has to keep directions short and repeat them several times to get 20-25 young kids on the same page. As kids move up in grades, teachers give longer directions. By middle school, teachers are not repeating direction often. If this is combined with new vocabulary, students with weak auditory working memory are at a disadvantage.
- Learning a foreign language (yeesh) can be a real struggle to those with a poor auditory working memory. Here comes this long string of incomprehensible sounds that a person then has to hold in their head and try to convert it (translate) to something meaningful. If the auditory working memory is weak, those sounds are gone before you get past the first few syllables.
- As a person gets older, it becomes more obvious that remembering someone’s name, remembering phone numbers, anything information that is somewhat random is hard.
Weakness in auditory working memory puts stumbling blocks in a person’s day.
For a child in school, the stumbling blocks are occurring all day.
So here are:
The top 10 strategies for supporting auditory working memory weaknesses in students:
We can categorize these in a few ways.
First and foremost-provide back up for the auditory memory. Auditory working memory is not the ONLY memory we have. There are lots of memories to use as back up. Visual memory, motor memory, and verbal memory can all be used to support the auditory memory.
You can also “go around” the weakness by using alternative strategies.
- Multisensory reading programs can support both reading and spelling skills by providing visual and motor cues for the sounds that go with the letters. They also instruct in visual patterns for words which helps both reading and spelling.
- Visual supports can back up the auditory and verbal memories. Charts, graphs, and timelines can be used to show patterns in the verbal and auditory information. This can be critical for supporting information given in lectures. Use summary lists and outlines to detail the “most important information” with particular emphasis on new vocabulary. A good outline of a lecture (provided in advance of the lecture) can can act as an organizational chart for the information. Even a bulleted summary list will let the student SEE what is most important.
- Information that is usually stored in auditory memory can be moved to verbal and visual memory with some creative tactics. For example, there are math books that provide a math story and visual picture for math facts (e.g., 6 x 6 = ‘thirsty six’ shows two tired 6’s marching through the dessert to an oasis with 36 written on top).
- Recopying lecture notes or developing written notes for a chapter in a textbook builds a strong visual motor memory for the information. For example, the student has scribbled notes madly to get the lecturer onto paper, but has she really “heard” the lecture? As a dyslexic college student once said to me, “It goes straight from the professor’s mouth to my hand. I don’t start to process what was said until I go home and re-copy the notes. Everyone in class wants to borrow my notes because they are visually beautiful.” (Okay, she was very artistic person who did make the notes visually organized and even color coordinated.)
- Use videos to pair auditory and verbal information directly with visual information. This gives some visual context for new vocabulary.
- For weak math facts, use a calculator. This lets the student focus on learning math concepts without being bogged down by errors and slow processing due to weaknesses in math facts. Students can take their calculators into college entrance exams, so it is not a drawback. I find that math facts slowly improve in kids over time (lots of time) anyway. You can’t rush it, so accommodate it.
- Use written directions and written steps to support a weak memory for novel directions. With written directions, a child can work sequentially through the task without worrying about what they forgot.
- Preview new vocabulary. If a new science unit will be presented in two days or a new chapter in history, give the child a list of new vocabulary words to see and hear them pronounced. Discuss the words a bit until the memory is more of a verbal memory than simply an auditory one.
- A structured classroom with a consistent daily routine reduced the need for extra instructions and directions.
- Mnemonics-There are reasons that advertisers use mnemonics for telephone numbers (e.g., 1-800- CALL- NOW). A lot of us struggle with auditory memory weakness and we need to make the information more meaningful. There are mnemonics for everything, from the Wives of Henry VIII to the 12 cranial nerves. You can google them.
And when all else fails, the student will need to have information repeated to him. He might then be asked to repeat back key information or instructions to ensure they have processed it.
Adults with auditory working memory weaknesses can tell you that some days are worse than others. Noise, fatigue, hunger and general overload will make recall worse. But there will be moments when a child is fresh and excited for a task. Then those facts, sounds, or words just come more easily. Accept that unevenness, take breaks when needed, then keep plugging. Accommodations in the classroom (and at home) will be essential, but with the right supports, auditory working memory weaknesses can be managed.