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Working Memory’s Impact on Writing Skills

Updated: 1 day ago

A Group of Students Writing and Studying

A concerned mother reached out to me regarding her son’s evaluation results and his writing skills. Her bright son, *Max, has strong verbal comprehension, visual-spatial, and fluid reasoning skills. However, his working memory and processing speed skills are in the very low range. 

"My 14-year-old son has just been assessed. There have been concerns about him on and off for years. We brought him to an educational psychologist when he was 11 as his written work is poor and he had found it difficult to learn to read. He was found to have weak spelling but his overall literacy was above the cut-off for dyslexia. I still believed that he was dyslexic as he is still having difficulty with written work and poor organization. I’d also been noticing that while he can follow a conversation when focused on it, it always takes a while for him to understand you when you initially speak to him or ask him a question. Anyhow, we went to a different psychologist last month and a more thorough assessment was done. The problem seems to be processing speed and poor working memory."


Max possesses strong intellectual potential, which isn’t demonstrated in his writing assignments. My article, The Domino Dilemma, explains how weak working memory skills impact overall learning. Compensating for weak foundational skills taxes students’ working memory capacity. The extra working memory capacity or “power” they are using to fill in for areas of difficulty, decreases students’ ability to process new information. 

Writing tasks can easily overload students due to the number of skills required. The ability to generate ideas, sequence and organize ideas, use proper grammar and spelling, as well as, handwriting skills create strong writers. Students who have difficulty in one or more of these areas are challenged when asked to write.

Max’s working memory and processing speed are holding him back from demonstrating his potential. He is able to think much faster than he can write. To help accommodate Max’s areas of weakness, he needs extra time to both plan and write his ideas. If handwriting is a weakness, strong typing skills and the use of a computer for all tasks is recommended.

Break down writing task:

Breaking writing into parts allows Max to focus on one part of the writing process at a time. Starting the writing process only focusing on idea generation allows Max to use his strengths in verbal comprehension and reasoning to decide what he wants to say. Once he has his ideas down, then he can organize them into the sequence he wants to present them. Finally, when the ideas are sequenced Max is ready to start writing his paper. It is helpful to print out the outline to use while writing, typing, or dictating the paper. 

Step One: Analyze the writing assignment

  1. When presented with an assignment, review all components to understand the whole concept (picture) to help Max make meaningful connections to the material.

  2. Teach Max to stop and read directions carefully prior to starting a task.

  3. Encourage Max to ask questions if he doesn’t understand what he needs to do.

  4. Discuss topic options that match the writing assignment

Step Two: Brainstorm and organize ideas

  1. Teach Max strategies that help him organize information in meaningful ways.

  2. First, brainstorm ideas and create an idea map.

  3. Review the ideas and pick the topics to include in the paper.

  4. Sequencing the ideas in the order they should be presented in the paper.

  5. Add details to any ideas that need more information.

  6. Create an outline to follow for the paper so it is fully organized before he starts writing.

  7. Use a program like Mindomo to organize his ideas for writing assignments

  8. Teach the use of time management tools to allow Max to understand that he has control over the process.

Step Three: Write!

  1. Use the outline generated in Step 2 to begin writing.

  2. Check off each idea on the outline as it is incorporated into the essay.

  3. Discourage any additional ideas that are not included in the outline.

  4. Many students who have strong verbal skills can utilize dictation software for writing once their ideas are organized in an outline.

  5. Once a first draft is created take a break.

  6. Edit the paper.

If you would like to read how we implement this strategy at the K&M Center, read my article, Writing Workshops for Students with High Verbal Skills and Slow Processing Speed.

Additional suggestions for students with weak memory skills can be found in my article, How to Help a Gifted Student who has Average Processing Speed and Working Memory Skills.

*Max is not the real name of the student.

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