Language, Working Memory, and Processing Speed

language and working memoryWhat is working memory and how does it relate to language? Working memory refers to the brain’s process of storing information, then recalling the information later on to complete tasks. It’s a storage system used for tasks of daily living, including engaging in conversation, following instructions, and solving problems. For example, if you ask your child “what’s 2+2?”  Your child uses working memory to process the question, implement a previously learned skill to execute the calculation, then respond. Working memory is often confused with short term memory. Working memory involves the process of storing, organizing, and manipulating information for use later on. Short term memory involves temporary storage of information.

Working memory allows an individual to process language that is heard or seen. When a sound, word, or sentence is heard or seen, working memory holds this information in the brain. It then retrieves corresponding information from the long term memory and processes the new and old information together. If the information heard or seen is new, the working memory will store it to long term memory. Ideally, this new information can be used to make associations with information stored in the long term memory for use later on.

What is processing speed?

Processing speed is a basic cognitive skill. It refers to the amount of time that it takes for an individual to complete a mental task. Otherwise, it is defined as the speed by which an individual can understand and react to information that is heard or seen. If an individual’s processing speed is slow, they may experience greater difficulty processing information quickly and efficiently in order to think and learn.

Ways that we use working memory and processing speed:

We use working memory in a variety of ways to participate in activities of daily living. This includes, but is not limited to:

  • Responding in conversation
  • Following instructions
  • Verbal comprehension
  • Reading comprehension
  • Reading a new word
  • Paraphrasing information
  • Organizing activities of daily living
  • Problem solving (e.g. calculating a math problem in your head)

How does working memory and processing speed impact language?

Working memory and processing speed are crucial to language learning and use. Research disagrees on whether working memory and processing speed are the cause of language impairments. However, we do know that some (but not all) children with language impairments demonstrate poor working memory and processing speed. This tells us that we need to consider these skills when working with language impairments.

Working memory and processing speed are related to overall academic success. Working memory and processing speed correlate to comprehension and vocabulary. Specifically, vocabulary/word learning, working memory, and processing speed. Research reveals that children with good working memory and processing speed are better word learners.

Addressing working memory and processing speed related to language:

Research does not suggest that training working memory or processing speed will improve language. Instead, it suggests that we support working memory and processing speed using a strategy based approach. Firstly, we need to identify the working memory and processing speed demands of the environment and task. Then, we must provide supports to decrease demands for those children with language impairments. This might include: use of repetition, decreased instruction rate, task lists, detailed instructions, or use of visual supports.  Use of supports will help provide children with strategies to manage their working memory and processing speed within the context of the environment or task. Meanwhile, intervention should remain focused on their language needs.

Strategies used to improve memory when addressing language:

Children are capable of learning memory techniques at a young age. Some positive techniques to use in therapy and at home include:

  • Visualization – taking mental “pictures” of something heard or seen
  • Rehearsal – repeating something aloud or to oneself over and over
  • Chunking – remembering items, such as a phone number, in groups
  • Visual reminders – use Post-It notes, calendars, schedules, or alarms

Memory games can also support a child’s ability to practice the strategies that they have learned in therapy. For additional information on working memory, processing speed, and language, seek support from your child’s therapist. The most appropriate supports, strategies, and memory games to use with your child will be determined by your therapist. Implement strategies and practice daily across a variety of activities and environments.

If you have concerns about your child’s working memory or processing speed, call MOSAIC to set up an evaluation with one of our speech-language pathologists.

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  4. Speech Therapy Talk Services, LLC. (2020). Making Speech Therapy Meaningful. Working Memory.  Retrieved online on 12/22/2020.