Phonological Memory and Early Reading

Phonological memory refers to a person’s ability to retain phonological (sound) information for a short period of time.  Difficulties with phonological memory often signal future struggles with reading and vocabulary acquisition.  Phonological memory skills can be practiced with remembering lists of words, strings of digits, multi-syllable nonsense words, sentence or story details, or multi-step directions.  Helping children improve their phonological memories is one way to help them avoid future reading problems.  And, like most things, these skills can be developed in fun ways.

  • Going to New York—Tell the child, “I’m going to New York and I packed a …”.  Name something you packed.  The child then repeats the phrase, what you packed, then adds what they packed.  (“I’m going to New York and I packed a … and a …”)  Continue the game until the list gets too long to remember.
  • Repetition—Read a book with a repetitive phrase (like “Brown Bear, Brown Bear”) and have the child repeat the repetitive phrase at the appropriate time.
  • Rhythm Clapping—Clap out a rhythm and have the child repeat the rhythm.
  • Calculations—Read a string of digits from a prepared card (2-7 digits, depending upon the child’s ability) to a child.  Have the child repeat the digits to himself over and over while walking across the room to a calculator.  The child presses the buttons on the calculator in the order in which they were read.  Compare the number on the calculator to the prepared card so the child can see if he remembered the digits correctly.
  • Play Mother May I
  • Stringing Beads—Give a child a direction of what 2 colors of beads to put on a string, in order.  Increase the number of beads as the child’s ability increases.

To help children develop their phonological memories, teachers or parents can also teach the children strategies for remembering.  For example, a 7-digit phone number is chunked into 3 digits followed by 4 digits.  Repetition, like in the Calculations game, helps to keep those digits in memory until the task can be completed.  Tapping along with “Brown Bear, Brown Bear” can provide a needed reminder.  Some children will pick up these strategies on their own and some will need to be explicitly taught the strategies.