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Studying with dyslexia and other specific learning difficulties

Expert guidance from Study Advice at the University of Reading

Strategies to support working memory

Tips for studying with working memory difficulties

Working memory is used when small amounts of information are held temporarily in the mind and manipulated or used to perform a task.  To understand and retain information, it must be moved from working- to long-term-memory store.  However, as the working-memory systems of many learners with dyslexia, dyspraxia and ADHD/ADD are relatively fragile (i.e. being relatively limited in capacity and duration) the process of learning and retaining information is less efficient. To support working-memory, a good approach to take is to make learning structured, cumulative & frequent and multisensory.

The following strategies have been adapted from Brain HE (2006) and Reid and Green (2011).

  • Make learning structured
    • Create a framework for learning new material by making connections with related, existing knowledge. However, as some students with SpLD’s may find this difficult, connections between existing and new information can be made more explicit by jotting down what you already know about a topic on a piece of paper. The new information to be learned can then be noted on the same piece of paper and comparisons made between the two.  This makes it easier to understand the new material.
    • Another way to create structure is to summarise information using headings, subheadings, key words and phrases. This helps to create categories which can help make sense of material to be learned
    • Long-term memory is thought to be a store of infinite capacity, making information retrieval potentially difficult. Making multiple associations between new material and knowledge already in long-term memory store, facilitates information retrieval and recall. 
  • Make learning cumulative and frequent
    • Over-learning is an important approach for students with SpLD’s. It involves revisiting material, which you have already learned at frequent intervals. This makes remembering and retrieving information more automatic. Leaving it to the last minute, to ‘cram’ new information is unlikely to be a successful strategy for students with weak working memories.  
    • Another way to overlearn information is to adopt a ‘cumulative’ approach. This involves extended practice of the same skill to consolidate learning. For example, to understand a passage of text, you might first write a summary, then identifying its three most important points, and finally modifying it to suit different audiences.  
  • Make learning multisensory
    • It is thought that learning may be facilitated when new information is in-put via a variety of sensory channels. Although based only on anecdotal evidence, people are said to remember:
      • 10% of what they read
      • 20% of what they hear
      • 30% of what they see
      • 50% of what they hear and see
      • 70% of what they say and write
      • 90% of what they say as they do something.

The table below provides examples of visual, auditory and kinaesthetic ways of presenting information. Try converting the material you are learning to visual, auditory or kinaesthetic formats.  This will make learning more active and engaging and consequently more memorable.




Computer based learning.
Videos & TV.
OHP presentations
Using interactive CD-Roms.
Using mind maps, flow charts.
Colour coding your notes.

Audio tape.
Video conferencing.
Using mnemonics to remember facts.
Taking part in debates.
Reading aloud.

Interactive CD-Roms.
Field Trips.
Computer based learning.
Activity-based learning.
Rehearsing and performing.
Using movement to stimulate memory.
Drawing diagrams and mind maps.
Using games.


Strategies to support slow processing speed

Slow speed of information processing is frequently associated with dyslexia, dyspraxia and ADHD/ADD.  According to Godwin (2012), this can result in information overload, which leads to information being 'lost'. To avoid this, Godwin (2012) recommends dealing with only small amounts of information at a time, and working in short bursts. To illustrate this point, processing small amounts of information  is a bit like slowly drip-feeding water into a glass – all of it gets retained. Conversely, being overloaded with information is a bit like trying to fill a glass with water from a fast flowing tap – some of it will splash back out again and be lost.

Tips for improving meta cognition

Meta cognition means being aware of your own thought processes. It is important as it enables learners to monitor their comprehension levels and to apply lessons learned from one task to new problems and contexts. Learners with SpLD's tend to be less aware of their own thought processes than others.  For example, they may instantly see a solution to a problem without recognising the steps involved.  This means that valuable, and time saving, experience may be wasted as each new task is approached as if for the first time.

It is therefore important to develop meta cognitive skills. They can be developed by reflecting on how you approach a task, considering what went well/less well, and also by reflecting on how you personally learn best.