Why Can't My Child Follow Directions?

My child isn't listening.

Parents and teachers often mention that it is hard for their dyslexic child or student to follow directions. There are many possible reasons for this and causes can overlap.

The most common reason could be a weakness in one or more learning micro-skill.

Micro-Skills are the foundation of learning. We tend to think of intelligence as one specific thing. However, it is actually a combination of a variety of smaller skills we call micro-skills. Each learning or remembering task is dependent on, and made up of, these micro-skills.

For example, if we try to remember a sequence of numbers or letters we might rely upon auditory memory or visual memory. Try this out for yourself. Try to remember the following sequence and look away from the page.


Now, how did you do it?

Did you repeat the numbers auditorily internally?

Or did you see the numbers in your head?

Okay, now try this one


If you are auditory dominant and you tried to store it in your mind that way you would have a lot of difficulties. That's because trying to store the capitals and lower case letters just doubled the amount of information. The same number of symbols but far more information.

To do this efficiently we would actually use both. Auditory memory is very good for sequencing while visual memory can be easier to recall and store more information. So we could remember the sequence in our auditory memory and remember capital or lower case in visual memory. Working together these two forms of memory are quite powerful. And, as you can see, a weakness in either could cause a difficulty in remembering sequences of instructions. Thus, a difficulty in following instructions.

Let's use another example. Say I gave the following instructions:

"Go to the store and get bread, mayonnaise, a can of tuna, pickles, lettuce, and milk"

You might go off to the store repeating that sequence over and over auditorily. Or you might just visualize a nice tuna fish sandwich and know to get everything for that. So, in that case, you would be storing two pieces of information, the store and lunch, rather than seven pieces of information. You can see how using these two micro-skills, visual memory and auditory memory, are far more powerful together than individually.

It's not always about the strength of these skills. Sometimes we can be strong in a micro-skill but simply not "remember" to use it for a given task. This is why it's important to practice the strong skills as well. Because doing so can "remind" the brain to use them. In other words, a skill can be strong but compartmentalized. The solution to this is variety in exercises. And not necessarily looking for the challenging micro-skill exercises. Certainly, you would want to do the challenging ones, just not at the exclusion of the easy ones. Everything works together.

Following instructions requires remembering sequences. It is not simply memory, but instead various forms of memory that all work together. If one or more is weak, not used, or not working well with the others then poor sequencing will be a symptom of those underlying problems.

These skills are so subtle and so fundamental that most of us are simply not aware that we are doing them. They are usually below our level of consciousness. Yet taken together they make up memory skills, sequencing skills, and many other learning skills. It is these fundamental skills that we need to work on helping our dyslexic students develop to ultimately support the over arching skills.