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Working Memory

A guide for SENCOs and teachers

March 2015

Wh s w k m m y dh wd s d ff f m h f ms f

How does working memory operate?

What might I see in the classroom?

What is the impact of poor working memory on learning?

How can I identify difficulties and assess working memory?

How can I help?

Further reading

What is working memory
and how does it differ from
other forms of memory?

Working memory deficit is a difficulty which is often overlooked and not

fully understood by teachers. The impact in the classroom can be huge -
across the whole curriculum - and the understanding of what working
memory is, what constitutes a high working memory load and how this
can be reduced and supported is essential in developing successful
classrooms for all pupils.


Working memory is the term used to refer to the ability we have to

hold and manipulate information in the mind over short periods of
time. It provides a mental workspace or jotting pad that is used to
store important information in the course of our everyday lives

(Sue Gathercole 2008).

It is thought that working memory is central to an understanding of how

people think and is closely associated with learning. It encompasses the
skills that underpin reasoning, remembering and more recently has been
linked s s s s ss. P ls b l s h k y s
of reading, writing and mathematics can be closely linked to their scores
on working memory tests.

Weak working memory is also known to be a component of the specific

learning difficulty of dyslexia as it affects the ls ability to retain and
recall phonological information.

In order to understand working memory and how it operates in our daily

lives it is important to understand the different forms of memory that
store a variety of information some of which are permanent stores and
others more fleeting.

Procedural Memory is formed of learned skills
involving co-ordination of physical movements
such as writing your name or driving a car. Once
established these memories last a lifetime.

Semantic Memory is where we store items of

information that we frequently use or are exposed
to; the capital of France, 5+5, the name of the first
woman prime minister. If this information is
frequently used retrieved from the memory store
it will last a lifetime. However it will become more
difficult to access if it is not used.

Autobiographical Memory is the store of facts and

significant events from your life such as a wedding
day, first day at school. It comprises lots of sensory
memories of feelings, sound, smell, taste and sight.
These stimuli make the memories very strong and
they can be easily brought back by experiencing
the same sounds (eg. songs), smells and other
sensory stimuli.

Episodic Memory records the details of particular

experiences and only lasts for up to several days
the time that you need to store that particular
information. For example remembering that your
supermarket delivery is due at 10am tomorrow.
Once the need for that particular memory has
passed then it will fade.

It is estimated that 1 in 10 pupils have a significant difficulty with Working
Memory that impairs their learning; this equates to 3 pupils in an
average classroom

Some examples of tasks that depend on working memory / place a high

demand on working

F ll w d s s h s Wh y h y m hs
b ks my d sk f d y d b ks ds h

Hearing an unfamiliar word such as in a foreign language - and

attempting to repeat it several seconds later

Adding up and remembering the total amount spent as you select

items from shelves at the supermarket and add them to your

Remembering to measure and combine the correct amounts of

ingredients (rub in 50g of margarine and 100g of flour, then add
75g of sugar) when the recipe is no longer in view

It is often said that the average adult cannot hold more than six or seven
units of information in working memory. A unit of memory depends on
whether or not the material to be remembered is organised in a
meaningful way or not.

Combining two sources of memory

working memory and memory for
meaning boosts memory
performance dramatically

Once information has been lost from working memory it cannot be

d; h ly s s .Ty h k b k w ll
retrieve the information as the memory traces are no longer there. This
could explain why a child may stare blankly at a teacher when asked
what he or she should be doing next. It is important that such memory
failures are recognised in the classroom and that the teacher and pupils
work together to

How does working memory work?

There are four main parts to the currently recognised working memory
model. These are Verbal Shortterm Memory ( Phonological Loop) ,
Visuo-spatial Short-term Memory (Visuo-spatial sketchpad), what is
commonly known as the Central Executive, and finally the Episodic

Instead of all the received sensory information going into one single
store, these are the different systems for dealing with the different types
of information.

The Visuo-Spatial Sketch Pad (VSS) or inner eye stores and

processes information in a visual or spatial form. The VSS is used for

The Phonological Loop (PL) is the part of working memory that deals
with spoken and written material. It can be used to remember a phone
number. It consists of two parts

Phonological Store (inner ear) Linked to speech perception

Holds information in speech-based form (i.e. spoken words) for 1-2

Articulatory control process (inner voice) Linked to speech

production. Used to rehearse and store verbal information from the
phonological store.

