Working Memory & Metacognitive Skills

Beth Lawrence, MS, CCC-SLP

A significant component of working memory treatment is what is called, metacognitive training.  Students (with learning difficulties) do not naturally bring to the learning process a sense of self-awareness, reflection, and task analysis that fosters an appreciation of what is needed to be successful within different academic contexts.  (Wong, 1994; Wong, Wong, & Bienkinsop, 1989).  According to Alvo, 1990, "Metacognition is the process of planning, assessing and monitoring one's own thinking; the pinnacle of mental functioning."   In other words, being able to understand our brains and the processes that are required to accomplish varying tasks, as well as understanding what strategies should be employed for a variety of tasks.

"Metacognition is the process of planning, assessing and monitoring one's own thinking; the pinnacle of mental functioning."

Most of us perform a variety of tasks without ever being aware of what our brains are doing to successfully accomplish the tasks.  Using the example from last week, if we have to repeat, "3-7-9-4," most of us have no trouble repeating the sequence.  Then, if we are asked to rank order the numbers from least to greatest, we might take a few seconds, look up, perhaps, then say, "3-4-7-9."   There is actually quite a bit going on inside our minds as we attempt this later task, but we simply code-switch and do it naturally.

If this type of code-switching does not happen automatically, the results can have an enormous impact on one's ability to listen to lectures, comprehend what is read, follow longer directions, take notes, write complex sentences and organized paragraphs to name a few.  Many of our students approach these types of tasks in the same way they approach a short-term memory task, which is impossible to do successfully.  Generally speaking, our brains can only hold between 5 and 9 bits of information in short-term memory.  Unless one actively engages with the information, dumping the unnecessary bits, actively analyzing and storing the important bits in working memory, the cogwheels get "clogged". 

We have to approach these types of tasks using a different set of strategies.  But because our students do not do this automatically, they often do not realize there are a whole set of strategies to employ.  In our next blog, we are excited to share some of these strategies with you!


Written Language - Finding a Program that Works

Deena Seifert, MS, CCC-SLP

In graduate school (more than a few years ago), written language was not addressed in my courses. When I began in a group private practice, guess what my first student needed? You guessed it - help with written language.

My student was an athletic 8th grader who had just been identified as dyslexic. He had managed to go unidentified because he had fairly good memory skills. He finally hit a brick wall and couldn't rely on memorizing any longer. In our first session I asked him to write a paragraph for me so I could get a sample of his work. This big athletic guy started to tear up. He was anxious and frustrated with even putting one sentence on paper. As a matter of fact, the first 3 sessions I put a box of tissues on our work table and he used them. A year later the same student was writing beautiful research papers and felt such an accomplishment. How did we do it? (I say "we" because you really have to partner with your student in the writing process.)

Very quickly I began reading everything I could find on written language and looking for a program I could adapt to my practice. I happened upon a great writing program called Teaching Competence in Written Language by Dana Phelps-Terasaki & Trisha Phelps-Gunn. It's a systematic writing program that takes the student through 4 phases: developing ideas, independently writing and expanding sentences, paragraph writing by purpose, and theme writing. When I begin working with a new student, I evaluate their writing skills so I know where we need to begin in the program. I've modified how I use the program, adding my own writing lessons and drawing from other sources through the years. However, it's a great program and a good starting point if you are looking for a writing program.

Teaching Competence in Written Language by Dana Phelps-Teraski & Trish Phelps-Gunn

This program comes with a workbook, but I've adapted the lessons for computer. I've added my own lessons, as well, for when students need further practice in certain areas, such as complex sentence writing. For students who have keyboarding skills, I've put all my lessons on computer and iPad. Why not write on paper, you ask? Middle school and high school students are writing the majority of their papers on computer and even turning papers in online to their teachers. The laptop or computer gives the student more freedom in rearranging sentences. Using the word processor's editing skills to fix spelling, find synonyms, and use the thesaurus is a helpful lesson on new strategies for struggling writers. In addition, it's less frustrating to edit your paper on computer rather than having someone mark up your handwritten paper. Finally, and maybe more importantly, it helps boost a child's self-esteem to produce written work they've edited themselves and looks professional.

Even though we've come along way since I was in graduate school, parents, speech-language pathologists and teachers are constantly evaluating their students' needs and searching for ways to inspire them to improve their writing skills. In the next written language blog, I will talk about ways to improve a students' sentence structure.

Why Might It Be Difficult to Listen to Directions and Take Notes?

