Memory development for individuals with Down syndrome– An overview

Sue Buckley and Gillian Bird

Working memory is the system in the brain that supports the daily processing of visual and verbal information as individuals go about their lives. It has been described as ‘a mental workplace’, as it is not only essential for language processing, it also supports activities which involve holding and manipulating information such as reading a text with comprehension, planning and writing text or messages, doing mental arithmetic, and holding temporary information like a telephone number while dialling it. In addition to being a temporary storage and processing system essential to everyday functioning and to mental abilities, part of the working memory system which is specialised for holding verbal information - the phonological loop - is thought to be essential for learning a spoken language. The phonological loop holds the sound patterns for words. In order to learn a first language a child has to be able to store accurate representations of the sound patterns of words in order to link them to meaning and in order to be able to copy or produce the word when talking. If the phonological loop does not function well, speech and language will be delayed. There is evidence that there is a basic impairment in phonological loop functioning in children with Down syndrome. This is probably a major reason for their speech and language delays and difficulties and it also affects their ability to process spoken language and carry out cognitive tasks. Memory training studies indicate that it is possible to improve the short-term memory skills of children with Down syndrome. However, the biggest gains in short-term memory skills reported are linked to reading instruction and to being in a mainstream school. Reading activities may provide auditory training experiences which actually improve phonological coding (the accurate representation of the sound patterns of words) in the phonological loop. Memory training activities and support for weak auditory memory skills are discussed. However, a range of activities to improve speech sound and word discrimination are included, as they may improve basic phonological loop function and therefore result in the greatest gains for spoken language abilities and working memory.

Buckley SJ, Bird G. Memory development for individuals with Down syndrome– An overview. Down Syndrome Issues and Information. 2001.


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