The Impact of Poor Working Memory



Working memory is the ability we have to hold and manipulate information in the mind over short periods of time. It is also known as ‘short term memory’. When we first perceive something, it is ‘worked on’ in working memory (short term memory). This is called encoding. Memories have to be encoded before they can be stored in long-term memory.

Working memory is important because it provides a mental workspace in which we can hold information whilst engaged in other activities. The capacity to do this is crucial to many learning activities in the classroom. Children often have to hold information in their mind whilst engaged in an effortful activity. The information to be remembered may, for example, be the sentence that they intend to write while they are trying to spell the individual words. It could also be the list of instructions given by the teacher while carrying out individual steps in the task.

 It is suggested that because children with weak working memory often fail to meet working memory demands of individual learning episodes, the incremental process of acquiring skills and knowledge over the school years is disrupted.

Working memory plays an important role in reading comprehension and, for younger children, in the development of decoding skills to create reading fluency. It is a measure of the capacity of individuals to hold information in mind with the purpose of completing a task and helps them to remember the rules within a game or task.


How do I know if my child has poor working memory? 

Well, this area is normally assessed by an Educational Psychologist when they look at the child's overall cognitive ability. However, there are some functional implications that you can observe aswell:

Difficulty retelling a story using own words.

Incomplete recall, such as forgetting some or all of the words in a sentence, or of a sequence of words

Forgetting instructions, including remembering only the part of a sequence of instructions, or forgetting the content of an instruction 

Place-keeping errors – for example, repeating and/or skipping letters and words during sentence writing, missing out large chunks of a task.

Task abandonment – the child gives up a task completely.

Difficulty remembering the details of activities with more than one step.

Difficulty remembering place within a complicated task


Strategies to Help Develop Working Memory:


  • Prompt retrieval, e.g., ask the child for details of what s/he is doing and intends to do next
  • Increase the meaningfulness and degree of familiarityof the material to be remembered (facilitate categorisation in storage and retrieval or previously learnt knowledge)
  • Hook information in with larger concepts or a big picture. For kids with poorer working memory skills, the big ideas can act as a guidepost. If they can get big ideas down, it helps them remember other concepts.
  • Simplifying instructions.Young children can’t hold as many words in their head at a time as we can, so instructions should be short, simple and direct. For example, saying “When you’ve read two pages, you can watch The Simpsons” is simpler and more direct than saying “If you complete your homework, then you can watch TV for half an hour.”
  • Repeat information as required, and encourage the child to request information as required.
  • Break down or chunktasks and instructions into smaller components to minimise memory load. re-structure multi-step tasks into separate independent steps, supported by memory aids if possible e.g., write the instructions in different coloured ink in order to create a visual cue for the child to keep track of their place, or give the child 3 math problems to do at once (rather than the whole set of 15) and give feedback on those answers before she sees more.
  • Use of external tools that act as memory aids for the child e.g., story structures, pictures
  • Adapt it. All children are different, figuring out what style of instruction best suits your child can help him remember. This could be giving multi-step instructions verbally, writing instructions so they can refer to them, or maybe making a checklist where they check off each step as they go. Some children need to be given one step at a time.
  • Reduceworking memory loads where possible, e.g., reducing the overall amount of material to be stored (e.g. shortening sentences to be written or number of items to be remembered)


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