Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Working around a weak auditory working memory

Anandita is now over 8 years old and going up in her learning ladder with plenty of hiccups. I had always wished to have a clearer perspective on her learning issues especially those that were pulling her back. I didn’t operate on an assumption. She had suffered a brain insult and hence I was prepared, or atleast kind of. I decided to get her assessments done at Ummeed child development centre. I know an assessment is no gauge of her true potential but I am wise enough to know that an objective viewpoint often throws up answers to a struggling parent who more than often operates on assumptions. I had reached a stage where I was not sure if she remembered the concepts. Sometimes she did, sometimes she didn’t and I never did know where to reinforce and where not to.

The assessment did achieve one major thing it helped me identify where her learning disabilities were and which areas were affected..
It also made me more sensitive to her needs since I now knew where her problem was. When I read the report I realized that there was a lot I didn’t know and I had to understand what I was dealing with. So “Google” it was and I was lucky enough to have the help of my special educator friend in Madras.

“You've heard the expression: It goes in one ear and out of the other. For individuals with sub-optimal auditory working memory, this is pretty close to the truth. The same seemed to apply to Anandita, although I was never ever really certain about it. If you asked me I would say she has a brilliant memory with places and names. But it took me some time to fully understand what Auditory working memory was all about. The brain creates memories in a number of different ways, and at any point in time one may remember something as a result of having:

• Touched it
• Seen it
• Tasted it
• Smelled it
• Heard it

When this information that is added to your brain is done, using your sense of hearing, it is called auditory memory.
Can you add together 22 and 68 in your head? When you ask for directions to the post office, can you get there without writing the instructions down? Such tasks are all about using ones working memory, the memory we use to keep information immediately “in mind” so that the task can be completed. It could be compared to something like a mental workspace or notepad—a “place” where we manipulate information, perform mental calculations and form new thoughts.

What is auditory working memory (AWM) exactly?
It is one part of our two part working memory system. One part is the visual-spatial sketchpad and the other is the verbal loop, often called the phonological loop. The verbal loop is usually referred to as AWM. Relevant information is held in this auditory "storage" while a cognitive activity is completed (e.g. a multi-step math problem or remembering a teacher's lecture).
When information comes into our auditory system, we must actively rehearse what we have heard because this information rapidly decays after one or two seconds. In order to repeat the information to ourselves, we must use our selective attention facility, and screen out all irrelevant sounds to pay attention to the relevant information at hand. Research has shown that if short term memory is low, we have a hard time selecting what we wish to hear. In other words, selective attention doesn't work so well when AWM is low.AWM is critical -it affects reading, reading comprehension, and math performance. It is also essential for problem solving because we have to hold the problem in our short term memory long enough to make sense of it.

It soon started make sense to me. Every time Anandita learnt a concept in Math’s at school, I usually reinforced the same the same evening but if next day I had to ask her a problem based on the same concept, she seemed to have forgotten. It was not only exasperating but also filled me with helplessness because I didn’t know the challenge she was facing. The above kind of summed it up for me because this was what was affecting her learning abilities and memory with concepts for almost every subject. For instance, I noticed that she found it hard to write sentences. By the time she finished spelling the first few words, she had forgotten what she intended to say next. Similarly, she had trouble with reading comprehension. While she was working hard to decode written words, she would lose track of the overall “gist” of the text...

What next?

It became important for me to understand how to handle this. Can memory be worked upon? How can one work on improving it not just at home but also in her learning environment at school. I received invaluable help from two people here, one my friend from Madras who is a special educator herself who gave me few tips and another person who I met through my yahoo groups-India Developmental Disabilities. I just wrote to her about Anandita, we exchanged mails and I sent across her scanned assessment and the amount of inputs she gave me and is still giving me has been invaluable. Here is her precious websites link.


