In the last post in our Memory Series, I highlighted the differences between short-term and long-term memory and how important it is to work toward permanently ingrained learning…or learning that “sticks.”
Though it may seem like long-term memory is of greater importance than short-term memory, in this post we’ll look at why one particular type of short-term memory—working memory—is such a critical part of the learning process.
Have you ever been introduced to someone only to realize five minutes later that you can’t recall her name? Or maybe you’ve experienced this one: you suddenly remember that you need to add something to your shopping list, but by the time you find a pen, you can’t remember what you were going to write. Have you ever been frustrated by your child’s inability to remember a short list of tasks you’ve asked him to accomplish?
The examples above demonstrate the potential shortcomings of the working memory. Inevitably, we all face these issues from time to time. But for a child with more significant memory challenges, these issues can dramatically impact the learning process. Is there hope? YES! But let’s back up for a few minutes to consider several important questions.
What is working memory?
Working memory is the ability to hold information in your brain for a short period of time while you work with or manipulate the information. Working memory is critical for learning to read and spell. For example:
- It helps you sound out unfamiliar words.
- It helps you keep your place in the text, allowing you to look away from the page yet still find your place again.
- It helps you remember the words you just read as you finish the sentence or paragraph, enabling comprehension.
- It makes it possible for you to compose a cohesive paragraph, writing down one sentence while you think of the next.
Working memory is one of the most important indicators of how easily a child can learn. In fact, research has shown that working memory is actually a much better indicator than IQ is of how easily a person can learn.
What are the signs that my child has poor working memory?
A child with poor working memory will struggle with tasks that require him to hold some information in his mind (such as a dictated sentence) while doing something else that is challenging to him (such as spelling the words). Without some adaptations, he may fail to complete the task because crucial information (in this case, the remainder of the sentence) is dropped from the child’s memory and is no longer available to him. It may appear that the child is not paying attention, but in reality, he has simply forgotten what he is supposed to do.
In addition, a child with poor working memory may have one or more of the following problems.
- He may have difficulty paying attention to lessons.
- He may seem uncooperative during learning activities.
- He may fail to comprehend what he is reading.
- He can’t follow a string of instructions.
- He “spaces out” during lessons.
- He seems forgetful.
- He often misplaces things.
- He struggles to complete multistep activities.
- He often forgets what he was going to say.
What can I do to help build my child’s working memory?
As you implement the six ideas below, you will begin to see improvement in your child’s working memory.
- Avoid information overload. When too much information is presented in a lesson, your child’s working memory becomes overloaded.
- Eliminate distractions. When your child is working, try to reduce distractions such as TV or radio in the background, siblings or classmates talking, and toys or other interesting activities nearby.
- Make sure your child is comfortable during lessons. Physical stress (from things like headaches, an uncomfortable chair, hunger, being too hot or too cold, and eye strain due to vision issues or from facing a bright window) can have a negative effect on working memory.
- Read aloud every day for at least 20 minutes. When you read aloud, your child has to recall what you just read and anticipate what is coming next. All the while, he is interpreting the words and comprehending the story.
- Do motivating activities with your child that require following instructions, such as crafts or recipes. He should read one or two simple steps and then complete them. (Depending on your child’s reading level, either you can read the instructions or he can.) This will exercise and stretch your child’s working memory.
- And above all, have patience! This might be the hardest part! Be encouraging, and keep emotional stress to a minimum. If your child is worried about performing properly or disappointing you, that just adds another layer of stress that taxes working memory even more.
AAR and AAS work well for students with working memory challenges.
All learning involves working memory, and I made sure that the lessons in our programs reduce unnecessary load on the working memory.
- Lessons are short and focused on just one concept at a time.
- When there are activities involved, we give only one or two instructions at a time, and the scripted verbal instructions are easy to understand.
- The lessons follow the same routine each day. This lessens the demand on working memory because the student knows what to expect, making it easier to focus on the lesson.
- The letter tiles are color coded, giving the students visual cues as to what category they belong to on the magnet board.
- As a mastery-based program, we make sure that students understand the basics before asking them to move on to a more complex task. For example, before asking a student to comprehend the sentence The hawk sat on her nest, we make sure that he is able to easily decode the word hawk. Because the child has already mastered the sounds of the phonogram AW, his working memory is freed up to work on comprehension.
- Crucial information is reviewed frequently. This pushes the information into long-term memory, freeing up working memory space.
An effective working memory is a necessary part of the learning process. But the good news is you can help your child strengthen his working memory! With a bit of extra effort, you and your child will see big rewards!
Don’t miss a single post in my Memory Series. Each post provides another way to help your child retain reading and spelling information.
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Photo credit: Rachel Neumann