Beth Lawrence, MS, CCC-SLP

When our students have a difficult time with reading comprehension,  following directions, listening in class, and/or engaging in conversation, we assess a wide variety of skills, one of which is called Working Memory.  There is a difference between short-term memory, long-term memory and working memory.  An example of a short-term memory task would be to quickly repeat, for example, 3-7-9-4.  Long-term memory is when information is deemed important and is stored (hopefully in an organized manner) for long-term use to be recalled at a later time.  Working memory is that memory which requires us to actively engage with the information. Rather than simply "spitting out" 3-7-9-4, we ask our brains to "do something" with what we just heard.  For example, repeat the numbers in reverse, or say them in order from least to greatest.

When working memory is an area of weakness, it can impact such a wide variety of tasks!  Listening to a story or a lecture in class requires solid working memory skills.  One must be able to take in new information, assess whether it is pertinent to prior information, determine the relationship, and store the information in an organized manner, possibly using note-taking skills.  All of this while listening to new information!  During the writing process, many of our students will begin writing a sentence, and, due to weak working memory, forget where they were headed prior to finishing the sentence.  Deena and I look forward to sharing some strategies that we use to help students who have difficulty with working memory.

Technology Solutions for Struggling Readers

"My child doesn't like to read. Is there technology out there to help my child when they have to read for school?"

Deena Seifert, MS, CCC-SLP

I hear this question more times than I can count in my private practice. Some students prefer to read rather than listen to audiobooks. Some like to be read to while they follow along in their book. Still others are auditory learners and prefer only to hear the passages. The first step is to determine which of these scenarios applies to your student or child.


You have several options if the student prefers to hear with or without following along in the book. is an initiative from Benetech, a non-profit company, that feels people with print disabilities "deserve to enjoy reading as much as other readers." This on-line library of digital books allows people with print disabilities to access copyrighted materials. Many publishers donate their print material to this great organization, as well. This service is free for U.S. students with a print disability. You can apply for a school or an individual membership and have a qualified professional (educational consultant, psychologist, speech-language pathologist) sign off on the application. It works with a computer or a tablet. Read2Go is the Apple app and Go Read! is the android app. The Text-to-Speech feature is well done.  Finally, the Overdrive app allows you to "borrow" books from your local library  for free.  A great way to read e-books without the extra cost.

Book Readers

Kindle Paperwhite

There are many book readers on the market: Kindle, Nook, and iPad to name a few. The only dedicated reader with Text-to-Speech is the Kindle (with the exception of the new Kindle Paperwhite which does not have Text-to-Speech). You can choose a male or female voice, slow, medium or fast rate.

While these are great tools, if a student is having trouble understanding what is being read please consult a speech-language pathologist that uses strategies like Lindamood Bell's Visualizing & Verbalizing Program to help him/her make movies in his/her head to recall details, and make inferences and predictions.

When to Seek Help for Speech Sound Errors

Deena Seifert, MS, CCC-SLP

"People say they can't understand my child."  We hear this a lot in our speech-language practices. Parents want to know when they should seek help for their child's speech. Our answer is, "It depends."

Usually by the age of three a child has their p, b, m, t, d and n sounds, but other sounds take longer to master. By the middle of kindergarten, a child should have all of his/her speech sounds. Some sounds take longer to come in. The r, s, l, and th sounds usually are the last to be corrected. If your child is not understood by strangers at the age of three 75% of the time, its' a good idea to consult with a speech-language pathologist.

Common errors are substituting a /w/ for the /r/ sound, such as "won" for the word "run" or "broder" for "brother." Sometimes children omit or leave out sounds such as "how" for "house." Other times they distort sounds in words so that the word doesn't sound quite right, like "pusgetti" for spaghetti.

My child's speech sounds so cute!

It sounds cute to parents when their children are preschoolers, but by the time they enter kindergarten their speech sounds should be closer to adult speech.  I remember when my children no longer sounded like toddlers; I was sad, but it's necessary for our children's speech to grow with them.

If teachers, family and friends are noticing a problem with your child's speech errors and your child is mid-year in kindergarten or older, it's time to seek advice from a professional. A speech-language pathologist can evaluate your child and determine what kind of errors are being made, whether or not they are age-appropriate, and if you should seek treatment.

How do I find a speech-language pathologist?
You can contact the American-Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) at and locate a certified speech-language pathologist (SLP) near you or contact your child's school for a speech evaluation.

