On reading, memory and the new generation

I’ve been thinking lately about how much memory is involved in the process of reading, especially in reading a story. I’ve been discussing this with the students in my reading tutorials.  They noticed that we must remember what came before in the story, in order to understand the meaning of what’s happening now, and what will come next. They added, the end of the story usually makes sense only if you remember the beginning and what happened along the way. Students also noticed that they had to remember more basic things like the meanings of words, recognize sight words, and memorizing the alphabet, in order to read.

This paper, Memory and Reading, by psychologist Heli Numminen provides a very helpful look at the uses of memory in reading. Like my students noticed, the paper explains how working memory is essential for reading on a number of levels, and, more importantly, that there are reading comprehension difficulties that are caused by issues with working memory.  For example, “in ADHD the contents of the working memory are constantly inflicted with extra impulses. Reading comprehension is difficult because there is so much competing information in the working memory during a reading event.”  In particular, longer sentence constructions and more complex words require more working memory–one has to remember what idea came before within a single sentence to make sense of what comes next.

I’m thinking about this at the same time that I’m noticing how many things I used to have to remember that I don’t anymore due to technology. I used to have at least 30 phone numbers memorized at any given time. Some in short term memory, others, which I still know be heart (my parents’ homes and the homes of my oldest best friends from way back), in long term memory. Today, I know very few phone numbers by heart. I don’t know the number of the school where I work, most of my friends’ numbers, and the cell phones of my family members, because they’re all in my cell. I don’t have to memorize addresses or directions. I have all of that in my iphone whenever I need it. I don’t even print out directions anymore.

There are so many things I don’t have to remember, because they’re readily available on the internet, through my phone or computer that I wonder how it’s affecting my memory use in general… and what about my students’ memory use?

I asked students what they have to memorize these days. They did list a few things: video game codes, school schedules, email passwords. Maybe it’s the same amount, just different stuff…but I doubt it. I don’t think most people today have to memorize as many things as we did.

At the same time that I don’t have to spend time concentrating on memorizing information, I am more free to multitask. I may be holding a lot more at one time in my working memory than I used to, being constantly wired. The use of working memory, according to Numminen, is extremely important in reading.

How do the changes in the way we are using memory affect the new generation with their reading process?  If we can identify these changes, how can we address these shifting needs in our teaching?

[image credit: animetric.blogspot.com]