Processing Speed: Ideas for the Classroom
What is Processing Speed?
Weiss et al (2019) liken processing speed to a clerk within an organisation; someone who job it is to carry out a specific task as quickly as possible and with no errors. This is a straightforward analogy which places processing speed in amongst other broad cognitive abilities which are important for daily functioning.
Teachers and parents will often read about processing speed in psychological assessment reports. The WISC-V, a common battery of psychometric tests, measures processing speed by asking students to inspect visual information and match or find specific items within a short timeframe. Therefore, we can think about processing speed in terms of speed and accuracy of visual scanning, tracking, discrimination and wider skills such as the ability to focus attention and remember visual details.
Research has shown a relationship between processing speed and proficiency with literacy and numeracy. Ideally, the reading and mathematical skills which we learn in the early years at school become automatic over time and can be applied to more demanding and less familiar tasks. It’s important to note that a student who performs poorly on a standardised test of processing speed may be affected by factors such as the quality of their fine motor skills and the ability to focus their attention. There may also be issues with hearing or vision which impact on the processing of auditory or visual information. Therefore, while weaknesses with processing speed can be associated with neurodevelopmental conditions, we need to keep an open mind about a range of variables which may explain such weaknesses.
What are the signs of difficulties with Processing Speed?
Here are some common indicators of difficulties, with some typical examples that can be seen in school or at home. While we may find it easier to recognise processing speed difficulties in terms of visual or written tasks within the classroom, the student’s general presentation can also provide some clues.
Slower performance: Students may read at a slower pace, struggle to record notes about a topic and take longer to apply arithmetic operations or work through multiple steps in a maths problem.
Needing extra time: Working within a time limit is a common struggle. Students with processing speed difficulties often require more time, particularly if copying information from one source to another (such as writing down words from the whiteboard). They may not complete tasks as quickly as their peers.
Attention to detail: Seemingly careless errors can be a result of difficulties with recognising mistakes or omissions in written work. The task of proof-reading can also be time-consuming and laborious.
Fatigue: Weaknesses in visual scanning and tracking mean that the process of taking in and understanding new information requires more mental effort and energy. Students may appear tired, prone to distraction or more easily overwhelmed.
Lack of automaticity: Deficits in processing speed can have implications for wider cognitive functioning. Some students may find it harder to recognise social cues, relay personal experiences and keep up with fast-paced conversations with peers. They may also be slower to follow daily routines and organise themselves.
How can we support Processing Speed?
Time and Structure
· Shorten the duration of learning tasks and build in breaks for those students who are easily tired or distracted during prolonged periods of work.
· Focus on quality and accuracy over quantity – can the student demonstrate sufficient knowledge and skills within a topic by answering a smaller number of questions?
· Give the student a longer time to think about their answer to a question in a verbal discussion – tell them when they’ll be called upon and provide reminders of the question.
· Add structure to show-and-tell or group discussion activities, so that the student has clear and consistent guidelines for formulating a response. Give sample answers and use other students’ responses as a model.
· Consider checklists or “To do” lists to promote organisational skills. Build automaticity through verbal or visual routines on a daily basis.
· Ensure the student has more time to read a text or written question, particularly when the material is unfamiliar.
· Consider the quantity of homework – what is just the right amount to consolidate learning whilst avoiding over-exertion and stress?
Alleviate and Differentiate
· Consider potential distractions within the surrounding environment and how these can be mitigated through preferential seating or making changes to nearby wall displays.
· Limit the amount of visual clutter on a worksheet by reducing the amount of information or concealing later questions/sections.
· Break up the learning task into smaller chunks with realistic goals to work towards. Does the student need to see a sample of the finished product as a reference?
· Make written information stand out using larger fonts, colour-coding, explicit labelling or numbering separate steps within a task.
· Offer different types of output to minimise lengthy written replies to questions. Can the student provide verbal or typed answers, select from multiple choices or complete fill-in-the-blank sentences?
· Minimise the need to copy information from the whiteboard by providing notes or handouts for the student to keep at their desk.
· Ensure that the student has initial practise with access arrangements for formal examinations, such as extra time, a reader, the use of assistive technology, etc.
Practise and Play
· Some students may benefit from timers to monitor their time and gradually develop their speed. Such an approach should first focus on fun, motivating and stress-free activities. Flash cards, puzzles and ICT games may be useful in this regard.
· Try games which involve matching letters, words or pictures. Alternatively, sort items based on a consistent code (such as a shape or picture that corresponds with a number).
· “Where’s Wally?” is a good example of an activity which involves scanning for a specific item within a larger picture.
· Provide a page with various items and ask the student to hunt for and cross out specific letters or numbers.
· Teach discrimination skills, such as marking only the vehicles in a large page of animals, vehicles and clothes. Spot the difference games may also be helpful.
· Word searches can provide practise with finding and marking/highlighting specific words within a busy background.
· For students with stronger verbal processing skills, consider practising how to find specific features of a picture or object based on spoken descriptions and instructions.
References and Further Reading
· Bidwell, V. (2016). The Parents’ Guide to Specific Learning Difficulties: Information, Advice and Practical Tips. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
· Braaten, E. & Willoughby, B. (2014). Bright Kids Who Can’t Keep Up: Help Your Child Overcome Slow Processing Speed and Succeed In A Fast-Paced World. New York: The Guilford Press.
· Nicholson, C.L., Alcorn, C.L & Erford, B.T. (2006). Educational Applications of the WISC-IV: A Handbook of Interpretive Strategies and Remedial Recommendations. Los Angeles: Western Psychological Services.
· Weiss, L.G., Saklofske, D.H., Holdnack, J.A. & Prifitera, A. (2019). WISC-V: Clinical Use and Interpretation (2nd Edition). London: Academic Press.