The National Center for Learning Disabilities
By Amanda Morin
May 16, 2014
At a Glance:
- Working memory helps kids hold on to information long enough to use it.
- Working memory plays an important role in concentration and in following instructions.
- Weak working memory skills can affect learning in many different subject areas including reading and math.
Sometimes referred to as short-term memory, working memory is the mental sticky note we use to keep track of information until we need to use it. Working memory is key to learning. Here are five ways children use working memory to learn.
1.) Capture and Use Information. There are two types of working memory: auditory memory and visual-spatial memory. You can think of these skills in terms of making a video. Auditory memory records what you’re hearing while visual-spatial memory captures what you’re seeing. But that’s where working memory’s similarity with making a video ends.
When you make a video, visual and auditory information is stored for safekeeping and can be played back when you need to access it. You don’t necessarily need to pay attention to details when you’re filming. Working memory, on the other hand, isn’t just stored for later use. It has to be accessed and “played back” immediately—even as new information is arriving and needing to be incorporated.
When a teacher reads a word problem in math class, for example, kids need to be able to keep all the numbers in their head, figure out what operation to use and create a written math problem at the same time. Kids with weak working memory skills have difficulty grabbing and holding on to that incoming information. This means they have less material to work with when they’re performing a task. In math class, they may know how to do different kinds of calculations.
However, they run into trouble with word problems because it’s difficult to do the following two things at the same time:
- listen for clue words that indicate which operation to use, and
- remember the numbers that need to be plugged into the equation.
3.) Pay Attention. “Working memory is like a mental sticky note that keeps track of short-term information.”
The part of the brain responsible for working memory is also responsible for maintaining focus and concentration. Here, working memory skills help kids remember what they need to be paying attention to. Take, for example, doing a long division problem. Your child needs working memory not only to come up with the answer, but also to concentrate on all of the steps involved in getting there.
Kids with weak working memory skills have trouble staying on task to get to the end result. You could think of it like the learning equivalent of walking into a room and forgetting what you came in to get.
4.) Learn to Read. Working memory is responsible for many of the skills children use to learn to read. Auditory working memory helps kids hold on to the sounds letters make long enough to sound out new words. Visual working memory helps kids remember what those words look like so they can recognize them throughout the rest of a sentence.
When working effectively, these skills keep kids from having to sound out every word they see. This helps them read with less hesitation and become fluent readers. Learning to read isn’t as smooth a process for kids with weak working memory skills.
5.) Learn Math. Being able to solve math problems depends on a number of skills that build upon one another like building blocks. The block at the bottom—the most important one in the stack—is the ability to recognize and reproduce patterns. It’s the foundation for the next block: seeing patterns in numbers in order to solve and remember basic math facts.
From there, kids build up to storing information about a word problem in their head; they then use that information to create a number sentence to solve the problem. This eventually leads to the ability to remember mathematical formulas.
What keeps the blocks from toppling over is the ability to remember, sequence and visualize information—all of which can be difficult for a child with weak working memory skills.
Having weak working memory creates obstacles to learning. But there are ways to get around these obstacles. With help from you and supports at school, your child can build up working memory skills so learning is less of a struggle.
- Working memory is like a mental sticky note that keeps track of short-term information.
- There are two kinds of working memory that work together: auditory memory and visual-spatial memory.
- There are things to do at home and at school to help your child strengthen working memory skills.
Amanda Morin is an education and parenting writer who uses her experience as an early interventionist and teacher to inform her writing. Her work appears on many parenting websites and she is the author of two books, including The Everything Parent’s Guide to Special Education.