The labels given to the components of the working memory reflect their
function and the type of information they process and manipulate. The
phonological loop is assumed to be responsible for the manipulation of
speech based information, whereas the visuo-spatial sketchpad is
assumed to be responsible for manipulating visual images. The model
proposes that every component of working memory has a limited
capacity and also that the components are relatively independent of
each other.

Central Executive: Drives the whole system (e.g. the boss of working
memory) and allocates data to the subsystems (VSS & PL) which
controls attention and higherlevel mental processes involving co-
ordinating storage and mental processing. It also deals with cognitive
tasks such as mental arithmetic and problem solving.

The Episodic Buffer is the most recent addition to the working memory
m d l d s h h b m l -m d l s . Th s m s h sd s
not just store information in one form such as visual or auditory. This
means it is unlike the VSS or PL the episodic buffer is thought to bind
together information and therefore give us a sense of consciousness
integrating information into a coherent episode.

Noteworthy facts from the described model of working memory are:

Each of the four components has its own limited capacity

There are links running in both directions between each of the

individual stores and the central executive

There is no corresponding path between visuo-spatial and verbal
short-term memories

It is worth noting that the m Sh m m m y (STM) is commonly

used to describe situations in which the individual simply has to store
some material without manipulating it or doing something else at the
same time. E.g. remembering a telephone number. Working memory
tasks tend to tax the central executive, and are more complex than short
term memory tasks, involving storage and manipulation.


Working memory is used to hold information in mind and

manipulate it for brief periods of time. Pupils often have to hold
information in order to be engaged in effortful activity.

Working memory is limited in capacity which varies between

individuals and is affected by the characteristics of the task.

Working memory is a series of linked components.

Short term memory involves storage, whereas working memory is

involved with storing and processing.

Information is lost from working memory

when we are distracted (including noise
and movement) or its limited capacity is

What might I observe in the

In this section, the characteristics of a child with working

memory difficulties will be described. The types of activities
that place a high demand on working memory will be
explained and some examples given.

What might I see if working memory is a Why might I be

problem? seeing it?

The boys, as a group, are making less academic More boys than girls
progress than the girls. have working memory
Booster and catch up groups have more boys than

I s s lly b ys m s h h h lls
h y

In a pre-tutoring group, they appear to have Larger groups place

understood the topic and are confident to talk. more demands on
However, when the topic is covered in class, they working memory.
are silent unless called upon, in which case they
look very nervous.

Th y sw q s s l h
they have previously answered in a smaller group.

They have one or two close friends and dislike

large group games.

They are often in trouble with pe s f h

game wrong

Th y h sh h sw b f h y Having to store
forget it. If made to wait before they are asked, they information and
may open their mouths to answer and then forget process new
what to say. information at the
same time is difficult.
They may start a task off well but when the teacher
s s h l ss d -stop l y, h y
cannot remember where to start again afterwards.

They are easily distracted by people around them

chatting or doing other activities.

Their mental maths is significantly below their

ability if given a pencil and paper and more time.

They can read the words but not be able to tell you
wh h y d. B wh s d h m, h
comprehension improves.

A lesson or activity may start off well but not be Working memory is
finished to the same standard. easily overloaded

Long discussions may end with disruptive


Af ds y m y h m z

Work is rushed and finished early.

They are the last to carry out instructions Holding and

They may be watching others a lot
instructions is difficult
They ask their friends to clarify tasks

If interrupted in the middle of a task, they struggle

to re-start.

They may miss whole steps out when attempting a


Common high working memory loads activities often seen in

Remembering sequences

Counting patterns (times tables) especially when reversed e.g.

turning a multiplication sum into a division fact mentally.

Multi-step sequences to answer questions e.g. long multiplication.

Copying unknown words off a board e.g. new vocabulary.

Writing lengthy sentences containing content that has not been

fully understood.

Following lengthy instructions

A homework instruction given verbally at the end of the lesson

after the bell has gone.

I s s h s h w d f d . . if you have done p45

you can chose to do worksheet 1 or worksheet 2. Otherwise you
h d 45 46.

