Working Memory and Processing Speed


boy working

Working memory skills are used for all learning tasks. A child with weak working memory skills has to work harder than other students to keep information in mind, as rather than being able to both hold and process the information, the child is working hard just to hold the information. Many students with weak working memory skills lose new information before it can be processed, making learning difficult. When a child also has a slow processing speed, it becomes even harder to hold on tothe new information before it is lost.

My favorite theory of working memory is by Baddeley and Hitch (1974). They created a multicomponent model of working memory. This theory describes two “slave systems” for short-term storage of information, and a “central executive” which integrates and coordinates the slave systems. The slave systems include the phonological loop and the visuo-spatial sketchpad.

The phonological loop stores phonological information (that is, the sound of language). The visuo-spatial sketchpad stores visual and spatial information. The important information presented by the current theories is that working memory can be strengthened with mental training. That is why a program like Cogmed can be effective for people with working memory weakness. However, in addition to building working memory skills, students need to learn metacognitive strategies to help them learn how to learn. Students who have weak working memory skills usually also have poor executive functioning skills, using metacognitive strategies can help build executive functioning skills. Here is a link to an article I wrote about metacognitive strategies.

Classroom Recommendations and Accommodations:

For students with Weak Working Memory Skills

  • Help students organize the information they hear in meaningful ways, including chunking the information into shorter steps or connecting new information with previously learned information.
  • Preview new concepts with students so they know what to expect – this will decrease stress and help with attention and engagement in the classroom.

For students with Weak Executive Function/Memory Skills/Processing Speed

  • Build strategies to help students analyze, prioritize, and execute specific steps in a given assignment.
  • Encourage students to think through responses and take their time; many students with processing speed issues develop a compensatory strategy to rush through in order to finish work in time; these students would benefit from slowing down to process the information more deeply.
  • Teach students to stop and read directions carefully prior to starting a task.
  • Break down tasks and follow the order-checking work along the way.
  • Build memory skills by building associations to preexisting knowledge.
  • Rehearse new information to help encode it.
  • Encourage students to visualize what they are going to do before they begin a task.
  • Teach students strategies to increase engagement such as use of reminders (which can be set on devices such as the iPhone) to help build attention, awareness, structure and independent work habits.
  • Teach students to use self-talk to organize learning and performance strategies and to focus attention on tasks.
  • Teach students strategies to help recall information, such as PAR:
    • P= Picture it.
      A= Associate it
      R= Review it.

For students with Weak Visual-Perceptual Strategies

  • Use of graphic organizers to depict information visually and increase retention of ideas.
  • Note-taking techniques that will present and summarize heard information visually.
  • Exercises to sharpen the ability to attend to visual detail and to express similarities and differences between images.

For students with Weak Processing Speed/ fine motor skills

  • Allow extra time for tests, usually time and a half.
  • Provide extra time for students to complete in-class assignments.
  • Train students in time management techniques to become aware of the time that tasks take.
  • Teach typing skills to enable students to type as fast as they think.
  • Allow students to use the computer for all writing tasks.

For students with Weak Organization of Language

  • Students may have excellent ideas but have difficulty organizing their thoughts. Building pre-writing will help them express their ideas more clearly.
  • Review of writing formats (Narrative, Expository, Descriptive, Compare/Contrast, Persuasive) would facilitate and structure written expression.
  • Reinforce the writing process for students in a systematic manner (Brainstorming or clustering, writing, editing). The Inspiration Program is a creative computer tool that helps students brainstorm and organize their ideas before writing.

For students with Weak Reading Comprehension Skills

  • The SQ3R approach is recommended as an approach to studying information from text books
  • Teach students to preview reading material
    prior to class to ensure they are able to follow along during class time
  • Teach students to take notes at the end of each chapter of books they read. This will not only aid comprehension but assist in studying or finding information quickly when writing an essay
  • Pull out keywords and main ideas while reading to help put what students are learning into context

Hopefully students’ academic achievement will improve as they build strategies to help overcome areas of challenge. Building the student’s ability, and developing strategies to understand directions is the first step to helping students start tasks. Teaching how to break down and organize the steps to complete tasks will allow students to finish the tasks they start. As these skills are developed, it is hoped that students will be able to complete tasks in a timely manner, thereby increasing their processing speed.




