WHAT IS THE PHONOLOGICAL LOOP?
You may never have heard of the phonological loop. Neither had I until I read a book about working memory written by the cognitive research scientist Alan Baddeley (2019). But I was familiar with the phenomenon, even though I had no name for it. And I expect the same is true for you.
In line with my strong belief in the power of learning through discovery, I will let you find out what the phonological loop is for yourself. And check afterwards that we share the same understanding. So, please read the following extract from the book by Baddeley I read and be prepared to answer three questions afterwards. Spoiler alerts! This is not a reading test, and your journey of discovery will be ruined if you do what all good reading test takers should do and skip ahead to the questions before you start reading. Resist this urge and experience the joy of an aha moment!
The extract: “We carried out a series of experiments which seemed to tell a coherent story that fitted neatly into our concept of a phonological loop, with irrelevant sound disrupting the storage component. We found no difference between the disruptive effects of concurrent long or short words, suggesting that the articulatory rehearsal component was not important. Further evidence of the unimportance of either semantic or lexical effects came from an experiment in which we compared the effect on recall of sequences of visually presented digits of other auditorily presented digits, or of words made up by the recombining phonemes that occur in digits, namely tun (one), gnu (two), tea (three), saw (four), thrive (five), fix (six), heaven (seven), fate (eight) and sign (nine) (p.161).”
- Did you hear a voice in your head when you were reading this? If yes, was it your own voice or another voice? If no, did you read and understand the text easily, or did you give up?
- Do you sometimes hear a voice in your head when you are reading in your first language? How about when you are reading in an additional language? If your answer is yes to one, or both, of these questions, when does this usually happen?
- Can you guess why this happens?
Now you can find out if your hunch about what the phonological loop might be is correct. It is the term that Baddeley and his team gave to the “inner voice” that you hear with your “inner ear” when you are concentrating hard on something and trying to hold information in your memory while you make sense of it. It is usually your own voice even though you are not saying anything aloud when you hear it. It is called the Phonological Loop because phonological means that it is related to making and hearing sound and loop means that it needs to be replayed like a sound recording. Our inner voice needs to repeat information for our inner ear to hear in order to keep the information stored in our working memory. For example, if you need to keep a phone number in your memory until you can find a pen to write it down (or more likely these days) find your phone and add it to your contact list, you will automatically repeat the number until you complete that task. If you are distracted and you cannot continue repeating the number inside your head, it will vanish from your memory.
The Phonological Loop is a vital component of our working memory. Here is a model based on Baddeley’s theory.
Let’s try another experiment for you to experience firsthand how this works. Count the number of roads you need to cross to reach the post office which is nearest to your home. When you have the answer, think back to the process you undertook to reach the answer. Then read on.
In your mind’s eye, did you “leave” your house through the door you usually use? Did you “see” the street outside your house? Did you then “walk” along the street in the direction of the post office? Did you hear yourself counting the number of times you crossed the road on your way to the post office? If the answer is yes to all these questions, you were using all three components of your working memory to carry out the task. You “saw’” the door, the streets, and the post office using the visuo-spatial sketchpad. You counted the number of roads you crossed using the phonological loop, and you planned and carried out the task using the central executive.
THE ROLE OF THE PHONOLOGICAL LOOP IN LEARNING TO READ
So, how are the phonological loop and its role in working memory connected with learning to read? Reading in any language involves both our visual and sound systems. First, we need to learn to associate visual symbols with the sounds of the language. We can then decode the visual symbols as the sounds of the language. To understand the meaning of the clusters of letters that comprise words in English, beginner readers need to “hear” and “sound out” the individual sounds (e.g., b-o-o-k). At the next stage of reading, we need to “hear” the words we are reading to understand them and hold them in working memory to make sense of the strings of words we read. When we can recognize the sound and letter correspondences and hear words with our inner ear, we begin to build direct connections between vision and meaning (the appearance of the words and what we understand). With plenty of reading practice, we can become more proficient, and can automatically recognize words. This reduces the load on our working memory. We can read faster and more accurately and with less reliance on our inner voice and inner ear. But, as you experienced earlier, when we are fluent readers faced with a challenging text, we need to call upon the services of the phonological loop to retain our focus and to understand what we are reading.
People with an impaired phonological loop have difficulty in sounding out letters and holding the sounds in their working memory, which makes learning new words and learning to read very hard. This is one of the underlying causes of developmental dyslexia (Baddeley, 2019, pp. 235 – 237). The good news is that Baddeley and his team discovered that people with a reduced phonological loop can learn new words and learn to read by relying on their visual memory and making semantic connections. Moreover, they can develop “extensive vocabularies” over time through exposure to a “rich language environment” and by depending on the “executive resources” in their working memory system (p. 245).
