Working Memory and the Key Word Outline

Sep 13, 2019 | Posted by Jennifer


Students with learning disabilities such as dyslexia or ADHD struggle with working memory, the ability to remember and properly sequence information, including linguistic, immediately. This struggle presents many challenges in written expression. Frequently this comes out when creating and remembering the word and symbol associations in the key word outline.

Recently we had a parent contact us about this topic. She is the parent of a dyslexic student who struggles to select words and symbols and recall the key word outline when it is time to write. She wondered if it was really worth the effort to persist in creating one since her student was wrestling with it so much. If you have a student who has similar struggles, we hope you will find encouragement in this post to persist and to help your student overcome his own working memory challenges. Read on to see my response and suggestions.


Thank you for contacting our office about the challenges you have faced with your student regarding remembering the key word outline. It is very understandable that your student struggles to recall the details and symbols. Students with dyslexia typically also struggle with working memory. Remembering a sequence of information creates quite a draw on working memory, and this can be very frustrating for them. I would still encourage you to persist in the effort though.

First off, make certain you are helping your student as much as he needs. Withholding help is one of the "4 Deadly Errors of Teaching Writing," and you definitely will need to help him in this endeavor. You cannot help him too much. Make certain you use a source text that is at or below your student’s intellectual level. Read the passage out loud. Talk about it together. Define unknown vocabulary. Ask your student questions that require him to make inferences or predictions about the passage. Don’t assume your student understands the context of what is happening. To see this approach modeled by master teacher Andrew Pudewa, check out this video.

Additionally, make certain he has access to a sheet that shows the approved symbols. Keep it out and available for him to consult as you help him develop his key word outline. The two of you should work together to create it, and when you're finished, be sure that you test it out loud using complete sentences. If he can't recall the line of notes, refer back to the original source to refresh his memory. Adjust the line of notes if you need to, and proceed from there. But always make certain that the retelling comes from the notes, not the original source. After he is able to tell the key word outline back to you, perhaps with your help, continue to assist him as he starts the writing process, even going so far as to scribe his dictation for him if necessary.

To help build up his working memory, you can introduce some games. I am a Barton tutor as well as an IEW teacher, and many of my students enjoy playing Simon, the light-up sound game. It will help him slowly stretch his working memory as he continues to lengthen his sound/color sequence. Another idea that you can do with him is to play a game where you start off a sentence by saying something like this: "Last night I traveled to ______________, and I brought along a comb..." Go back and forth, each of you repeating the sequence of items and adding one more until one of you is "out." To make it a little easier, you can require that the items "brought" need to be visible in the room. For one of the best ways (and most fun) to build working memory, teach your student to play chess.

The key word outline practice is an important part of the IEW writing process, so keep at it. Don't expect perfection to begin with. You will need to practice this for a long time, but it will gradually become easier over time. Sticking with it will pay off for your student as he reaches later grade levels and needs to write papers and prepare for tests because he will feel more confident of isolating the information that is truly interesting or important while avoiding plagiarism.


Jennifer Mauser has always loved reading and writing and received a B.A. in English from the University of Kansas in 1991. Once she and her husband had children, they decided to homeschool, and she put all her training to use in the home. In addition to homeschooling her children, Jennifer teaches IEW classes out of her home, coaches budding writers via email, and tutors students who struggle with dyslexia.

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