Helping students remember what they learn (Part two)

Helping Students Remember What They Learn: An Intervention for Teachers and School Psychologists (part 2 of 2)

As an educational psychologist working in Hong Kong I continue to look for ways to help children learn better when consulting with teachers. This is particularly relevant for children that have ADHD, dyslexia and other developmental difficulties. The following is part two in a series on a technique for helping children remember what they learn (incremental rehearsal,IR or are call John’s coming on my).

IR is implemented by writing known and unknown items on flashcards. The unknown items are words, letter sounds, math facts, or anything that has to be memorized. The known items should be words, letter sounds, math facts, and other items for which the student gives the correct response within 2 seconds of showing them the card. Here are the steps for using IR:

  1. Start by going through all of the known items to be certain that the student can respond to each one of them correctly within 2 seconds.
  2. Show the student the fact (e.g., sight word, letter sound, multiplication fact) and give the answer to the student. For example, you might say, “This is the letter s, and it makes the /sssss/ sound,” or “This is 4 × 4 and it equals 16,” or “This word is occupy.”
  3. Show the card and ask the student to provide the correct response. If the response is incorrect, then read the card, model the correct response, and then ask the student for the response.
  4. An extra step is added when teaching words. After the student can correctly state the word on the card, ask the student to use the word in a sentence. If the student uses the word in a sentence correctly, then proceed. If the student does not use the word in a sentence, provide a succinct definition, use the word in a sentence, and then ask the student to provide a different sentence with the word. After the student correctly uses the word in a sentence, then proceed.
  5. After the student provides the correct response to the card, then the new fact is rehearsed with the sequence outlined in Figure 1.

While IR is typically used with flash cards, it is the sequence of presentation that provides the power of the strategy. Any form of presentation can be used so long as the order is maintained. For example, we often use a simple pointer (e.g., finger) when learning new words in a reading assignment. The sequence is followed by simply pointing to the word, rather than by presenting it on a flashcard.

IR is a well-researched flashcard intervention that has consistently been shown to be more effective than all other flashcard approaches and at least as efficient. However, it is not the appropriate intervention for all students. Flashcard interventions are best for items that just need to be memorized. Teachers could start with traditional drill approaches with 100% new items because it only requires 3 to 5 minutes, and use IR if the first flashcard technique does not work; or start with IR if the information is important enough to emphasize high retention or the student had demonstrated difficulty remembering what they previously learned. Either way, IR can be used by teachers and others to help students who struggle with learning reading and mathematics, or who consistently do not remember what they have been taught.


For More Information

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Burns, M. K., & Sterling-Turner, H. (2010). Comparison of efficiency measures for academic interventions based on acquisition and maintenance of the skill. Psychology in the Schools, 47, 126–134.

Helping stdents remember what they learn (part 1)

Helping Students Remember What They Learn: An Intervention for Teachers and School Psychologists (part 1 of 2)

As an educational psychologist working in Hong Kong with both parents and other education professionals who are seeking ways to help children that may have learning difficulties such as dyslexia, ADHD and autism spectrum disorders. It is preferable if interventions can have some research-base establishing their effectiveness. In this series I will outline a procedure for helping students remember what they learn.

There are many reasons why some children and youth struggle with reading and math. One common reason often found in research is that they experience memory difficulties. Incremental rehearsal (IR) is a flashcard intervention with a strong research base for increasing retention of newly learned material among struggling learners.

Basically, IR is used to practice (i.e., rehearse) new items within a series of eight or nine known items. In other words, IR uses what students already know to teach them what they need to learn. Doing so makes the intervention less frustrating for students while also providing enough repetition to learn the new information until it becomes automatic. IR is easy to implement and has been used in numerous schools. Researchers have used IR for the following skills and age levels:

  • Sight-words to upper elementary-age students identified as learning disabled in reading.
  • Sight-words to first-graders who were struggling readers.
  • Letter sounds to preschool and kindergarten students.
  • Math facts to elementary-age students with severe math difficulties.
  • Survival signs and words to high school students and adults with cognitive impairments.

IR is implemented by writing known and unknown items on flashcards. The unknown items are words, letter sounds, math facts, or anything that has to be memorized. The known items should be words, letter sounds, math facts, and other items for which the student gives the correct response within 2 seconds of showing them the card. Next week, specific steps for implementing incremental rehearsal.


Cognitive Interventions for Academic Difficulties (part 3)

Cognitive interventions for academic difficulties (part three of a three part series)

This week is the final instalment of my series on cognitive interventions for academic problems. As an educational psychologist working in Hong Kong with a lot of children that have developmental difficulties such as dyslexia, ADHD and autism spectrum disorders it’s important to keep up with research on various interventions as many of these children have academic difficulties. Below is a discussion of the implications of the research that has been reviewed in part one and two.


Over 200 studies synthesized in seven meta-analyses found a negligible to small effect for cognitive assessments and interventions on reading and mathematics performance improvements. There were a few clear implications of these data. First, working memory interventions do nothing to improve reading or mathematics skills. Although books and conference sessions profess that they do, there is not convincing evidence to support using working memory interventions for reading or mathematics. A second clear implication is that IQ and other measures of cognitive functioning might correlate well with reading and mathematics achievement, but they correlate poorly with student response to intervention. In other words, IQ tells us how much a student knows within the range of developmentally typical   intelligence (i.e., child does not have cognitive disability),but IQ tells us very little about how well a student will respond to intervention. Practitioners should not use IQ to triage student need or to determine which interventions are appropriate for individual students. What is the harm in using cognitive measures to inform intervention? The data from these 200 studies suggest that examining cognitive processing data does not improve intervention effectiveness and doing so could dis- tract attention from more effective interventions. Unfortunately, educators often have a fascination with that which is new, so much so that “brand- new mediocrity is thought more of than accustomed excellence” (p. xi, Ellis, 2001). School psychologists may turn from effective interventions such as explicit instruction (d = 0.84;Kavale&Forness,2000),teaching reading comprehension strategies (d = 1.13; Kavale&Forness,2000),and repeated reading (d = 0.83 for fluency and d = 0.67 for comprehension; The rrien,2004) in favor of interventions that have strong intuitive appeal but little to no research evidence.  School psychologists should help school personnel stay focused on that which we know works.



Burns, M. K., Petersen-Brown, S., Haegele, K., Rodriguez, M., Schmitt, B., … VanDerHeyden, A. M. (in press). Meta-analysis of academic interventions derived from neuropsychological data: Further evidence for a skill-by-treatment interaction. School Psychology Quarterly.
Kearns, D. M., & Fuchs, D. (2013). Does cognitively focused instruction improve the academic performance of low-achieving students? Exceptional Children, 79, 263–290.
Melby-Lervag, M., & Hulme, C. (2013). Is working memory training effective? A meta-analytic review. Developmental Psychology, 49,270–291.
Scholin, S., & Burns, M. K. (2012). Relationship between pre-intervention data and post-intervention reading fluency and growth: A meta-analysis of assessment data for individual students. Psychology in the Schools, 49, 385–398.

Schwaighofer, M., Fischer, F., & Buhner, M. (2015). Does working memory training transfer? A meta-analysis including training conditions as moderators. Educational Psychologist, 50, 138–166.

Stuebing, K. K., Barth, A. E., Mofese, P. J., Weiss, B., & Fletcher, J. M. (2009). IQ is not strongly related to response to reading instruction: A meta-analytic interpretation.
Exceptional Children, 76, 31–51.

Stuebing, K. K., Barth, A. E., Trahan, L. T., Radhika R. R., Miciak, J., & Fletcher, J. M. (2015). Are child cognitive characteristics strong predictors of responses to intervention? A meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research, 85, 395–429.