Instructions given out of order e.g. b f y u do the green

worksheet you must have put your book in the red box but only do
this after y h h d d l .

Keeping track of the place reached in the course of multi-level


A 3-step question in maths.

Any problem solving activity.


Copying from the board.

Navigating around a school.

Collecting equipment needed for a task.

Writing the date, title and learning objective before attempting the

What happens when working
memory is overloaded?

The learning difficulties that pupils with poor working memory face arise
because they are unable to meet the memory demands of a learning
situation. This leads to memory overload and information such as the
sentence they were going to write is lost. This loss can be described
s s h s b d. Th s m s h h h ld
cannot continue with the activity and complete it successfully unless he
or she is able to access again the critical task information that is needed.
If this information is not available then either the child will need to guess
(which can lead to errors) or give up.

Many structured activities place excessive demands on working memory

for many individuals, as they require the pupil to hold substantial
amounts of information, often while completing another mental activity.

They are often described as failing to check work for mistakes and
l ss s, d w k h s sl y d ly s d. In
order to check whether work is correct needs a comparison with the
original instruction, which is probably out of the question for a pupil with
poor working memory

This failure of working memory slows the rate at which pupils can
accumulate key knowledge and skills, especially vocabulary.


P ls progress in reading maths and science is closely related to

their working memory capacities, across the full range of school

Poor working memory performance does not appear to be due to

more general factors such as language difficulties or non-verbal

The poor rates of learning in pupils with low working memory

capacities are due, in large part, to memory overload.

The pupil may appear to be inattentive and highly distractible,

probably due to memory overload and forgetting.

In summary, any task that requires a pupil to hold information in their

heads and then use it to complete a task will place a demand on working
memory. This is especially true when asking a pupil to remember or
follow instructions or sequences. This will be mostly seen in reading,
writing, maths and transferring from one activity to another.

When demands are too high, the pupil may appear to be distractible and
lack concentration. Their behaviour may deteriorate or they may become
heavily reliant on their peers for support. There may be discrepancies in
their work depending on the setting, the time of day and the type of
support given.

What is the impact of a
poor working memory in
the classroom?

Working memory capacity is one of the most important cognitive

indicators linked to academic attainment in key areas of the curriculum
such as reading and maths.
It is the ability to hold and use information for a short period of time e.g.
manipulating numbers in mental maths tasks.
It depends upon

capacity This is linked to age and increases until mid-teens

and begins to fall in mid-thirties
understanding Having the ability to understand the language used
in order to respond to questions and formulate
focus The ability to focus on the task and not be
processing In order to complete a task, information has to be

Although working memory in childhood increases with age it can differ

substantially from pupil to pupil. Accordi m s s h s ls
relative capacity is established by the age of four and is unlikely to
change without intervention.
Learning activities in the classroom help the pupil to gradually
accumulate the knowledge and skills they need to become competent in
areas such as reading and maths over the years.

Poor working memory provides a relatively general constraint on
progress. Pupils with low working memory capacities become
overloaded by structured learning activities causing them to forget
crucial information.
Poor working memory performance does not appear to be linked to more
general factors such as low IQ or language difficulties.
If a pupil is already behind its peers in their primary years they are likely
to fall further behind in their secondary years. Poor working memory
affects all areas of learning from getting from A to B around school to the
ability to copy notes from the board or do simple calculations.

Activities that place minimal demands on working

memory should not be affected by high anxiety
levels but if anxiety and working memory loads
are high, performance will suffer

How can I identify difficulties and
assess working memory?

There are a number of ways to assess whether or not a student has an

issue with working memory:

Digit memory assessment
Non word repetition assessment
Specific assessments that exist purely to test for working memory

However, before assessment is started, it is important to make sure that

the child is considered holistically. Many factors can impact negatively
upon memory e.g. tiredness and stress and it is important that these are
addressed before any assessment process is started.


Initially, an informal checklist, such as the Cogmed one below, may be

used to identify whether the student has a specific set of behaviours that
would appear to be consistent with working memory difficulties. These
checklists can be tailored to be subject or age specific. At this stage,
demands on working memory should be reduced and the effectiveness

More formal checklists exist, such as The Working Memory Rating Scale
available through Pearson. This is an assessment completed by a
member of staff who knows the pupil and makes judgements against a
series of statements relating to working memory based on observations.
The total score is then linked to a scale indicating the likelihood of
difficulties and the extent to which a difficulty could be severe in nature.
It is useful as an initial investigation and it adds to evidence gained from
other sources.