Before reading, warming up is essential for the children to focus on their visual attention and also to refresh their orientation skills on paper. One can play a "letter search game" for a few minutes. (Firstly make sure there is an environment with limited distractions for the child. The alphabets are arranged in a few rows on one sheet of copy paper. In the regular order as we read from left to right. The letters are printed with simple bold fonts and the four colors are repeated-RED- A, GREEN- B, BLUE- C...keeping a one-letter or bigger space in between two letters. You could do many activities with this such as, sing the ABC song and everybody points to the right alphabet. Or you can stop suddenly and ask the children to point or name the next letter that is about to come. Or I could say, find letter M... Which one is after M?? Or go to the next and jump up: which one is that?

For reading: When reading one could use a sheet of plain paper to hide a part of the writing allowing her to visualize the upcoming next word with less distraction. E.g.: one could hide all the lines under the line that she is reading at that time or hiding even the next word (meaning the previously read words would be visible and the word for reading now).
Playing games of constructing and sounding out of words, making silly words that copy cat like act or tac.As a later step, you could introduce instructions such as now the FIRST letter would be...., THEN..
FIRST and THEN are important. First is always the one on the left: this needs to be well practiced in order to read. You could practice this on other adequate occasions, too.
You could keep using lots of association (words, rhythm and images) to help the child remember things. Offer many challenges of a varied type such as trying to recall things during a day, using clear words, simple instructions at all times, remembering shopping lists or tasks to be done.
, Mnemonics – Using clever words, rhymes, and songs (mnemonic devices) to help children remember lists of items or the order of steps in a problem will be extremely helpful for students with memory problems. Using rhymes is another great way to work on the auditory memory. Rhymes are easier to remember than stories for some children, and they allow the brain muscles to build and stretch. Start with short rhymes and make them fun to repeat. Eventually go to longer and longer rhymes. You can then have the child make up rhymes themselves. Also, don’t forget about songs. Songs are a great auditory tool that you can use to help with a child’s memory.
Hands-on learning – Once a skill or concept has been memorized, teachers can then help apply that knowledge to the real world by doing hands-on lessons. Special needs children benefit a lot from hands on learning because it is more real than imaginary. For spelling or vocabulary, students can look for words in a story, or in pictures hanging in the classroom or even at home, like a word wall. The majority of activities that you can do to increase skills in young children involve telling stories. Tell a story that they haven’t heard before. In the beginning, make sure it is a short story. Then, half way through the story, ask them to retell the story back to you. If you have them, you can use puppets as a tool, or you can ask them to draw the story once you’re done reading it together.

Every night I started giving Anandita a list of groceries that I needed to order the next morning from our local provision shop. I first started with 3 items-rice, aata and butter. I asked her to remind me the next morning which she did easily. Soon the list got longer. And soon I started including the brands as well.(for examples-"kolam' rice-1 kilo,Amul butter, whole wheat aata).In this process she also learnt and remembered where these items were kept at home-bananas in the fruit basket, butter in the chiller section of the refrigerator and so on.
While cleaning up her room with her, I would tell her” All the balls in the box and the dolls on the shelf, oh no-the dolls on the table". A bit later I would ask her,"Anandita, what did I say what is our rule? Where do the dolls go?”
When playing with your child, one can do copying games, accompanied with words, such as: hands up, clap and down. Take turns: you are the leader than your child can be the leader. Believe me kids really enjoy this game and also enjoy being the leader.
One could also play echoing of various rhythms beaten by a stick: ta-ta-ti-ti-ta or clapping or playing with finger cymbals. Learning music also would help. Learning songs and trying to explaining the text also helps a lot.
Memorizing dance steps or any kind of movements by listening to music and
hearing simple instruction: to move forward, backward, to the right etc is something kids will enjoy a lot. Playing a game where the action is led by voice, such as: lift up the
yellow bean bag when the music stops. Lift up the yellow and the blue bean bags when the music stops....Or crouch down when you hear "NOW"
“Please give me the red pencil, then pick up the blue eraser and put it in the green box.” The key is to break down tasks and instructions into smaller components. It’s also important to prompt kids with regular reminders of what they need to do next to finish a task. Children should be encouraged to ask questions when they have lost their way. And kids may benefit from repeating the heard information back. They may also benefit from special training in the use of memory aids—like note-taking.
IF one is looking for new ideas here are links to few more sources:
Cognitive enhancement with programs such as PACE, or Brainware Safari
free games: