As you read these words, you are more than likely able to take them in, process them and derive their meaning instantaneously. It is a skill that most of us take for granted. For some, however, it is not so straightforward. Processing speed is the rate at which a person can understand, process and react to information, and it can vary widely – particularly among children.
Slow processing speed can relate to one or several ways in which information is consumed – it could be linked to visual interpretation of things such as numbers and letters; auditory, relating to spoken language; or movement, which is associated with motor skills.
Children might have difficulty with one or all of these different parts, which will have repercussions in the classroom. For example, the ability to process spoken language will affect performance when tasks are being read out by the teacher; and the speed at which a child can process fine motor skills will determine how quickly they can copy or write something down. If they struggle with both, then an ostensibly simple dictation can become a real challenge for a pupil.
While many teachers will be aware of processing speed, most will not know the detail of how it works or the impact it can have on learning. Alas, research on the issue is still at a relatively early stage. Dr Debbie Gooch, a lecturer in developmental psychology at the University of Surrey, is among those paving the way and she has been interested in the effect on language development, in particular.
“In one study, we have a population sample that we are following from [primary] school entry all the way up to secondary school,” she explains. “We are looking at whether early processing speeds predicted later language development in any way. There is a theory that developmental language disorder (DLD) can be caused by a general processing dysfunction, and it might be that if you have poor processing speed in general then language is particularly vulnerable because children have to follow it in real time to understand what someone is saying.”
Appearance of laziness
The current available research, however, is unclear. “It is true that not all children with DLD have slow processing speed … so that suggests slow speed of processing isn’t really sufficient to result in DLD. There needs to be more research,” she says.
Gooch explains that what we do know is that a number of misconceptions exist about children with slow processing speed. One is that they are “lazy” because they often put off tasks or appear reluctant to engage with work. This can also be misconstrued as wanton bad behaviour. “These children come across as having a slower work pace, and it looks as if they are not getting as much done as they could,” she says. “Teachers might think they are lazy and unmotivated, but that’s not the case at all. They are finding it harder to process and to recall the information, and formulate their ideas because these things haven’t become automatic for them.”
These children are likely to take a bit longer to respond to an instruction, or to formulate an answer to a direct question. “They might also find it more difficult if they are doing a task that requires comparing or scanning visual information, or looking for similarities and differences between sets of information,” continues Gooch. “Some are very likely to find it difficult when asked to deliver lots of writing, taking notes from dictation or copying down from the board.
“There might be children who find it difficult to get started with their work or to finish work in class on time – to complete a test in a timely manner or their homework in a timely manner, too.”
Gooch warns that when processing-speed challenges are unidentified, the learning situation for the child can quickly deteriorate. “It can put a strain on the pupil-teacher relationship,” she says. “If [the pupil is] not following what is going on in a classroom, then they may try to entertain themselves in other ways.”
Academic issues that arise from processing challenges can therefore lead to behavioural issues, explains Gooch. But social interactions can also be affected and this can lead to further issues with behaviour. For these pupils, it can be tricky to follow conversations with friends or make quick decisions about what to play in the playground.
“Children can become quite frustrated, tired, overwhelmed and also anxious, especially when there is a lot of information to take in and to process,” says Gooch. “And we all know that when children are tired and have to do things that are hard for them, they can become frustrated and it can degrade their behaviour.”
But what processing speed definitely does not influence, stresses Gooch, is intelligence. Many pupils with processing issues are perfectly capable of comprehending complex information – it can just take them longer to digest it, she explains.
So what can teachers do in the classroom to help such students?
Unfortunately, there is no off-the-shelf solution because processing speed will affect children in very individual ways and many pupils will have co-occurring problems. That said, there are some general things that teachers could do to help most of those who are struggling; these include allowing children more time to answer questions, since a delay is no indication that they do not know the answer. Likewise, giving a pupil more time when asking them to make a decision or allowing additional time in tests would help.
“For older children, developing their planning, organisation and time-management skills may help them to learn to give themselves enough time to complete a task or assignment,” says Gooch. “So when work becomes more self-directed and they have longer coursework… then they know to start that work earlier.”
Many students will benefit from having regular classroom routines that do not require them to process and remember a new set of instructions every day, while for others, having information that is clearly visible so that it can be reread when required will help.
The challenge, says Gooch, is to take steps to assist with comprehension – such as breaking instructions down into shorter forms or providing notes for those who struggle with writing – while resisting the urge to oversimplify content. One way to do this is to focus on the desired learning outcome.
“Take handwriting, for example. If a child is slow with handwriting, but that is not the main objective of the learning activity, then you could allow them to do work on a computer or use fill-in-the-blank-type questions,” she explains.
This way they will still have to learn the information, but they will be less inhibited by the writing aspect.
“Encourage the child to aim for quality and not quantity [and] assess mastery of a concept rather than quantity of work completed,” urges Gooch.
Such techniques could be invaluable for teachers because while the evidence shows that processing speed can improve with age, it also suggests that differences between pupils remain as children get older.
“Speed of processing seems to be quite a stable construct,” says Gooch. “There is little change in the rank order of children in a classroom – so a child with slow processing skills in Year 1 is likely also to be the child that has the slowest processing speed in Year 3.
“Also, it is very unlikely that you could train processing speed per se. There is a little bit of research to show that training people’s performance on a computerised task that is targeting processing speed can improve processing speed on that particular task … but it is unlikely that you will have real transfer effects or knock-on effects on other, more educationally relevant skills.”
Chris Parr is a freelance journalist
If you are concerned that a child’s speed of processing may be slow, Dr Debbie Gooch recommends that you talk to your school’s Sendco or an educational psychiatrist about conducting a more comprehensive assessment of their needs
Meet the academic
Debbie Gooch is a lecturer in developmental psychology at the University of Surrey. She researches the cognitive underpinning of neurodevelopmental disorders, such as developmental language disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and how these affect social interaction and education. For further information, visit bit.ly/DrDebbieGooch
* Hulme, C and Snowling, MJ (2009) Developmental Disorders of Language Learning and Cognition (John Wiley and Sons); read for an introduction to a range of neurodevelopmental disorders that explains the role of speed of processing
* Kail, R (2000) “Speed of information processing: developmental change and links to intelligence”, Journal of School Psychology, 1/38: 51-61
* Kelly, K, “Processing speed: what you need to know”; article on the website of US charity Understood, bit.ly/ProcessSpeed
* Gooch, D, Sears, C, Maydew, H et al (2019, not yet published) “Does inattention and hyperactivity moderate the relationship between speed of processing and language skills?”, Child Development
* Shanahan, MA, Pennington, BF, Yerys, BE et al (2006) “Processing speed deficits in attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder and reading disability”, Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 5/34: 584