Vocabulary size is the key to success in learning to read in an additional language for everyone, not just those with a defective phonological loop. The more words, word families, and common phrases beginner readers know, the more resources they have when making sense of the shapes and the sounds of the letters they are decoding. Learning to read an additional language is harder than learning to read their first language because their target language vocabulary store is much smaller. Even if our learners can decipher the words accurately and can hear them with their inner ear, they cannot make sense of what they are reading if they have no idea of what the words mean.
WHEN AND WHY DOES THE PHONOLOGICAL LOOP HELP FLUENT READERS?
If you heard your own voice when reading the passage from Baddeley’s book, this is unsurprising. Maybe you can think of other occasions when you have noticed this phenomenon, such as when checking the fine print in an agreement or proofreading a text. It kicks in automatically when our working memory is starting to feel under pressure while processing a difficult text or one that requires close attention to detail. We can appreciate how helpful this is when the phonological loop is interrupted. How can researchers suppress this automatic sub-vocalisation? They do this by asking research participants to say aloud a random meaningless word while they read. One word they often use is the. Would you like to test this for yourself?
You are going to read three very similar sentences. Do all three of them make sense? Before you begin, start saying aloud “the, the, the…” Don’t stop; continue to repeat “the” when you read the three sentences below.
- She doesn’t mind going to the dentist to have fillings, but she does mind the when pain he gives her the injection at the beginning.
- She doesn’t mind going to the dentist to have fillings, but she does mind the pain when he gives her the injection at the beginning.
- She doesn’t mind going to the dentist to have fillings, but she does mind the rent when he gives her the injection at the beginning.
Did you find it harder to read easily and accurately without the assistance of the phonological loop?
CAN TEACHING STUDENTS ABOUT THE PHONOLOGICAL LOOP HELP STUDENTS BECOME FLUENT READERS?
If they are old enough to understand the concept of the phonological loop, explain it to them. With awareness of the role that the phonological loop plays in their understanding of what they read, they will have an additional tool in their reading kit. Once they start to hear their own voice when reading a graded reader on an Extensive Reading (ER) program, it will serve as a signal that the language level of the book may be too high for an enjoyable and effective reading experience.
 ER programs aim to build automaticity in reading by encouraging students to read thousands of words in books that are of interest to them and at or a little below their current language level.
WAYS TO PROVIDE ADDITIONAL READING PRACTICE
Whether you have an ER program in your teaching situation or not, create as many opportunities as possible for students to read in the target language (TL). For example, provide instructions both orally and written in the TL.
Encourage students to use ALL the TL reading materials they have access to and that are at or below their reading level. These can be textbooks, graded readers, books, comic books, magazines that you/they have collected and can share with others. And very importantly, set aside time for reading in the TL every day or every lesson. If it is possible in your institution, form reading buddies with younger students. Older students can read aloud regularly to younger ones using textbooks and other materials at the level of the younger students and then let the younger students read to them.
Use online materials if possible (especially ones read or sung aloud):
- YouTube has many videos teaching simple songs and their lyrics.
- For older students, the song lyric videos of popular songs are a rich resource.
- Websites like Learn English Through Story provide slides of simplified stories read aloud.
- Teenagers and young adults can also have an enjoyable reading experience using websites like Learn English that provide lessons based on hit songs by popular musicians.
Reading is a vital learning tool for first and additional language learners. Once we have learned to read smoothly, we can begin reading to learn new vocabulary and knowledge. Let’s make use of this unique human ability.
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References & Further Reading
Baddeley, A. (2019). Working memories: Postmen, divers, and the cognitive revolution. London, UK: Routledge.
Baddeley, A., Gathercole, S., & Papagno, C. (1998). The phonological loop as a language learning device. Psychological Review, 105, 158–173.
Dehaene, S. How the brain learns to read. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=25GI3-kiLdo
Gillis-Furutaka, A. (2019). The Phonological Loop (our inner ear and inner voice) and its role in reading. Bulletin of the JALT Mind, Brain, and Education SIG co-published with the Extensive Reading SIG, 5(6), 6-16.
Amanda Gillis-Furutaka believes in the power of reading to consolidate language learning. She studied French at a British university in the days when students had to read many classics in the original every week. Her phonological loop was very active at first, but faded into a comfortable silence, and French is still her most fluent foreign language.