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Does your child seem to have memory problems when it comes to learning letter names and sounds?

Updated: Dec 15, 2021

Rote memory is memorizing random facts that may seem boring and uninteresting. The names of numbers and letters have to be memorized by rote. Days of the week and months of the year, phone numbers, dates in history and math facts…. All theses and more are memorized by rote memory and generally dyslexic students are NOT good at rote memory. This is one of the main problems with dyslexia. The child has to be told over and over which letter or number it is. All the other children know their letters and numbers, but the dyslexic child is still not remembering. The teacher and parents drill the child with flashcards, but they just don’t seem to be catching on. This can also explain why the dyslexic child writes his or her letters and numbers backwards. It is a myth that they see the letters backwards. There is nothing different about the eyesight of a dyslexic person. They may or may not need glasses just the same as any other child. The problem is that they do not remember which way it goes.

It isn’t that a dyslexic person has a bad memory in general. They remember perfectly well the great time they had at the birthday party last week, what they ate for dinner, all about the movie they watched, how to do skills they’ve learned… All kinds of things. But it’s just the boring rote memory things that they do not remember. I can relate because numbers just don’t stick in my head. I don’t know how much it cost even though I just bought it and compared the price of the 2 brands while I was at the store only a half hour ago. As soon as I had determined that brand B was cheaper and put it into my basket, I forgot what the price was. It doesn’t seem important enough to use up space in my brain.

This is one of the reasons that dyslexia is so surprising. It is unexpected. The parents know that the child is intelligent and can remember all kinds of things with clarity, but they cannot seem to remember the names of letters and numbers. They do not know which is left and right. Teachers and parents work and work with the child but the next day the information seems to be gone. It is as if they had not ever been taught these things.

In our home this was certainly a problem. Over and over I sent my 6 year old to the number chart hanging on the wall to figure out for herself which number it was because she could say the numbers in order but did not remember what they looked like. She even had a dolly what she had named but kept forgetting the name! It was wearing a blue dress, so it was always called “blue baby”.

One of the things that can help children to remember letters and sounds is to use explicit, multisensory instruction. This can include drawing letters in sand and shaving cream which is fun but isn’t really what reading specialist are talking about when they say multisensory instruction. What we are really referring to is making sure the child sees what the letter looks like, hears the sound of that letter as he says it, and feels how his mouth is forming that letter all at once. It is even better if they are writing the letter (in cursive)as well. It is more likely that the memory will stick when the whole brain is working to remember multiple things about that letter – the sound, the look, and the feel. This is referred to as visual, auditory, kinesthetic, tactile (VAKT) instruction.

Another thing that can help is if you can find something that will attach significance to the thing you want them to remember. This can be difficult. One summer our family went on vacation and stayed at Super 8 motels. I made a big deal about the number 8 during the whole trip but when we returned home, I realized that it hadn’t worked. She still didn’t remember which one was the 8.

One thing we did in our home, which I now believe was beneficial, was to memorize many scriptures over the years. I believe that this is important because it isn’t just random and rote, but the references are an example of rote memory. I believe that this has exercised and strengthened her memory muscles through the years. It is interesting that now, as a young adult, my daughter does not seem to have a problem with rote memory anymore. She is the one who remembers all the dates in our house. Somehow, they have significance attached and so she remembers them. Often, in our home when we are trying to remember when something happened she will say “That happened when we had a [certain foster child], and that year there was that big flood -so it was 2013”. We are constantly amazed at how she remembers so much stuff. Recently she was trying to memorize her new phone number. She looked up the last four digits and found that it was the birth year of a famous reformer. Now she knows not only her phone number but also the random fact of the reformers birth year. Then she looked up the first three numbers and found that a famous pope had died that year. She has decided it is rather fun to be the nerdy person who knows lots of random facts to inject into the conversations with her friends. I am almost beginning to think that she could hold her own in a game of trivial pursuit!

Can you imagine how poor rote memory would effect spelling ability if spelling is taught in the usual way where you just memorize how to spell words?

Do you relate? Have you noticed this problem in your child or in yourself? Share an example if you feel comfortable. It helps when we know we are not the only ones experiencing these problems.

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