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Strategy to Improve Attention Span

If you’ve followed my blog For the Love of Teaching 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!

For The Love of Teaching

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