Language Arts Canadian Lead Primary School

Processing Speed

Some children are naturally fast. They laugh at jokes first, they put their hands up in class first, they finish their work first. These are the fast processors. Listening, paying attention and working memory all help students to gather and hold information, but processing speed is the ability to respond to that information in a reasonable timeframe.

There are also those who need a little more time to think things through and get things done. The measure of this ability is called processing speed.

Working memory can only hold information for brief periods of time, so slow processors will quickly run out of time before the working memory has had a chance to use incoming information properly.

There is no single part of the brain involved with processing speed. Instead, a person’s ability to process and respond to information involves a complex network of different brain structures.

Some indicators of low processing speed:

  • The child seems to repeat parts of a sentence or go back to the beginning of a sentence when speaking.
  • The child has difficulty explaining simple concepts.
  • The child takes a long time to complete routine tasks.
  • The child tends to forget instructions.
  • The child becomes overwhelmed by multiple sources of information.
  • The child is anxious on the subject of time constraints.

Children with low processing speed but no deficits in any of the other underlying processes can learn to read and write in an average timeframe (i.e. in the first three years of schooling). However, fluency is dependent on processing speed, which in turn can lead to low quality written work.

Processing speed can also be affected by anxiety: the more worried a child is, the slower they go, which increases their worry etc. These children can also become frustrated by and disengaged from schoolwork, especially in a high-pressure, ‘cold write’ setting, where they know what they want to write but can’t demonstrate their knowledge quickly enough.

Similarly, during the concept development phase of an explicit lesson, allowing children to demonstrate their understanding only on a question and answer, hands-up basis means that slow processors rarely get a chance to participate. In terms of learning and self esteem, this method by itself is quite detrimental.

By having children rehearse their answers in pairs and calling on non-volunteers, you allow all processors to work with the information you want them to learn

Keeping slow processors in during their breaks to finish written work can often result in undesirable effects too. For those who already find the tasks of reading and or writing cognitively demanding, being allowed to rest and recharge is crucial.

A way round this is to re-evaluate reading and writing task volume. Instead of: “You can go when you write a page”, try, “You can go when you write a simple/complex/compound sentence using this framework” and building up from there.

What can be done

If working memory or processing speed deficits are suspected, a cognitive assessment from an educational psychologist is a crucial starting point. This will provide insight into the areas of difficulty a child has as well as a guide to possible home and school-based accommodations to help the child reach their potential.

Please beware any recommendations that include interventions targeting working memory or processing speed though. These are subskills and cannot be increased to a point that directly affects literacy. Explicit teaching and plenty of practice will raise literacy faster, and in most cases, at a much lower cost, than “brain training” programs aimed at these underlying processes.

The Language Arts approach seeks to help children, no matter their processing speed, get the most out of their lessons.

Processing speed thoughts

Lyn Stone

Share one of your key strategies to help slower processors demonstrate their knowledge

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