Working Memory Checklist (Cogmed)

An individual may be constrained by working memory capacity if he/she:

1. Is easily distracted when working on or doing something that is not

highly interesting.

2. Has trouble waiting his/her turn, for example in a conversation or

when waiting in line to get help.

3. Struggles with reading comprehension and has to read through texts

School based assessments
repeatedly to understand.

4. Struggles with problem solving that requires holding information in

Digitmind, for example
Memory mental
(from the mathPortfolio)
Dyslexia calculations.

This Is inconsistent
is a in remembering
simple assessment mathaged
for primary facts.
Pupils. It requires the child
to repeat strings of number of and increasing length. This measures
6. Struggles with completing tasks, especially multiple step tasks.
short term memory. The child is then required to repeat a given string of
digitsHas difficultyThis
in reverse. remembering
measures long instruction
working memory. given in several
Results are steps, for
example so
standardised following
that it isrecipes,
to see if or
theschool/work assignments.
child is performing at
average levels. The Backward Digit Span (from the Dyslexia
8. Struggles to understand the context in a story or a conversation.
Screening Test Secondary) performs the same test of working
9. Hasfor secondary
difficulties whenaged pupils.and organising something that needs
to be done in separate steps.
Phonological Working Memory Test (from the PhAB2)
10. Has difficulty staying focused during cognitive-demanding tasks, but
Again, for primary aged pupils, this test requires the child to repeat (not
attends well when cognitive demands are minimal.
read) a list of non-words of increasing length and complexity. It is also
11. Has difficulty integrating new information with prior knowledge.

12. When called on, forgets what he/she was planning to say.

13. Has specialist assessments
difficulty taking notes and listening at the same time.

If the results of simpler tests and checklists, and the accommodations

that they inform, do not produce results, it may be necessary for more in
depth analysis to be undertaken.

AWMA (Automated Working Memory Assessment)

This is a completely computerised assessment that can be done at three

levels a screener, a short form and a long form. It is suitable for pupils
and young people aged 4 to 22 years.

TOMAL (Test of Memory and Learning)

This is a broader assessment of memory and its impact on learning

What can I do to help?

It is very important to recognise working memory failures so that the

structure of learning activities can be modified. Identifying such failures
can be seen through such errors as
Incomplete recall of a sentence or sequence of words
Failure to follow instructions
Place keeping errors
Task abandonment

Remember that children are often acutely aware of their memory

difficulties even from a young age.

Working memory demands can be reduced through using the following

Consider your teaching style and lesson planning
Review previous lesson information
Provide a visual model/example so that the pupil knows what is
If a pupil forgets some or all of what they have to do be prepared to
modify how the learning activity is presented
Ask your pupil to regularly repeat crucial information this strategy of
rehearsal is crucial to support verbal short-term memory
An adult or other pupil can act as a memory guide or listening buddy
Chunk words and information into steps that they can do one at a
Use language that is simple in both vocabulary and phrasing
Shorten sentences
Be prepared to repeat key facts
Use memory prompts such as pictures, numbers or symbols to
represent the sequence of activities
Where possible include movement and rhythm as a moving image is
more likely to be remembered
Encourage the pupil to draw or map out their thoughts using diagrams
or flow charts
Help them to make connections/links to what they already know
Use aids such as digital recording devices and tablets to help your
pupil retain the essential information
Teach the pupil to use useful tools such as a ruler/number line, table
square, calculator, hundred square accurately
Play s m h m s SNAP e.g. - a few scientific words to
match to their simplified definition played on a regular basis will help
them to recall that fact
Make up a simple story that uses items/objects that need to be
remembered that can be visualised
Encourage all children to ask focussed questions when they realise
they have forgotten what to do

Teach them to juggle!

Juggling uses both sides of the brain and can

improve memory and concentration.

Is there anything we can do to help
older students?

