Managing Working Memory

Working memory is emerging as a topic of interest for many parents as they explore why their child is struggling at school. If their child is assessed by an educational psychologist they may find that their child’s working memory is in the low range when compared to their peers.


If working memory is found to be low, then the next obvious question must be, can it be improved and if so, how?


Fortunately, there are many programs available online that are either free or at least inexpensive and if done diligently, should help significantly. Alternatively, consult a specialist teacher, speech pathologist or educational psychologist who could tailor a program to help.


As an alternative idea, rather than trying to improve the working memory in the hope that school performance will improve, we find that by managing the workload, excellent results can be achieved rapidly.


Clinically, working memory is like the processor in our brain, with a similar role to that of the RAM memory in a computer. Just like the RAM memory, working memory deals with the here and now and must operate all the open programs concurrently and herein lies the problem.


We have all experienced the frustration of a computer that slows down and may even  halt from opening too many programs at the same time. Simply opening fewer, or closing unnecessary programs will allow the same computer to function well. Our brain works in a remarkably similar fashion and provides a great perspective from which to examine this topic.


We have all experienced overload in our own brain when simple tasks become difficult. Fatigue, illness, major stress like deaths, divorce or marriage are perfect overloading scenarios for adults, but for children, it takes much less to cause overload.


Learning to recognize working memory overload is an incredibly valuable skill and can be achieved by most parents if they know where and how to look. This may help achieve maximum learning gains in a given period of study.


Kids just love to learn and they know when they are struggling. Achieving or struggling are major influencers on self esteem and self image at school.


Try this little experiment and you may be able to find the working memory threshold for your child.  Then you can regulate what work they do so that they have more success.  (To accommodate different ages and abilities the experiment scales up from easy to hard).


Ask the child to read the first sentence on the page (any page will do) – perhaps 12 words long.

Then ask them to read it again

Then ask them to read it again.


Observation: I would expect that if the sentence was about right for the child, that it could be difficult to read at first, but on rereads it should improve. Therefore working memory is NOT overloaded.


Alternatively, it may remain too difficult and on rereads there is little or no improvement.


If this is the case, shorten the sentence to about 4 words in length.

Ask the child to read this ‘shorter sentence’ a few times.


Hopefully, you will find that your child’s ability to read this sentence improves each time he reads it.  This means that the 4 word sentence is not overloading his memory like the 12 word sentence did.


Repeat this process with increasingly longer sentences and you should observe the exact point that the working memory becomes overloaded. For beginning readers, it will be at a critical point of perhaps 4 to 10 words.


For the better reader, who can read fluently with expression, it is common to find they can read a single paragraph very well, but as they extend into the second or third paragraph, then the fluency and expression will noticeably deteriorate.


As a rule of thumb, if the length and complexity of the task is appropriate, then the child can learn and retain the skill, but conversely, if it is too difficult, there will usually be confusion, frustration and poor development of the skill.


The power of working memory management might best be demonstrated by an 8 ½ year old girl who came to the Tyquin Reading Clinic. Tina struggled with reading, and rereading her first single sentence of 9 words took 15 repetitions before it could be retained and read as if she knew the words rather than if she had never seen them before. We went on to read it a total of 20 times.


Tina read the next sentence and so on, but was able to reduce the number of repetitions that she needed to retain the words, the phrasing and so forth. One week later, it took only 4 repetitions per sentence. Two repetitions to practise and two to read nicely, enjoying the story.


A fortnight later, Tina was able to read a paragraph containing 65 words after five repetitions. It took three practice reads and then the subsequent two reads were quite fluent and to a pleasing standard.


Amazingly, this continued and at six weeks, several paragraphs could be handled with confidence. The passage, now 194 words long, was managed with two practice reads and then the two fluent reads.


For further help please feel welcome to call our clinic at Tyquin Group Speech Pathology and Reading Clinic – 33998028