Working memory is a kind of ‘mental jotting pad’ that stores information for everyday use such as remembering telephone numbers, following directions and instructions, and keeping track of shopping list items in a supermarket. Working memory helps children and young people to plan, comprehend information, reason, and problem-solve. Information held in working memory can be easily lost through distraction or overload, and different people have different working memory capacity.
Many children who struggle to make progress in school have difficulty with activities that require both storage and processing. One example of this would be maths problems that require several steps to complete the task. Another example might be reading comprehension activities, where information has to be put together to get to the required answer.
Suggestions for support in school
- Recognise working memory failures: you will notice when the child forgets things that s/he has been taught recently, if he loses his place in the middle of a task, if he cannot or does not follow instructions. These are all examples of problems with working Memory.
- Monitor and ask: encourage the child to tell you when s/he has forgotten something. Children can be helped to notice what they find especially difficult, so that they havesome ownership of the support strategies.
- Evaluate and reduce working memory loads: long sequences of instructions, new or unfamiliar content, and processes that require many steps to complete a task, all place a heavy demand on working memory.
- You can help by reducing the amount of material to be remembered, linking new content to familiar previous learning, structuring complex tasks so that each step is set out.
- Repeat important information: Teachers can provide repetition, or pupils can be nominated as ‘memory guides’.
- Encourage use of memory aids: These include wall charts and posters, useful spellings, cubes, counters, memory cards, audio recorders, small key rings with key words or concepts that can be kept in a pocket.
- Develop the child’s own strategies: Encourage the child to ask for help, use a friend as a ‘memory guide’, help with organisational strategies, use note taking, coloured charts, mind maps. Encourage the child to “come back and tell me” if they forget what to do.
The University of Bristol have developed four films and fact sheets explaining working memory and how it relates to classroom learning in children and young people.
The British Psychological Society have produced an article on working memory in the classroom, and can be accessed here https://www.bps.org.uk/psychologist/working-memory-classroom.
The International Dyslexia Association have a factsheet working memory: the engine for learning.
The National Deaf Childrens Society have a programme for deaf children aged 5-11 to help improve their working memory, and resources can be accessed through their webpage.
Last updated 24-04-2023.