Head and Coordination






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01/2011 – 09/2014

Project BÄRENstark!

Working Memory Competencies of Children with Learning Difficulties

The project BÄRENstark! investigated the cognitive causes of learning difficulties in basic scholastic competencies such as reading, spelling, and calculating.

The project BÄRENstark! (German word for 'as strong as a bear') aimed at exploring the differential diagnostic relevance of working memory for children with learning disorders. Moreover, BÄRENstark investigated interindividual differences in the children’s working memory development. 465 children participated in this longitudinal study, 365 of whom exhibited learning difficulties in at least one academic domain while the remaining 100 children showed no learning problems and therefore served as a control group. Approximately half of the children with low achievement scores showed an additional IQ-achievement discrepancy according to ICD-10 and thus exhibited a learning disorder. Among the learning disorders examined were the specific reading disorder, the specific spelling disorder, the disorder of arithmetical skills, and the mixed disorder of scholastic skills. The other children with learning difficulties did not show an IQ discrepancy (so-called poor learners).

The children were followed longitudinally from the beginning of third grade to the end of fifth grade: Once a year, their school achievement was tested as well as their working memory functioning and additional cognitive factors. It was thus possible to examine the developmental interplay between working memory and school achievement in children with learning disorders.

For instance, the following research questions were addressed by BÄRENstark!:

  • Do children with various learning disorders exhibit different working memory deficits?
  • How does working memory develop in children with learning disorders?
  • Are there any systematic differences in the development of working memory between children who overcome their learning disorders and those whose learning problems persist?

Knowledge of the specific working memory characteristics enables a clear diagnosis of learning difficulties and might be used in developing new approaches to supporting the children.

BÄRENstark! was part of the multicenter study RAVEN, a collaboration involving the Universities of Frankfurt, Hildesheim and Oldenburg.

Selected Results

BÄRENstark! examined the prevalence of learning disorders as well as issues relating to differential diagnostics:

  1. On the prevalence of learning disorders in mid-primary school: BÄRENstark! investigated the prevalence rates of learning disorders in mid-primary school. To this end, 2195 children in second and third grade completed standardized achievement tests for reading, spelling, and mathematics as well as a measure of nonverbal IQ. The results showed that 23.3% of all children scored below average in at least one academic domain despite unimpaired intellectual ability. Of these, 13.3% also met the IQ-achievement discrepancy criterion of ICD-10. This estimate of 13% is considerably higher than previous prevalence rates, which found that about 3% to 8% of children exhibit IQ-discrepant learning problems. As regards the different learning disorder subtypes, prevalence rates were highest for specific spelling disorder and lowest for the mixed disorder of scholastic skills.
  2. Differential diagnostic relevance of working memory for learning disorders: One objective of the RAVEN study was to investigate whether various learning disorders are associated with different working memory profiles. With respect to learning disorders in reading versus spelling, our study revealed that children with reading disorder exhibited little impairments in the phonological loop, but marked impairments in the central executive. Children with spelling disorder showed severe deficits in the phonological loop but not in the other working memory subcomponents. The results suggest that it is important to take both reading and spelling into account when investigating the cognitive underpinnings of literacy difficulties in transparent orthographies.
  3. The IQ-achievement-discrepancy: Working memory differences between learning disorder and poor learning: The IQ-discrepancy criterion has long been a matter of  debate because IQ-consistent and IQ-discrepant poor learners do not seem to differ in symptoms and cognitive risk-factors. But since most of the research on the IQ-discrepancy criterion has been conducted in English speaking countries, it is questionable whether those findings also relate to German orthography. Therefore, we examined whether working memory in children with low achievement differs as a function of IQ-achievement discrepancy. Overall, our results show that the working memory profiles associated with learning disorders are very similar to those associated with poor learning. This can be taken as further evidence for the low validity of the IQ-achievement discrepancy criterion.

Selected Publications

Brandenburg, J., Klesczewski, J., Fischbach, A., Schuchardt, K., Büttner, G., & Hasselhorn, M. (2014). Working memory in children with learning disabilities in reading versus spelling: searching for overlapping and specific cognitive factors. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 48, 622–634. doi:10.1177/0022219414521665

Klesczewski, J., Brandenburg, J., Fischbach, A., Grube, D., Hasselhorn, M., & Büttner, G. (2015). Working memory functioning in children with poor mathematical skills: Relationships to IQ–achievement discrepancy and additional reading and spelling difficulties. Zeitschrift für Psychologie, 223, 83–92. doi:10.1027/2151-2604/a000206