Older pupils tend to struggle with lecture-based presentations which

require them to attend, listen, understand new material and take notes.
They often find it hard to maintain concentration over longer lessons and
to organise large amounts of material from different sources in a
coherent manner.
It is important to recognise working memory failures and ensure
that all staff working with a student who has a poor working
memory are aware of that fact

Aim to reduce working memory loads by reducing the amount of

information to be remembered

Use the same routines each day to reinforce learning

Use visual aids or encourage pupil to draw pictures to help them to

recall an activity linking it to an emotion if possible

Repeat important information or provide a peer buddy for

additional support

Encourage the use of memory aids such as personalised

dictionaries, table mats, topic posters, memory cards, key rings,
number lines, Dictaphones and ICT

Help the student to identify what helps them best to recall, retain
and process information.
- repeating information to themselves silently or out loud
- breaking down numbers or letters into chunks
- linking to known information

Develop the students own strategies such as asking for help,
rehearsal, place keeping and note taking

Encourage them to review notes before going to sleep

The diary/homework organiser is an essential piece of equipment

at secondary level and students must take responsibility for it
themselves. Note the date given but also record when due in to
help reduce overload at the end of the lesson

Students need to write exactly what is discussed / taught as it may

be a while before the homework task is looked at again and brief
notes may not be enough

Adults or a peer buddy need to check that the task has been
understood and recorded correctly

Encourage use of a highlighter to pick out key words or facts. The

f s s h s s lly w s s it
often contains a key fact

Consider how technology such as iPads can be used to

photograph mind maps, homework tasks and group notes

Older students are more effective at using their

own strategies to overcome working memory
related problems.


Autobiographical memory - The long term memory system supporting

memory for significant events across a lifetime

AWMA - The Automated Working Memory Assessment, a computerised

s b y h ss ss s d d ls y h s b-
component of working memory

Central Executive - The sub-component of working memory that

controls attention and co-ordinates activity both within the working
memory system and between working memory and other cognitive
systems such as long-term memory

Chunking - The grouping together of individual items into an integrated

whole to enhance recall, typically using long-term memory

Episodic Memory - The long-term memory system supporting memory

for events in the relatively recent past, typically spanning minutes
through to days

Long-term Memory - Memory for experiences that occurred at a point in

time prior to the immediate past, and also for knowledge that has been
acquired over long periods of time. Long-term memory systems include
episodic memory, autobiographical memory, semantic memory and
procedural memory

Memory cards - Individualised memory prompts used in the classroom

Memory Guide - A child nominated to assist a fellow pupil with memory-
related difficulties

Memory Span - A measure of the maximum amount of material that an

individual can successfully remember on a test of working memory

Procedural memory - Long term memory for skills such as cycling that
have been acquired through repeated practice and that can be executed
m lly, w h m l ff

Rehearsal - The voluntary act of mentally repeating information,

typically with the aim of prolonging its storage in working memory.
Rehearsal is a particularly important strategy associated with verbal
short-term memory

Semantic memory - The long-term memory system supporting

knowledge such as facts and word meanings

STM - Short-term Memory. The ability to hold information in mind for

short periods of time

Verbal Short-term Memory - The sub-component of working memory

that stores verbal information

Visuo-spatial - Relating to abilities or information that can be expressed

in terms of physical characteristics relating to vision, space or movement

Visuo-spatial short-term memory - The sub-component of working

memory that stores information relating to vision, space or movement
Working Memory - The ability to hold and manipulate information in
mind for brief periods of time in the course of on-going mental activities,
consisting of a system of four sub-components, verbal short-term
memory, Visuo-spatial short-term memory, central executive and
episodic buffer

Working memory capacity - The limit on the amount of information that

can be held in working memory. Each sub-component of working
memory has its own limit

Where else can I look for

Working Memory and Learning A practical guide for teachers

By Susan E Gathercole and Tracy Packam Alloway Sage

Ready Set Remember

By Beatrice Mense, Sue Debney and Tanya Druce

The Learning Brain: Memory and Brain Development in Children

by Torkel Klingberg and Neil Betteridge

Mind Maps For Kids: An Introduction

by Tony Buzan

Differentiation Through Learning Styles and Memory

by Marilee B. Sprenger

Understanding Working Memory

by Tracy Packiam Alloway