Cognitive Interventions for Academic Difficulties Part 2

Part 2 Cognitive Interventions

The Data

Welcome to part two in a series on cognitive interventions. Increasing knowledge of these interventions is important for professionals such as educational psychologists, individual needs teachers and administrators that work in International schools in Hong Kong. Some of these interventions are being utilized to help children with dyslexia, ADHD and autism. In part two of this series on cognitive interventions for academic achievement the results of meta- analytic studies are summarized. Some of the meta-analyses used standardized mean differences such as d and some used correlations such as r. All of the effect sizes were converted to a standardized mean difference (d) in order to compare and combine the results across studies. There were 203 studies included in the seven meta-analyses. The effect sizes ranged from 0.07-0.58, with an overall average effect size of 0.26, which suggested a small effect. Three of the meta-analyses (Kearns & Fuchs, 2013; Melby-Lervag & Hulme, 2013; Schwaighofer et al., 2015) examined the effects of cognitively focused interventions on reading and mathematics, with two of them focusing on working memory training. Kearns and Fuchs (2013) found moderate effects for cognitively focused interventions (e.g., long-term memory, planning, processing, speed, working memory, visual-spatial processing) when compared to no intervention at all, but only a small effect (0.26) when compared to academic interventions. Both meta-analyses for working memory training found consistently negligible effects (0.07 and 0.09 for mathematics, 0.13 and 0.15 for reading decoding, and 0.13 and 0.21 for reading comprehension). These 55 studies consistently show that working memory training has little to no effect on reading or mathematics performance improvements (or achievement gains). The remaining four studies examined the effects of using cognitive measures in the intervention process. Burns et al.(in press) studied the effects of determining
reading and mathematics interventions from diagnostic measures of cognitive pro- cessing, which resulted in a small effect(0.17)from 37 studies. Three of the meta- analyses examined the relationship between student response to intervention and
preintervention cognitive measures such as IQ (Scholin & Burns, 2012; Stuebing etal., 2009). The relationship between student response to intervention in reading and mathematics resulted in an average effect size of 0.35, from 94individual
studies, which equals an rof.17 and suggests a negligible to weak relationship.
Some reading this article might wonder about executive functioning. Although executive functioning was addressed in some of the meta-analyses included in this review, none of the studies examined the construct differentially from other cognitive constructs. Jacob and Parkinson (in press) reviewed 67 studies and concluded that (a) most of the research occurred in 2010 or later, (b) there was a correlation between executive functioning and academic skills, (c) the correlation with executive functioning was approximately equal for reading and mathematics, and (d) changing skills in executive functioning through various interventions did not lead to increased skills in reading and mathematics. The authors concluded that there was little to no evidence thatexecutive
functioning and academic skills were causally linked. The study is not included in the data for the current review because the article is not yet available; readers are
encouraged to watch for its release.


Effectiveness of Cognitive Processing Assessments and Interventions

Effectiveness of Cognitive Processing Assessments and Interventions on Academic Outcomes: Can 200 Studies be Wrong? (part 1 of a 3 part series)

As an educational psychologist working in Hong Kong parents and school staff often seek information on what sort of interventions may be helpful for their children or students academic difficulties. This includes children with ADHD, Dyslexia and Autism Spectrum Disorders (including Aspergers Syndrome). Schools in particular look for guidance in implementing Multi tiered support systems that involve various interventions and are part of a response to intervention (RTI) process. The use of research based interventions with some validity is an important part of the RTI process. In this series of three weekly blogs I will analyse and summarize a number of pieces of current research on cognitive processing assessments and interventions to help children develop academic skills. The first part will be an introduction, the second a look at the data and the third blog will explore the implications of this research.

The current national implementation of response-to-intervention frameworks in the USA has intensified the debate regarding underlying causes of student deficits and how to best assess and intervene for them. Several scholars have advocated for using measures of cognitive processing to analyse academic difficulties and design individualized interventions(e.g., Feifer, 2008; Fiorello, Hale & Synder, 2006; Floyd, Evans, & McGrew, 2003; Hale, Fiorello, Bertin, & Sherman, 2003; Hale, Fiorello, Kavanagh, Hoeppner, & Gaither, 2001). Feifer (2008) proposed using measures of underlying cognitive abilities for the purpose of selecting interventions and recommended several contemporary tests of intelligence, memory, and executive functioning to do so. There are also multiple resources available to school psychologists that describe interventions based on remediating underlying cognitive deficits. For example, there are books that list general reading interventions based on neuropsychology (Feifer & De Fina, 2007) and interventions for specific cognitive processes such as working memory (Dehn, 2008). Moreover, there were five mini-skills and documented sessions at the 2015 National Association of School Psychologists annual convention that provided free guidance on using data from cognitive measures to remediate reading difficulties, and multiple paid workshops at both the national and summer conferences with similar foci.

Meta analyses were proposed by Gene Class (1976) as a way to synthesize a research literature to better understand its findings. He proposed use of standardized mean differences in which the results of the study would be reported in standard deviation units that represented the difference between the treatment and control group. Cohen (1988) proposed the now famous d statistic, which is the difference of the two group means (control and experimental) divided by the pool standard deviation, and indicated that a d of 0.20 was a small effect, 0.50 was a moderate effect, and 0.80 was a large effect. Other metrics are also used, such as r and r2, but all approaches can be converted to each other for common comparisons.

If cognitive measures are useful to intervention planning, then experimental research should be able to demonstrate that use of cognitively focused interventions generate academic performance gains better than standard instructional practices that can be used in the absence of cognitive processing data (e.g., increasing corrective feedback, improving teacher clarity). Fortunately, there have been several recent meta-analyses regarding the role of cognitive measures to inform academic interventions. Next week a look at the data from these studies.

The Role of Play in Human Development

The Role of Play in Human Development

Pellegrini, A.D.

New York: Oxford University Press, 2009


From the perspective of an educational psychologist, ‘play’ plays a crucial role in children’s development, especially for those who have learning and developmental disorders such as ADHD, ADD and autism spectrum disorders. During consultations with parents who reside in the region of Hong Kong I am often asked about how best to develop appropriate play skills. This book is must-read for researchers and specialists who are interested in this area. Pellegrini stresses the benefits and the role of play in education with well-referenced examples in the field of psychology, sociology and child development.


Children’s play, this book makes clear, can be a serious matter. Views are polarized between disciples who believe that all play is always good for all children, and target-driven practitioners who regard it as a distraction from achieving all-important learning outcomes. Others see it as simply not worth academic discussions (including the editors of five of the six editions of the Handbook of Child Psychology). Research on play is not constrained by disciplinary boundaries, extending from the literatures on evolutionary psychology and animal behavior to sociology and child development. This meticulously researched book is therefore welcome.


Pellegrini defines play as meeting two criteria: first, the means are more important than the ends; second, the orientation is non-functional, as in rough-and-tumble play, where there is no intention to hurt each other, although some aspects resemble genuine fighting. This implies no lack of purpose; different forms of play can have immediate or deferred benefits. Early chapters cover definitions and theories of play, and one discusses epigenetic theories, arguing that play enables children to experiment with novel behavior, which in some circumstances an change practice in adult life. This has gender implications, with fairly consistent differences in boys’ and girls’ play and games.


The discussion on the role of play in education should interest teachers who pick up the pieces after children have experienced failure and/or presented significant behavior problems at school. In pre-schoolers but not older children, pretend play is good predictors of reading-relayed measures of literacy. Unfortunately, when too many adults are present they can inhibit pretend play- a salutary reminder for those who ‘guide’ young children’s play. Pellegrini argues that play during break time (or ‘recess’) maximizes social and cognitive aspects of school performance; yet break time is apparently being reduced in the USA and the UK.


The author draws from a variety of disciplines in submitting theory, rhetoric and ideology to the test of empirical research. The book is well produced, referenced and indexed and will be essential reading for researchers and practitioners with a particular interest in play, but the wealth of detail may make it less accessible to non-specialists.

Social Emotional Learning in the Classroom

Social and Emotional Learning in the Classroom: Promoting Mental Health and Academic Success

K.W. Merrel & B.A. Gueldner


This book manages to strike a balance between the theoretical and practical aspects of Social and Emotional Learning (SEL). It is especially useful for us educational psychologists who are eager to find meaningful ways to help children with learning difficulties such as ADHD and autism.


Merrel and Gueldner joined a collection devoted to SEL. What distinguishes this book is that it bridges the gap between a fairly academic treatment of the various aspects of SEL and the more functional how-to/ top-tips style guide.


There are eight chapters dealing with: what is SEL?; a review of SEL curricula developed in the USA: preparing and delivering SEL; using SEL to foster academic learning; SEL across cultures; links to mental health services when SEL is not enough; assessment and evaluation strategies; and finally, planning for whole school change and adoption of SEL. At the end of each chapter are a number of vignettes that illustrate the points made and suggest further reflection.


The book would be an ideal tool for teachers and other practitioners who want to understand the programmes they are using to promote SEL, adapt existing programmes in order that they are tailored to their own particular context, or develop custom-made programmes for SEL. It provides a theoretically driven overview of the area and then explores specific aspects of programme implementation. For those practitioners working outside the USA there is a need to de-contextualize the information for use in non-US settings.

Cognitive Behavioural for Children and Young People with Depression

Depression: Cognitive Behaviour Therapy with Children and Young People

  1. Verduyn, J. Rogers & A Wood

Hove, East Sussex: Routledge


Depression is no stranger to those of us who live in Hong Kong. It is sometimes and associated difficulty in children with ADHD and other developmental difficulties such as autism spectrum disorders. As an Educational/Child psychologist, I heartily recommend this book, which brings us closer to a comprehensive understanding of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) for depression. With user-friendly and well-referenced content, it is useful for clinicians, researchers and even parents.