10 Responses

  1. Leslie Kerr

    Wonderful info. We have soon to be middle schooler who is seriously struggling with reading comprehension and writing. He was diognosed with ADHD in 2nd grade and has made amazing progress. His 504 includes many of the things you mention and it has help him a ton. He is truly bright he just can’t get the ideas in his head organized and down on paper because of his low WMI and PSI. We are considering brain training and have seen conflicitng results. As he gets older and the work is harder and harder to keep up with it so we are will to try anything to help him. Would love to hear your thoughts.

    FSIQ 98, 45th percentile
    GAI 112, 79th percentile
    VCI 96, 39th percentile
    PRI 127, 96th percentile
    WMI 77, 6th percentile
    PSI 83, 13th percentile

    • Melissa Mullin, Ph.D.

      I think that the Inspiration program will really help him. Learning to use the mind-maps to organize his ideas before he writes will take stress off his working memory and then using the computer to type or dictate his paper will help him get his ideas down quickly.

  2. Eileen

    My daughter is in 9th grade. She was tested in 4th grade for Central Auditory Processing and they said she most likely had it but her verbal skills were low so they wouldn’t say conclusively. She had 40% diffusion in one ear and 20% in the other. She has low working memory and slow processing speed. She did the Cogmed, but her School test scores were not improved. I have started working with her on Mental Math because I saw she was very weak in the math fundamentals. In a couple of days, she was really doing great, remembering factors, adding and subtracting large numbers she wasn’t doing before. I figured out that she needs extreme repetition. Math is her weakest subject. She is at grade level in reading with the help of a very good school reading program. Writing is improving.(but Wechsler Intelligence Scale scores – fluid reasoning 69, Processing Speed 53, Verbal Comprehension 86, Visual Spatial 64, Working Memory 65 all composite scores. Again, she is a smart girl. I don’t believe the schools have been doing the best job nor have I in supporting her. I have told her now that she needs to get all homework assignments and tests corrected (and in math to have all the steps written in to be able to redo and practice at home). I see that she needs to practice much more the math problems so that more will go into auto memory She is passing all of her subjects. But fluid reasoning weaknesses reflect difficulty in independently drawing inferences from information, understanding the implications of an issue or actions and following a logical pattern through to another conclusions and impacts her ability to transfer and generalize information into new situations (test questions). So, I believe more efficient studying and repetition can help, but her biggest challenges will be on regents exams. I am going to purchase regents review books for all subjects. My son, who is in college told me that she can do practice questions by subject which will help her prepare for tests and the regents. I would appreciate any ideas you have that can help her with working memory. We started reading together out louder from Wall Street Journal and such, working on main ideas pronunciation and definitions. As I mentioned, reading is now grade level. Socially, she does have trouble with social cues and has difficulty relating stories or reporting events. I am interested in which books you would recommend I purchase. I am most interested in strategies and interventions I can help her with. Thank you very much.

    • Melissa Mullin, Ph.D.

      Here are some strategies I found at Can Learn Society to develop Working Memory:



      Ask the student to verbalize their steps in completing tasks they often struggle to complete. This can provide important information about where the breakdown is occurring and what supports are likely to work best.
      Evaluate the working memory demands of learning activities. A student with working memory difficulties will need more support as tasks get longer, become more complex, have unfamiliar content or demand more mental processing.


      Break tasks into smaller chunks. One task at a time is best, if possible.
      Reduce the amount of material the student is expected to complete.
      Keep new information or instructions brief and to the point, and repeat in concise fashion for the student, as needed.
      Provide written directions for reference.
      Simplify the amount of mental processing required by providing several oral “clues” for a problem and writing key words for each clue on the board or interactive whiteboard. This way the student does not have to hold all of the information in mind at once.
      Increase the meaningfulness of the material by providing examples students can relate to.
      Provide information in multiple ways: speak it, show it, and create opportunities to physically work with it or model it.
      Develop routines, such as specific procedures for turning in completed assignments. Once a routine is practiced repeatedly, it becomes automatic and reduces the working memory demand.

