Recently I wrote a post entitled: “What Works for Improving Working Memory?” in which I listed useful resources on the subject. Due to the popularity of that post as well as numerous requests, I decided to write a similar post regarding what works and does not work for improving processing speed in students with language and learning needs who take excessively slow time to complete a variety of academic tasks.
So what exactly is processing speed and why is it important? Processing speed is a measure of the time required to rapidly respond to information in one’s environment (cognitive efficiency). It is thought to be closely related to one’s ability to perform higher-order cognitive tasks since, in addition to visually recognizing what to do, one needs to both make and subsequently implement a decision to do something.
Neuropathologically, this process is driven by the speed of neuronal transmissions and is associated with myelination (Chevalier et al., 2015). Myelin is an insulating cover (made up of protein and fatty substances) that forms around nerves in the brain and spinal cord. It allows electrical impulses to transmit quickly and efficiently along the nerve cells. It is a major contributor to processing speed, which is often further distinguished for research purposes as sensorimotor speed (time, dexterity, and strength needed to complete specific motor tasks) and perceptual speed (ability to quickly and accurately compare similarities and differences among sets of letters, numbers, objects, pictures, or patterns.) The latter is known as Rapid Automatized Naming or RAN.
Some examples of common assessments of processing speed include the Processing Speed Index (PSI) of the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children®-Fifth Edition (WISC-V), the Rapid Symbolic and Nonsymbolic Naming Composites from the Comprehensive Test of Phonological Processing | Second Edition (CTOPP-2), as well as the Rapid Automatized Naming and Rapid Alternating Stimulus Tests (RAN/RAS).
So why is RAN so important? Turns out RAN has been found to be a consistent predictor of reading fluency in all orthographies (Landerl, et al, 2019). Poor rapid automatized naming abilities (on alphanumeric and nonalphanumeric tasks) have been found to be a long-term and universal symptom of reading deficits (Araújo & Faísca, 2019). Parents and professionals also need to be aware that, children with Developmental Language Disorder (DLD) formerly known as Specific Language Impairment (SLI) have lower processing speed as compared to typically developing age-matched peers (Lahey, Edwards, & Munson, 2001; Miller, Kail, Leonard, & Tomblin, 2001; Montgomery, 2005; Windsor, Milbrath, Carney, & Rakowski, 2001).
Nowadays, numerous entities are offering “interventions” to improve processing speed. But do these interventions actually work?
Can processing speed be improved directly? The answer is a resounding ‘No’! As per Norton (2020) training RAN does not lead to better outcomes than providing equal hours of reading intervention. Similar to training working memory, training processing speed (e.g., rapidly naming items, etc.) may lead to better performance on the training task itself (near transfer), but will not lead to meaningful, generalizable improvement in the areas of speaking, reading, spelling, and writing (far transfer).
So can processing speed be improved in a functional and evidence-based way? Yes, it can, but indirectly! Practicing indeed will make it better (but not perfect)! But practicing what? Again, the focus has to be on functionality! “Practice” has to focus on improving functional language and literacy abilities on tasks during which the student displayed both decreased processing speed and showed difficulties.
Consequently, if a student shows difficulties retelling stories, then the focus of functional and evidence-based therapy has to be on improving the student’s narrative abilities. As the student improves in this area, indirect gains in processing speed may also be seen in the way the student can retell the stories not just more coherently and cohesively but also more efficiently and speedily.
Similarly, if the student is an accurate decoder but is displaying slowed, labored, and halting reading rate then the focus of functional therapy has to be on improving their reading speed through evidence-based interventions such as Repeated Reading and Reinforced Reading using Pause Prompt Praise (PPP).
Does the student show slow speed of task completion during writing tasks? Pinpoint their writing deficits during an evidence-based writing assessment and work on improving the quality, quantity, and speed of their writing output.
Consequently, as a result of the years-long intensive language and literacy interventions, at times it is even possible to see modest or even notable score increases on the Processing Speed Index of the WISC-V when the child is reassessed at some point, post-intervention.
Often schools tend to provide students with slow processing speed with various accommodations and modifications while teaching them strategies to manage their processing speed difficulties. But please bear in mind that while students with language and learning deficits and slow processing speed do require accommodations to fully benefit from the curriculum, for maximum long-term benefit, their language and literacy deficits need to be meaningfully addressed and effectively remediated with carefully targeted individualized evidence-based language and literacy interventions.
There you have it! I hope this post has provided you with helpful information on the subject of processing speed in children with language and learning difficulties. For more information on this subject, take a look at the below references as well as a suggested list of free useful resources discussing effective evidence-based interventions for children with language and learning needs and concomitant processing speed limitations.
- Araújo, S &Faísca, L (2019) A Meta-Analytic Review of Naming-Speed Deficits in Developmental Dyslexia, Scientific Studies of Reading, 23:5, 349-368.
- Chevalier, N., Kurth, S., Doucette, M. R., Wiseheart, M., Deoni, S. C. L., Dean, D. C. III, O’Muircheartaigh, J., Blackwell, K. A., Munakata, Y., & LeBourgeois, M. K. (2015). Myelination is associated with processing speed in early childhood: Preliminary insights. PLoS ONE, 10(10), Article e0139897
- Lahey, M., Edwards, J., & Munson, E.(2001). Is processing speed related to the severity of language impairment? Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 44,1354–1361.
- Landerl et al, (2019). Phonological Awareness and Rapid Automatized Naming as Longitudinal Predictors of Reading in Five Alphabetic Orthographies with Varying Degrees of Consistency, Scientific Studies of Reading, 23:3, 220-234.
- Miller, C. A., Kail, R., Leonard, L. B., & Tomblin, J. B. (2001). Speed of processing in children with specific language impairment. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 44(2), 416–433.
- Montgomery, J.(2005). Effects of input rate and age on real-time language processing of children with specific language impairment.International Journal of Language and Communication Disorders, 1, 177–188.
- Norton, E (2020) What educators need to know about Rapid Automatized Naming (RAN) Australia Learning Disabilities Bulletin 52 (1), 25-28.
- Windsor, J., Milbrath, R., Carney, E., & Rakowski, S.(2001). General slowing in language impairment: Methodological considerations in testing the hypothesis.Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 44,446–461.
- Alternative Therapies, Herbs, Pills, and Snake Oils or “What’s the Harm in That?”
- Dear SLPs, Try Asking This Instead
- Dear Reading Specialist, May I Ask You a Few Questions?
- Making Our Interventions Count or What’s Research Got To Do With It?
- Do Our Therapy Goals Make Sense or How to Create Functional Language Intervention Targets
- Dear SLPs, Don’t Base Your Language Intervention on Subtests Results
- Evidence-Based Executive Functions Interventions for Struggling Learners
- Formulating Functional and Measurable Therapy Goals
- What makes language intervention for school-aged children functional?
For additional free evidence-based resources on the subject visit SLPs for Evidence-Based Practice Facebook Group
Looking for low-cost evidence-based practice webinars on the subject? Visit CEU SmartHub to learn more.