Why Seek Help?
Articulation disorders (speech sound disorders) can impact a child's spelling and reading skills. An articulation disorder can also impact a child's social life, because unfortunately peers can be less than kind to a child who "sounds funny." Whatever the motivation, it's wise to address this earlier rather than later. Early intervention is the key, because the prognosis for remediation is better for children who get help earlier.

Suggestions for Curricular Vocabulary Challenges

Beth Lawrence, MS, CCC-SLP

Deena shared some great techniques last week regarding vocabulary cards, which works for lots of students. I would like to share with you how we help our students with curricular vocabulary that have linguistically complex definitions. I have offered workshops in the Baltimore area for tutors and parents who want to help their students more effectively "anchor" curricular definitions. We're so excited to have this opportunity to share on a broader basis!

So many of our middle school clients approach studying in this manner: pull out the index cards, “memorize” the definitions on the back, play a matching game or two with the index cards, then feel they are ready to take the big test. If the teacher “re-frames” the definition on the test, students with learning-disabilities often do not see that the "test" definition is equivalent to the one they memorized, it reads like a foreign language. We see this over and over in our practices. Big effort expended, little dividend to show for it. The frustration mounts…

Students with language-based learning disabilities often have difficulty with the grammar of the language, and/or with linguistic flexibility. Students tend to focus in on “fragments” of definitions, often missing the overarching meaning (Scott and Nagy 1997) Or, they master the “gestalt” of the concept but fail to recognize the components of the definition if they are not presented in the exact terms they had committed to memory. During our speech-language sessions, it is not our job to ensure the student is “ready” for the test, but we use the student’s scholastic materials to teach vital strategies so that they can overcome this. We will walk you through one of our techniques using a recent example.

A 5th grade boy (we will call him John) came to me with a dozen or so geography terms he had to memorize. I will use “Climate” to show the process I used with him. He had been asked to memorize the definition, "A pattern of weather in a particular location over a specified amount of time".

First, we discussed his background knowledge of the concept of climate. Like many students with whom Deena and I work, he was a bright boy who had absorbed the concept during class after discussions, watching film and engaging in class activities. Under the word CLIMATE, the teacher had asked the students to draw a quick picture of something that would trigger the idea of climate. He had drawn a sun. (Aside: I have seen this improvement in recent years--teachers are really getting the idea that visuals can help anchor information!) I take a slightly different approach, however. Because it is often difficult to draw one “quickie” picture that is meant to capture all aspects of the definition, I prefer to focus our artistic attention to the phrases within the definition, and address the word in a different way.

Secondly, on the flip side of the index card, I divided the definition into segments that represent concepts, like this:

Segment the Definition Into Phrases

The Third step is to add a visual representation of each phrase that was bracketed, like this:

Climate Definition First Two Segments

This process went something like this. While I was drawing the shapes, I asked John to stop me when I had actually made a “pattern”. He stopped me the second I completed my last square. He understood the concept of “pattern”. John transferred the picture concept to his index card under the phrase “A pattern” and I asked him, “But are we talking about a pattern of shapes?” “No, a pattern of weather!” “OK, so we should draw something similar, but use weather pictures instead of shapes.” He drew a raincloud, sun and snow, repeated and knew he was done.

I repeated the process for "in a particular location"

This shows the completed card:

Completed Curricular Vocabulary Card

As I was drawing the "timeline" to represent the final concept, I asked him to direct me, and tell me when I was finished/how many years were passing. The term "specified" means someone is in charge of stating how long that time period is (weather experts). I wanted him to understand that, so I stopped the timeline when he told me to.

Once the index card was complete, the "language portion" of the program began. The next step was to ensure that John understood that the picture concept that we had drawn for each component could be explained using a variety of language:

“pattern of weather” could be:

weather that repeats

repeating weather

cycle of weather

prevailing weather conditions (slightly different meaning, but could be substituted on a test)

“in a particular location” could be:

in a specific place

in a specific location

in a place

in a region

in an area


John needed to see that the definition for Climate could be:

“Over a long period of time, when weather repeats in a region”


“When there is a prevailing weather condition in a certain place on the globe”

Teaching linguistic flexibility is a necessity for our students. We have experienced great success with our students using this technique! If I ask my students (and their parents) nicely, I am sure we could upload several other examples of these curricular cards if the interest is out there!

Hope that helps,


Helping Struggling Writers

Helping Struggling Writers

Good writing is clear thinking made visible. - Bill Wheeler


Deena Seifert, MS, CCC-SLP

Middle School and high school students are writing 2-5 papers a week. It's a lot of pressure for the average student, so how do you help the struggling writer? One way is to help them get organized.

