working-memory-reading-comprehension“An important important hypothesis derived from our perspective is that those individuals with weaker attention-control abilities will more often succumb to interfering thoughts than will those with stronger control abilities…”

“My mind tended to wander a lot — usually in order to entertain myself. I’d be off in another world and thinking about other stuff…” – serial entrepreneur Glenn Bailey

It can be mystifying – someone can read a page aloud smoothly, but then tell you that they can’t comprehend what they’ve read…or that they need to re-read it several times to themselves before they actually ‘get’ it.What’s going on?

For young children, it may be their lower working memories* (working memory expands as you get older) – have a hard time keeping information, phonics rules, and the storyline in mind as they reading. A little older and working memory becomes a more common reason why stories and reading passages aren’t understood. As texts get more complex, the role of vocabulary  and prior knowledge also takes a more prominent role.

But research now shows that to properly understand reading and reading challenges, it’s not only reading building blocks that are important, but also working memory.

Recent studies have found that individual differences in working memory (trouble keeping information ‘in mind’ for short periods of time) have a close correlation with mind wandering. The lower the working memory, the higher the tendency to mind wander.

This should not be surprising, but still it’s often forgotten with all the emphasis on language and phonological aspects of decoding. Mind wandering can be associated with positive things like creative thinking and visualization  – but it also accounts ‘time off task’ and lower reading comprehension performance on tests, for instance.

Most of the latest research on working memory, mind wandering, and reading comprehension is on the general population (i.e. non-dyslexics) – looking at individual differences, however dyslexic people as a group seem to have lower working memories and higher rates of mind wandering, so it’s probably some of these discoveries will hold true for our larger community.

What’s the Take-Home Point?  To foster better reading comprehension with reading choose text with higher interest (not a shock) and stronger motivation. The data show that interest can trump a lot of mind wandering…

  • Working memory is a type of short-term memory that is used to keep information ‘in mind’ – it’s sort of like the RAM on a computer. If you’re doing too much at once – like trying to listen to  how to do an algebra procedure, while writing down a problem, and retrieving other math rules, it’s too much that your working memory can take in.

For deeper dive Premium members  ($5 per month) – here are some practical tips for helping Reading Comprehension: