The nature and causes of visual memory difficulties

Toybox assesses visual associative memory, whereas the other three visual subtests assess sequential memory. There is one other associative memory subtest in CoPS – Letter names, which is an auditory subtest. The results of this should also be compared with those from Toybox. The other three visual subtests (Rabbits, Crayons and Letters) are all sequential memory tests. There is one other sequential memory subtest in CoPS – Races, which is an auditory subtest. The results of this should also be compared with those from Rabbits, Crayons and Letters.

Hence, the teacher should check which of the following is the case:

  • the student has general associative memory difficulties (visual as well as auditory)
  • the student has general sequential memory difficulties (visual as well as auditory)
  • the student has general visual memory difficulties
  • the student has specific difficulties in visual associative memory
  • the student has specific difficulties in visual sequential memory
  • the student has a combination of some the above difficulties

Selection of appropriate teaching and training activities will depend to a large extent on the answers to this question, as well as on the severity of the difficulties. The more extensive and the more severe the memory problems, the more difficult they will be to remediate. Nevertheless, memory remediation activities should always be attempted.

However, there are other important differences between the various memory subtests of which the teacher should be aware. Toybox and Crayons are both tests where verbal encoding (of colour names) helps the student considerably. It is always important to rule out colour discrimination difficulties in cases of students with a low performance on Toybox and Crayons. Hence, when students do score low on those subtests, if Clown has not already been administered to the student, then it should always be given as a precaution, before attempting to interpret the results of Toybox and Crayons.

Psychologists often argue that there is no such thing as a pure test of visual memory, uncontaminated by verbal encoding, because most human beings will usually try to use verbal encoding strategies to assist memory. So Toybox and Crayons can help to identify the student who has difficulty in applying verbal labels and holding them in working memory. The results from Toybox and Crayons can indicate the student who is likely to have difficulty with visual whole word reading methods. Such a student is potentially a rather slow reader because the associative linkages are not so easily forged and the student may have to decode words that should have become familiar and recognised by sight. Spelling is also likely to be a problem and (especially in the early stages of writing) the student will probably have difficulties in remembering the letters that they need to use. By contrast, Rabbits is the most difficult of the CoPS subtests for the student to encode verbally – so it provides a purer measure of visual memory skills. It requires the student to remember spatial positions as well as temporal sequences.

In the CoPS research project all four visual memory subtests were found to have significant correlations with later literacy development. Example correlations (from CoPS tests given at age 5 to literacy measures at age 8:0) for Rabbits were 0.40 (Neale Analysis of Reading), 0.39 (Edinburgh Reading Test) and 0.32 (BAS Spelling); for Crayons were 0.36 (Edinburgh Reading Test) and 0.36 (BAS Spelling); for Toybox 0.33 (BAS Spelling) and 0.32 (Word Recognition and Phonics Skills Test); for Letters 0.36 (Neale Analysis of Reading) and 0.43 (BAS Spelling). All are significant at the 0.05 level or better.