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The Domino Dilemma

Updated: 23 hours ago

Some learning challenges impact students like falling dominos. Dominos are fun to play with and the joy of one small movement causing the whole line to fall is mesmerizing. However, the frustration of one small piece falling and impacting the whole before you are done building is relevant to student learning. Compensating for a learning difference can impact a student’s ability to develop that skill. Over time the compensation skills build while the student avoids learning the basic skills they need to become successful. The impact of the compensation begins the domino effect as students become cognitively overloaded.

Children compensating for weak foundational skills tax their working memory capacity. The extra working memory capacity or “power” they are using, in turn, limits their ability to process information. Working memory is where all the “work” of memory occurs. Think of working memory as your desktop. You take papers and materials from your files and place them on your workspace. There is a limited amount of space on the desktop, and there is a limited mount of space in working memory. This is where the domino dilemma begins. Student’s performance is affected as compensation skills reach their limit. Now, the weak skill begins to impact the compensation skill. This, in turn, will affect learning. Jim’s story is a good example of this process.

Jim’s Story:

Jim is struggling with reading and writing skills in the classroom. An educational assessment found that his Full Scale IQ is in the high average range. All of his WISC-V indexes were high average or above except his Working Memory Index, which was average. Jim’s academic skills were within age expectations. However, Jim’s working memory, reading fluency, and fine motor speed are all below his potential.

Jim’s working memory and reading/writing skills are impacting each other. He is able to use his working memory capacity to compensate for his weak reading and writing skills. However, over time this wears him out and stresses his working memory limits. Once he reaches his working memory limit Jim is unable to read and write to his potential.

Working memory is a temporary storage space where information can be manipulated and worked with.

The more information you need to hold to complete a task, the more working memory capacity required. Students who are struggling with basic skills use extra working memory to complete those tasks. To reduce working memory load basic skills need to be overlearned and automatic. Automatic skills require very little working memory power. Therefore, students who have not achieved the automaticity of basic skills are at a disadvantage.

Diagram showing how basic skills that are still developing require more work than automatic  skills
Basic skills that are still developing require more working memory capacity than automatic skills.

In Jim’s case, his fine motor skills are not yet automatic, causing him to use working memory capacity to send messages to his hand on how to hold the pencil and write letters. In addition, Jim’s decoding skills are not yet automatic, so he requires extra working memory to run the phonological loop in order to read.

His testing results show Jim’s academics are at grade level. However, Jim’s WISC-V IQ score, along with parent and teacher reports, indicate he is working hard and not reaching his potential. Remediating Jim’s fine motor and reading skills until they are automatic will increase his working memory capacity or “power”. As a result of this intervention, Jim will be able to hold and process more information and demonstrate his true potential.


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