This book is a welcome addition to the increasing number of books on CBT for children. The focus is on CBT for depression and it is clear that the authors have both a comprehensive understanding of the literature and lots of clinical experience with children and adolescents with depression. The book strikes a good balance between offering content and structure for therapy sessions, whilst highlighting when this might be difficult and what the alternatives might be. There are several features that make it user friendly: key information is presented in boxes, whilst the main text is well referenced, appealing to both clinicians and researchers. The case examples make it clear that CBT can be used effectively with complex cases, and the verbatim examples of how to introduce different topics or strategies distil the key message that needs to be put across to the young person. The worksheets (also downloadable) are similar to those found in other CBT books, but the clinician prompt sheets are less common but equally well written and look very useful. In addition to the chapters on key aspects of CBT for depressed young people, there are useful chapters on involving parents, special issues such as bereavement and trauma, and on dealing with common problems in therapy.


I highly recommend this book for those working with children and adolescents with depression or those interested in researching the area.

Surviving girlhood: preventing teenage girl bullying

Surviving Girlhood:  Building positive Relationships, Attitudes and Self-Esteem to Prevent Teenage Girl Bullying


In my role as an educational psychologist I am often asked by parents as well as educators about the effects of bullying and strategies to prevent it in Hong Kong schools. Children with special needs such as dyslexia, autism spectrum disorders, ADHD and other developmental difficulties can be particularly at risk for bullying many times as victim but also sometimes as instigators. A good resource that addresses the issue of girl bullying in some depth is the above named book written by authors in the UK.

This book is a useful resource for preventing girl bullying, written by experienced anti-bullying officers.  They note that UK schools must have an antibullying policy by law, but these tend to have a reactive approach rather than tackling root causes.  The aim here is to prevent bullying happening in the first place through the promotion of positive relationships and improved self-esteem.

There are two sections, starting with background theory, followed by practical activities and accompanying photocopiable worksheets.  The theory part gives a context of psychological models e.g. social learning theory, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), but in a highly accessible way that would not be off-putting for the less theoretical minded reader.  It includes sections on cyber-bullying and social media, which are very timely given recent concerns about increasing bullying in these areas.  The second part provides small group tasks, including activities to promote self-respect, manage friendships, and develop conflict resolution skills.

This book is primarily aimed at school staff, but would also be useful for youth workers and clinicians.  Some of the activities would be helpful for generally building girls’ self-esteem, even in the absence of bullying issues.  Overall, this provides a useful proactive toolkit for helping adolescent girls to develop self-respect and establish positive relationships with others.

Autism Spectrum Disorders in Adolescents and Adults: Evidence base Interventions

Autism Spectrum disorders in adolescents and adults: evidence-based and promising interventions


As an Educational Psychologist working in Hong Kong parents often request information about Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) which are sometimes referred to as autistic spectrum condition. The above book title seems a good choice according to a recent review.


To discuss a complex condition like autistic spectrum condition (ASC) in such a comprehensive and compassionate manner is both uplifting and inspiring as it works on a “strengths of ASC” perspective throughout the book.  What this book does really well is view clients with an ASC holistically and takes a “life-span” approach covering 14 chapters, including: how high functioning clients differ in their needs, co-morbidity, family roles throughout life of an adult with ASC, making the transition from education to post education employment, legal issues that can affect ASC clients, and interventions for managing unhelpful ASC behaviours.  The case studies and research included in the book highlight the need for a change in attitude toward ASC from something to be seen as a condition needing to be wholly dependent on services and family to support them, to taking a more ”self-determined” approach through behaviour and communication skills training.

The book uses the acronym HFASD to mean a high functioning autistic spectrum disorder and discusses ASD mainly to describe higher functioning adults, which could be confusing and misleading to readers who are not aware that ASD can cover a whole range of ability and functioning.  Asperger’s Syndrome is another term used for High functioning persons on the spectrum. Clarification of interchangeable diagnostic terminology at the beginning of the book would have been helpful.

The book’s “life-span” approach would make it more than suitable for staff who are working in social care with transition clients or for occupational therapists who have ASC clients on their caseloads as the book discusses strategies and interventions that could be helpful when considering education, employment or independent living skills e.g. Ziggurat Model or CAPS(Comprehensive Autism Planning System).

As the book is written for a North American audience, some of the educational plans and policies would have to be adapted to their UK equivalent.