You can use low tech writing aids using paper and pen, fill-in-the-blank organizers or note cards. What about inspiring your child with an APP? Inspiration Software is a favorite of mine and my students. It's available in Windows, Mac and iPad formats.

The first step in writing is brainstorming or rapidly writing your thoughts about the subject as they enter your mind. If you don't have an app, a low tech way is to have your student say aloud all the things they think about the subject they want to write about while you or your student/child records the thoughts on a clean sheet of paper. For a high tech solution, Inspiration has a feature called Rapid Fire where you can type in all your ideas about a subject. This can be done easily in the diagram format.

Visual Organization
Many struggling writers are strong visual learners, so being able to organize your thoughts in colors, shapes, and special fonts is not only appealing, but necessary to organize details, categories, ideas. A low tech method is to highlight, color-code and/or link the ideas. You can also put the information on index cards. Going high tech? Inspiration and another app called Popplet, can help you achieve this with a tough of a button or tap on the screen.

Example of Inspiration diagram

The next step is to organize the information by arranging the index cards in order, numbering the items on paper, or moving the diagram information around the computer or tablet screen. This is a crucial step to keep the writer on task and lessen the frustration. Many students who experience difficulties in writing need help outlining. Inspiration Software allows students to turn their diagram into an outline with the click of a button. Software programs such as Pages and Microsoft Word make this an easier task, as well, with their formating helps.

Writing, Plain and Simple

Many young writers want to edit their work as they write, but this breaks the flow of the writing. Encourage the student to write first and edit later. Simple sentences can be combined to make compound or complex sentences. The diagram, index cards or paper will have the vocabulary terms pertinent to the paper which cuts down on trying to retrieve the words needed for the essay or research paper. Let the writing flow uninterrupted, then take a break before editing.

Finally, it's time to edit the writing. First run-thru: sometimes the best way to do this is to have the student read each sentence aloud and find their own mistakes. Hearing themselves say the sentence can be a great editing strategy. Second run-thru: have an adult read the paper with them and call attention to sentences that need more finesse. The goal is to help them become more independent, so don't do the editing for them. Guide them in fixing their mistakes.

Finally, if your child is experiencing difficulties in written expression, see a certified speech-language pathologist who actively works on writing strategies with their students. There may be underlying oral expression and grammar difficulties that need to be addressed to improve the writing strategies. Without help, these students will not progress to being successful, independent writers on their own.

Vocabulary for Visual Learners – Help! For Parents

Deena Seifert, MS, CCC-SLP

Many of the students that Beth and I work with in our speech-language private practices have difficulty learning and memorizing their vocabulary words. . I’m going to share a picture method that helps visual learners with new vocabulary terms.

Night after night parents are struggling with how best to help their child learn the required vocabulary words. It leads to frustration for not only students, but parents, too. Here is a method you might try to make life a little easier with vocabulary:

Use a software program

There are many great software programs out there to help students store and learn vocabulary terms. One I like to use is It allows the student to post vocabulary from multiple subjects, learn the terms, take tests and play games with them. Words can be entered on the internet site and practiced on computer, on phones, iPods or on vocabulary cards you print out. The words stay on the website until you remove them which is great for students who lose cards they might need for midterms or finals. Many teachers use this program, too, and send students their lists. A student can practice their terms on their iPod or phone easily without having to carry around cards.

Pictures on the Cards

After handwriting or printing out vocabulary cards from a software program, now the real work begins. Have your child make two piles – one for words then know and one for words they don’t know. With the pile of terms they are not familiar with, go through each card and make a picture association that helps them recall the definition. Ask your child - What does it make you think of?

Here’s an example:

Front of card Back of card

Now practice the vocabulary cards and associate the pictures with the terms to solidify the meaning.

Why this works…

Students will associate the term they had trouble memorizing or learning with the picture. When they are being tested, looking at the word on the test will cause them to see the picture in their mind and remember what the word means.


You might want to highlight the root word on the front of the card or break the vocabulary word into syllables. Some students use the “sounds like” method when trying to recall a definition for a word.

This is a great method for students who tend to be more visual learners as opposed to auditory learners. In other words they learn better by seeing rather than hearing. Use whatever works for your child. Tap into experiences from your life and theirs. Make sure your child does this with you, because if you do all the work you will remember the term, but they won’t. Vocabulary learning can be a partnership between you and your child until they are able to do it independently. Who knows, you may enjoy happier evenings working on vocabulary.