      Be prepared to repeat information.
      Use visual reminders of the steps needed to complete a task.
      Provide opportunities to repeat the task.
      Encourage practice to increase the amount of information encoded into memory.
      Teach students to practice in short sessions, repeatedly throughout the day. Spaced practice is more effective than massed practice. Have students practice new skills or information in short sessions over the course of the day rather than in one long session. For example, give the student a set of key facts to review for a few minutes two or three times during the school day, and encourage them to review again at home both at night and in the morning.


      Use advance organizers and teach students how to use them. For example, KWL (What I Know, What I Want to Know, What I Learned) is a graphic organizer that helps students focus on what is to be learned. This tool activates prior knowledge, helps generate questions to explore and then assists students to connect what they learn to what they already know.

      Teach one strategy at a time in brief, focused sessions.
      Teach students when, where, why and how to use the strategy.
      Review and activate prior knowledge.
      Be overt and explicit.
      Model and think aloud.
      Have skilled students model steps.
      Encourage use and practice.
      Evaluate and recognize effort and success.
      Encourage self-monitoring.
      Promote transfer to other situations, times, activities and groups.

      Use visual posters, e.g. of multiplication tables.
      Create posters of commonly used words.
      Provide instructions in written form – could be a handout, whiteboard, or simply a sticky note.
      Provide a key word outline to refer to while you are teaching.
      Encourage the use of checklists for multi-step tasks (e.g., steps for editing written work, timelines for assignments).
      Encourage students to make lists of reminders regularly.
      Use graphic organizers to teach new concepts and information. When the student can picture how the ideas are interrelated, they can be stored and retrieved more easily.
      Consider educational technology that reduces the demand on working memory, such as calculators, word processors, spell-check devices, grammar-check devices, and voice dictation and text readers.
      Use rhymes, songs, movements and patterns, such as ’30 days hath September’ rhyme for remembering the number of days in each calendar month. Music and physical routines linked to fact learning can help students memorize faster and act as a cue for retrieving specific information.

      Stop at least two times per lesson and request a quick summary from students – “what have we learned so far?” – followed by quick notes on the board. Research overwhelmingly indicates that at least 40% of total learning time needs to be spent reviewing new material.
      Request students to paraphrase, or have another student paraphrase verbally delivered directions. Research has repeatedly shown that youth are more likely to “hear” and “remember” if they hear their own voice or a peer’s voice.
      Allow time for rehearsal and processing.
      Allow extra time for the student to retrieve information. These students benefit from advance warning that they will be asked a question.
      Avoid open-ended questions


      Active participation with the material such as repeatedly hearing it, seeing it and moving it, holds the information in working memory so it can move to long-term memory. Let the students move around, use hands-on material and put information on file cards so they can be manipulated.
      Wherever possible, use games such as Jeopardy® and Scrabble®, drama and art to reinforce concepts.

      Physical coding, such as consistent colours for different subject areas, can act as triggers to help students remember information. ooTry coding when teaching new concepts: when teaching sentence structure nouns are always red, verbs are always green etc.
      Spelling – highlight difficult parts of new words.
      Vocabulary – teach new words in categories or families and colour code the categories.
      Encourage the use of coloured pens or highlighters (remember, yellow is the LEAST effective).

      Try to get the students to link new information to prior knowledge – encourage drawing, writing and verbal reflection. The use metaphors, analogies, imagery or induced imagery (where the image is generated by the individual, rather than given to them) can help.
      Start each lesson with a quick review of the previous lesson – always write down key words as the students recall information to model “trigger words”.
      End each lesson with a summary of what was learned.

      Teach students to listen for key words. Post the words in the classroom and frequently use them as cues while you teach.
      Often students with working memory difficulties also exhibit word and information retrieval difficulties. They frequently experience the “tip of the tongue” phenomenon, or may produce the wrong details within the correct concept. The student may need additional time to retrieve details when answering a question. Cues may be necessary to help them focus on the correct bit of information or word.

