Sunday / March 3

Strong visual working memory can help students work around their dyslexia

Contributed by Tracy Alloway

Dyslexia doesn’t have to hold you back. In our research, we found that adults with dyslexia used their strengths in visual working memory to focus their attention.

Dyslexia is a prevalent learning disability characterized by difficulties in reading and spelling, despite average levels of intelligence. They also show weakness in phonological awareness, verbal working memory, and processing speed. Younger students with Dyslexia tend to struggle with sounds, more than the meaning of words. This can explain why students with dyslexia are often described as bright and articulate, yet their written work shows little evidence of this.

There is a shift in the deficits driving reading difficulties from childhood to adulthood. While children with dyslexia find it hard to process the sounds of the word, adult with dyslexia struggled more with integrating the sounds with the meanings of the words.

There is great heterogeneity in the adult dyslexic profile. In some cases, there can be a working memory deficit, while in other dyslexic adults may not even show any evidence of working memory deficits. For example, in my research I compared working memory skills of college students with reading difficulties and those normal reading skills.

These are some of the findings:

  • Adults with dyslexia did not exhibit poor verbal working memory skills.

It is possible that these adults did not demonstrate any working memory deficits because they had developed their phonological skills well enough to not require working memory. Furthermore, as this was a sample of college students, it may be that since they were successful enough to attend college, they had developed coping mechanisms that did not put a burden on their working memory.

  • Adults with dyslexia performed better in visuo-spatial working memory than verbal working memory.

The most interesting finding was that the adults with dyslexia used their strengths in visual working memory to maintain attention to a task. This pattern can inform how we provide appropriate support for those who struggle with reading, even at the tertiary level. Remediation can be tailored to a strengths-based model to include visual supports, such as supplementary written material and information displayed in a visually interesting manner (i.e., images or graphs).

Classroom strategies to support working memory in the classroom for the student with dyslexia can be found in my book Understanding Working Memory (Sage Publications, 2014).

For more on why understanding working memory is important when teaching students with special needs watch this short video below.



Tracy Packiam Alloway is a professor of Psychology at the University of North Florida. Formerly, she was the Director of the Center for Memory and Learning in the Lifespan in the UK. She is an expert on working memory and education, and has published over 75 journal articles and books on this topic. She developed the internationally recognized Alloway Working Memory Assessment (Pearson Assessment, translated into 20 languages). She writes a blog for Psychology Today and Huffington Post. She has also provided advice to Fortune 500 companies, like Prudential, as well as the World Bank and BBC. She is the author of Understanding Working MemoryFind out more about about Tracy at


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