Approximately 10% of us have weak working memory; however, the estimates of the percentage of weak working memory in students with specific learning disorders, including dyslexia, ranges from 20 to 50 percent. Weak working memory is a core difficulty for students with ADHD, Inattentive Type.
Individuals with traumatic brain injury, deafness, oral language deficits or genetic disorders such as Down Syndrome are also more likely to have weak working memory. The purpose of this fact sheet is to describe the function of working memory, discuss the impact that weak working memory has on learning, and offer suggestions and resources for improving working memory and learning.
Parents often report that their child has a “poor memory” and that poor memory is contributing to difficulties with learning; however, we don’t have just one global memory system. We have several different memory systems that hold different types of information. For example, episodic memory is the store for events in the relatively recent past, such as the birthday party we attended last weekend. Procedural memory is memory for skills and habits. We use procedural memory for riding a bike or driving a car. Semantic memory is the store of knowledge gained over our lifetime and includes information about word meanings, spellings, and pronunciations. We may have great variation in the capacity of these different memory systems. For example, it’s possible to have a very strong episodic memory but a weak semantic memory.
“Working memory” is crucial for learning and refers to the ability to hold and manipulate information mentally over short periods of time. Working memory is a process and is different than rote memory, which involves passively memorizing static information.
Working memory is what is needed when we must go beyond straight memorization and do something with the information. Examples of everyday tasks that require working memory include:
Working memory is limited both in capacity and duration. The average adult cannot hold more than six or seven bits of information in working memory. The duration of working memory is usually limited to a matter of seconds. Once information is lost from working memory, it cannot e retrieved. The student who “loses” some of the steps for directions delivered orally will not be able to retrieve the steps without repetition or some other form of assistance.
Working memory is a system of interlinked components. The working memory system includes verbal and visual-spatial short-term memory stores. Verbal short-term memory holds information that can be expressed in numbers, words, and sentences. Visual-spatial short-term memory holds images, pictures, and information about location in space. Working memory also has a component that helps us resist distractions and remain focused when engaged in a task that requires working memory.
One of the key responsibilities of working memory is to manage, manipulate, and transform information from short-term and long-term memory. Working memory is the “go-between” for short and long-term memory. For example, solving a math word problem involves holding on to the details of the word problem in verbal short-term memory while retrieving from long-term memory the basic math facts needed to carry out the calculations involved in solving the problem.
Individuals with poor working memory tend to have trouble planning, organizing, and carrying out daily chores such as running errands, because it requires mentally formulating a “to do” list organized by time and location. Study skills may also suffer. Working memory allows us to keep track of priorities and helps us block the external or internal distractors that can derail us from the task at hand. Working memory helps us persist with tasks that require focused attention over time. Any of us, even those with strong working memories, can experience working memory problems when overly tired, anxious, or stressed.
A weak working memory can also have an impact on learning. Students with working memory constraints may:
A weak working memory can impede phonological learning and production at all levels. Consider a frequent rhyming exercise for young children. “Tell me which word rhymes with fox: truck, dog, box.”
To identify the two rhyming words, the child must hold and then compare all of the words in working memory (fox/truck, fox/dog, fox/box). When older children attempt to sound out new words, they must use their working memory to hold the entire sequence of sounds long enough to blend those sounds together.
Working memory is also key to:
Children with math learning disorders have pervasive weaknesses across all working memory components. Young students with weak working memory make more errors when translating numbers from verbal to written form than do students with strong working memory. The most persistent weakness in children with math learning difficulties is the ability to store and retrieve number combinations and facts from long-term memory. As a result, working memory resources are not available for more complex aspects of mathematical processing. Math fluency is disrupted because a slow and unpredictable response time is the outcome of lack of automaticity in retrieval of basic math facts.
Gaps in reading and spelling skills should be addressed directly. Weak working memory contributes to poor word decoding and encoding. Systematic synthetic multisensory phonic approaches are recommended for students with weak working memory.
For students with adequate decoding but low reading comprehension, direct training in strategies such as comprehension monitoring, knowledge and use of text structures, and use of linguistic context should be addressed. Students can also learn that it may be difficult to hold on to information when sentences are too long. Recognizing when sentences are too long is a cue to slow down, check for comprehension, and, if necessary, re-read.
Slow reading interferes with sentence/phrase comprehension. One strategy to address fluency is to model good fluency for the student by using proper intonation and chunking sentences into meaningful chunks. “Chunking” helps reduce the number of parts to be stored in working memory for immediate processing.
Students who struggle with math due to difficulty retrieving math facts should be allowed easy access to basic math facts. This approach allows the student to focus on higher level math reasoning without bogging down while trying to pull up information that is not automatic. In more advanced math, students may have trouble carrying out math processes that involve multiple steps. Such students may understand long division but make errors due to omitting some essential step. A ring with index cards that provide examples of worked problems that involved multiple steps can support memory and learning.
Classroom-based supports are easy to use and can benefit all students, not just students with weak working memory! Such supports include the following:
Working memory is essential for learning. While we do not yet have a way to change working memory per se, there are many things that parents and teachers can do to support learning and achievement in students who have weak working memories. Helpful resources and websites are listed below:
Berch, D. (2011), Working memory limitations in mathematics learning: Their Development, assessment, and remediation. Perspectives on Language and Literacy, (37) 2. 21–26.
Dehn, M. J. (2011) Helping students remember: Exercises and strategies to strengthen memory. New Jersey: Wiley and Sons.
Dehn, M. J. (2008) Working memory and academic learning: Assessment and Intervention. New Jersey: Wiley and Sons.
Farrell, M. L., & Matthews, M. (2010). Ready to read: A multisensory approach to language-based comprehension instruction. Baltimore: Brookes Publishing.
Gathercole, S. E., & Alloway, T.P. (2008) Working memory & learning: A practical guide for teachers. London: Sage Publications.
Kilpatrick, D. A. (2015) Essentials of assessing, preventing, and overcoming reading difficulties. New Jersey: Wiley & Sons.