  3. Elizabeth S.

    Dr. Mullin,\
    I must let you know that your website is so informative and I subscribe to your articles. Thank you for this great information that has helped our family realize there is help out there for our daughter! If only we lived in Santa Monica, we would readily be at your center! Unfortunately, we are in Virginia Beach, VA and I need help finding a similar program to help build my 13 year, 10 month daughter’s processing speed and working memory functions. My daughter has suffered for years with low processing speed and below average working memory, anxiety, and inattentive ADD. As her parents, my husband and I have worked hard to ensure she has a detailed 504 plan in school, attends therapy regularly, and gets the support she needs at home with homework. She is on medication for anxiety and ADD now, after years of trying non-medicated remedies, but she still struggles with completing classwork and homework in a reasonable amount of time. She was administered the WISC and her scores were FSIQ- 123, Verbal comprehension -134, Perceptual Reasoning-135, Working memory -102, and Processing speed – 85. She is completely frustrated with the amount of time it takes her to complete a task, and is becoming unmotivated as the missing homework assignments pile up in the grade book. Our daughter is a perfectionist and she tries for hours and hours to get her classwork and homework done. She has difficulty remembering chapters that she just read, and trouble understanding new math problems in Geometry. She struggles with organizing her thoughts and writing essays, even when she has many great ideas swirling about in her head. She stays after school and uses her lunch period every day, Monday through Friday to complete unfinished tests and classwork. At home, she works on homework every night until 11 PM, but moves at a snail’s pace. She rarely gets any homework assignments completed.

    She needs some type of brain training to build her processing speed and memory. We just tried our first testing session and consultation at a Learning RX program. Unfortunately, we were not impressed with the program and it felt more like a pushy sales pitch than an educational program. We are looking for a treatment program, or anything that can help her boost her executive functioning skills.

    Our daughter is slowly giving up on herself and as a parent, it breaks my heart. Any suggestions?

    • Melissa Mullin, Ph.D.

      My center is now offering Skype sessions so that we can help students who are not in our area. The first session is free to see if Skype will work with the student. We have found the distance learning sessions to be helpful. Contact me at if you are interested.

      Working with her I will be able to determine what aspect of her processing is causing the slow processing and then create a plan to help her build her skills.

  4. Worried momma

    Hi Dr. Mullin! We’re trying to figure out if my 7 yr old child needs help with processing and if it makes her bad at test taking and reading.

    WISC-V scores: FSIQ 125; Verbal Comprehension 118; Visual Spacial 119; Fluid Reasoning 131; Working Memory 115; Processing Speed 92 (scaled scores: coding 9, symbol search 8).

    DAS II scores: GCA 130; Verbal Scale 113; Nonverbal reasoning 139; Spatial Ability 125; Processing speed 109 (speed of info proc. 58, rapid naming 52)

    She took CogAT and scored 115. Her verbal scores are her weakest area. She got a 102 which put her in 55% for her age and 47% for her grade. We think it’s connected to processing as her reading fluency is not strong. She reads like she cannot read.


    • Melissa Mullin, Ph.D.

      Looking at your daughter’s scores I see a bright child with an average processing speed. You say she reads like she can’t read. Your daughter is 7 years old so she is at the beginning of her reading career. You don’t include any of the underlying reading skills in your report. Here is a blog article on Helping Your Beginning Reader. Take the Quiz to learn about your daughters underlying reading skills; then you can focus developing the skills she needs to become a stronger reader.

      Auditory processing skills. If your reader is weak in this skill, she is struggling to match the sound of the letter with the letter symbol.

      Attention skills. Close attention to the details of the letter symbols is needed in order to learn to read.

      Visual skills. The eye muscles need to work together to track the letter symbols on the page fluently. If the eyes are weak, reading will be challenging.

  5. Inactive ADHD

    This was helpful to me because my kids and I have inattactive ADHD and weak working memory with a slow processing speed. It is causing lots of difficulties with my son especially with spelling. It makes sense what you said about chunking the info in shorter steps and connecting with info they previously learned. Part of the problem with the spelling program at school is that there is so many different strategies they learn in one week. My son struggles more with working memory then other types of memory. So the backwards numbers and remembering multiple things are more of problem then straight up repeating back or memorizing lines.

    I have not got my older child tested officially like my son but she does have inactive ADHD. I know my working memory and processing speed is much weaker then everything else too. My older child does ok academically except for reading comprehension which I see you mention. My son excels in comprehension with this profile. What is the SQ3 approach?

    Is there anything besides Cogmed which is out of the budget that can improve working memory? Are there any games or similar programs that ate more affordable? I really feel improving the working memory will make a big difference.

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