Summer Blog Series Post #2: The Role of Memory in Reading Comprehension

Reading comprehension is one of the most complex academic skills. Skilled readers construct meaning by synchronizing a bottom-up approach to reading (decoding words fluently and accurately) with a top-down approach (using prior knowledge and experience during reading).

Neurodevelopmental factors:

Reading comprehension involves a variety of neurodevelopmental functions, including attention, memory, language, and higher order cognition. In this post, we’re going to focus on the role of memory.


While reading, we must hold important information and concepts in our minds. We must process words, sentences and paragraphs together in order to gain full meaning of what we’re reading. In addition, we must call up relevant information we already know. Memory is essential in helping us comprehend as we read, make associations between prior knowledge and new information, and remember that same information at a later time, such as during a test.

Here are some possible signs that a student is succeeding with the memory demands of reading:

The student …

  • Is able to pick out main ideas
  • Paraphrases/summarizes well
  • Holds onto the beginning of a story while reading the end
  • Keeps in mind the plot of a story while working on a single part of a paragraph
  • Easily learns new vocabulary words and definitions

Here are some possible signs that a student is struggling with the memory demands of reading:

The student …

  • Feels overwhelmed by the number of ideas presented
  • Retains only fragments of what was read
  • Can restate the gist of ideas, concepts, or directions, but not the details
  • Loses the meaning of a passage when looking up the definition of an unknown word

Strategies to help students struggling in this area:

  • Have students read in pairs, alternating between passages and then switching parts to re-read the text.
  • Have students take quick notes that describe the main idea of what they are reading. For example, have students stop to summarize what they’ve read after each paragraph. This approach will help ensure that students are recording important information in their minds.
  • Stress self-monitoring of comprehension while reading, by encouraging students to ask themselves: “Is this passage about what I thought it was going to be about?” “Have I linked what I just read to the parts I read earlier?,” etc.
  • Teach students how to create useful notes that reinforce understanding and help to trigger information recall at a later time. For example, teach students how to create concept maps based on their reading, as one technique for consolidating and organizing what they’ve read. Have students save their maps, and use them as study tools for upcoming tests.

We’d love to hear what strategies you’ve used to help students struggling with the memory demands of reading.  Leave a comment below with your ideas!

Related links:

Learn more about our summer series

  1. More information and strategies about the role of memory in reading comprehension (See “Tips to Help” links for more strategies!)
  2. General information about the neurodevelopmental demands of reading
  3. Research on active working memory and reading
  4. Reading resources on the web

10 thoughts on “Summer Blog Series Post #2: The Role of Memory in Reading Comprehension

  1. My HS daughter began “hitting the wall” in MS when the amount and complexity of school work increased to a level that became overwhelming. We’ve since learned that she has some working memory difficulties and these are indeed affecting her comprehension.

    She has begun using active reading strategies that on the surface appear to be time consuming, but in the long run help her to be more efficient. These include:
    1. Prior to reading text books, review all headings, captions, pictures, diagrams etc.
    2. Read questions at the end of chapter to get an idea of the content she should be focusing on.
    3. When reading the material, highlight key information and definitions.
    4. Outline chapter using two column note system.

    Since using these techniques, she has gone from a B/C student in college prep and honors classes to an A/B student. It takes a lot of time, but at least now, her time investment is paying off.

    • Hi Michelle,

      I really connected to what you wrote about your daughter. It sounds a lot like me back when I was in high school. I used to use a lot of time consuming note-taking techniques to help understand reading assignments, but I always felt it paid off in the end as I understood the material better. By just reading, I had a lot of trouble restating the content of what I just read, even though I could read quite well.

      Can you explain a little about what “working memory difficulties” are, how you found out about them, and what the abbreviation “MS” is in your first sentence?



  2. My students love to “tweet.” I’ve found that effective for students struggling with memory. They “tweet” on index cards as they read and as we discuss the story.

  3. Thank you very much for your Summer series. It is interesting and is gving me some exciting new ideas to use when school starts. Susie

  4. I find the topic of memory relevant not only to reading, but also to social conversations and lectures. Just as I may have trouble holding information from the beginning of a paragraph in my working memory until the end, creating a problem in reading comprehension, this may also occur in coversations.

    What would happen if I have difficulty successfully following the thread of a conversation?

    I may stop paying attention, interrupt, or respond inappropriately. These types of issues can all lead to social difficulties.

    I think teachers should also observe the social interactions of their students in class or during breaks and being aware of the issue of memory may useful in helping these students.

    Are there any suggestions how one could help a student with a memory difficulty socially?

  5. Oren, leaving a message on Twitter is called tweeting. These messages are very brief. Perfect for taking notes on notecards.

  6. Hello,
    I have been integrating what I have learned from All Kindsof Minds with Dr. Leaf’s Neuroscience research – “The Switch On Your Brain” 5-STEP Learning Process” The information comes in both DVD and booklet format. By forming the “Metacogs” during reading sessions, the student can maintain their attention span while not becoming quickly tired. Getting a global view of what is going to be read (reading headings, pictures and overall organization of a chapter or section to be read) before reading helps by engaging both sides of the brain. She states that we make two identical memories (one on each hemisphere of the brain). We engage both sides of the brain by constantly learning detail to big picture and big picture to detail. I have personally found this extremely helpful in understanding the information read as well as maintaining my attention span. Her system is meant to be used for ALL learning styles and improves the weaknesses of a child by enganging the student to focus by working with their strengths. Synthesizing the information by All Kinds of Minds along with Dr. Leaf’s research has really paid off for me. I strongly recommend this!

  7. Loved reading your blog and everyone’s comments. One thing I love to do when reading aloud with my 8- and 9- year olds (you can use this strategy with any age) is to stop frequently and ask them to turn to someone closeby (can be one, two or even more kids) and to share what they are thinking/what they think will happen. They love to discuss what’s happening in the story and there’s such a buzz! As the children know I do this often throughout the story, they know they have to listen well. It also gets the quiet kids more engaged in discussion if they are shy of speaking in front of the whole class. Have fun!

  8. Pingback: Reading | First Steps Today

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