Sunday, November 21, 2010

Strategy to Improve Attention Span

If you’ve followed me for long, you know I love to blog about things I’m learning in the BrainSMART Masters degree program.  I’ve recently discovered something new and phenomenal!  I came across it in a book used by the BrainSMART program called, Building the Reading Brain, by Nevills and Wolfe (2009). It’s a strategy to help students extend their concentration and attention span. 

Working Memory

Many students who have reading problems have difficulty keeping names of objects or words in working memory.  All information must be processed through working memory before being passed on for possible long-term retention.  When reading, words are held in working memory long enough for an individual to comprehend the words they are reading.  Too often, students with reading difficulties are unable to maintain words in working memory as they struggle to sound out new words in a sentence. Therefore, comprehension is impossible.  Children who have this difficulty can be remediated with the strategy I’m going to share with you.  In fact, all students can improve their concentration.

Wait to Respond Strategy

The strategy utilizes “wait to respond” time.  Therefore, students must maintain and rehearse information in their working memories until it is time to share with their partners.  For example, tell students to think of 3 words that begin with the letter ‘m’.  Remind them not to share the words before instructed to do so.  When you give the signal, students share the remembered words with their partners.  As student concentration improves, increase the time or add to the task by asking for words that end with the same sound (3 words that end like ‘tire’). 

Add Complexity

Initially, exercises require a verbal response.  Written responses, “demand additional brain resources, including the motor cortex, and add to the complexity of the task” (Nevills and Wolfe, 2009, p. 80).  Therefore, when students are easily completing the tasks above, move to activities with written responses rather than verbal.  For example, give students three related words (walk, run, skip), instruct them to hold the words in their minds until told to write them down in the same order you gave them.  Eventually move on to unrelated words for more complexity.

Helpful Insights

When working with students with significant reading delays, I recommend working one on one until they begin to show some progress.  Begin by giving them three words to remember.  If this is too difficult, move down to two or one words as appropriate.  When asking these students to think of words, have them give you a signal when they have chosen their words (I ask them to lift a finger).  Wait a moment then ask for their words.  If you notice your student hesitating and searching the room for ideas… they’ve forgotten their words.  In this case, reduce the number of words and/or the wait time. 


I am excited about using this strategy with my students.  I have also shared it with parents who make a game out of the activity at home or in the car.  Our brains are trainable just like our bodies.  Let’s exercise those brains for optimal results!


  1. I really find this useful as a sub...sometimes it is hard to keep the kids on task because its exciting or so different with the teacher gone. Thanks for the info!

  2. That's a GREAT idea Kat. I hadn't thought of it as a substitute tool. :)

  3. I am going to try the memory task with my grade nines with lower reading level. I am unsure whether they will rebel with the idea that it's juvenile although I believe it will be beneficial. I've bookmarked you as I'm very interested in improving my reading teaching with lower level high school students. I've been writing about reading strategies too as I read a document titled Me Read? And How! produced by the Ontario Ministry of Education that has case study results, research, strategy recommendations, and ideas to try. Here's my link if interested:

  4. This is a great strategy we use a lot at our school - both in mainstream class and Learning Support. IN my class (Year 1), we do this at least once a day maybe at
    - at register/roll call (instead of 25 'Good morning...)
    - at break times (to stagger the exits to get morning tea or lunch out of bags (no canteen or dinner rooms in Aust)
    - home time games (again to stagger the number of kids gets on the one bag area)
    - partner games (maybe on specific tasks e.g. 'Space vocabularay')
    Works a treat and we see a real improvement in auditory memory, sequencing etc.

  5. Thank you for the link Cheeky, you have a lot of valuable content I need to read! I'll be following your blog also.

    Great ideas Angela. I love that you're seeing such improvement in auditory memory especially.

  6. Sounds like an interesting exercise. I'm going to try it out in my tuition classes!

  7. I found this really useful, I tried it with my daughter and the improvement is amazing!
    I began with two words at a time, with the same beginning sound, at first she couldn't remember one of the words but little by little she did it!!!
    now she is able to retain three words!!

  8. I'm glad to hear that Dragonfly! It's always so exciting to see that progress.

  9. Hi Diane,

    Thank you for this blog post. Although it was written some time ago, I knew to come to your blog to find some ideas for a student in my class who is a struggling reader and seems to have working memory difficulties. Under the heading, 'Helpful insights' you say to begin by giving struggling readers three words to remember. I was wondering if you mean or you recommend that I tell the student 3 different words to remember, which they then repeat back to me after some wait time, or do I ask the student to think of three (or less depending on ability) words themselves starting with ...*an initial letter*... and tell me after some wait time?

    How long would you recommend the wait time?

    Thank you for your help. I learn so much from your blog.

    Kind Regards,

  10. Hi Jessica,

    Thank you so for your kind words!

    You tell the child to think of three words that start with a certain sound. Then once they signal they have the three words in their head... start by giving them 5 seconds to hold it in their working memory before asking for them to tell you the words. From there you can adjust the seconds up or down, or adjust the number of words depending on their success rate. I hope this helps. Good luck!