The Perils of Working Memory – and Three Ways to Make it Strong!

Working memory is a tricky old lady…poking innocent children with her gnarled wooden cane and cackling with morbid glee when she puts a spell on them, forcing them mute or blind or deaf…


Okay…she’s not really that bad. But if you have a student or child who struggles in this area, it’s as if that old lady has it out for you. The information needed to survive a school assignment goes through one ear and travels right out the other.




There’s no “Velcro” to hold it in place.


Working memory entails focusing on and manipulating information for a relatively short period of time and then deciding if it needs to be placed in long-term memory. An example of working memory is doing a long division problem.


You have to remember your multiplication and division facts, know where to line up columns, think about a process, and then write the correct answer by following the correct steps.

Then, the brain has to decide if the information goes into long-term memory or not. That’s why we put multiplication facts in long-term memory – we need to use them. The actual answer to a long division problem is sent packing.


So many things can go wrong!


Here’s one of the main reasons. Working memory can only hold about three to five bits of small information at a time. When more comes its way, it decides to kick the old stuff out and focus on the new. Or it decides to send something to long term storage – that meat locker we all depend on.


What a fickle old lady she is!



But you don’t have to throw up your hands in despair and just bemoan the fact that your child or student has poor working memory and consequently is a poor student, fighting the ability to retain and manipulate information.


Working Memory is Just a Skill – and it Can Be Strengthened


Usually, though, people start with skills practice that is too difficult for the student to master and then throw up their hands in despair when the old lady starts jabbing away at the unsuspecting student!

These kids don’t get the chance to go back and fill in the easy gaps before making sure the bigger gaps are filled in. Of course, this is a long process and must be done step-by-step.


Remember, there’s a hierarchy to learning!


Following are three activities you can do to prepare your unique learner to strengthen working memory.


1. Start with easy visual memory games. You can use Concentration or just have your student match shapes that are shown and then taken away. It’s important that the shapes are recalled from memory, which means you’ll hold up the shape combinations for a few seconds, take them away, then have the student say or draw the shapes that were shown. Start with two shapes, letters, numbers, or symbols and then as the student progresses, move up to three, four, and so on.


2. Do the same with auditory memory. Start easy and have your child repeat simple consonant sounds to you. When success is met, move on to vowels, blends, etc. Eventually move onto words, word combinations, and even sentences. Numbers are a great choice here, too.


3. Once your student shows strength in both visual and auditory memory (steps 1 and 2), add manipulation to the mix. For instance, you can say a list of numbers, letters, or words out loud and have your child say them back to you – only backwards! For visual memory, you can draw some simple shapes on cards, hold them up, and have your child draw them with lines through certain shapes, upside down, or draw only the first and fifth shape. Get creative on this and send that old lady packing!


I’m often asked how many digits you should strive toward. Just remember that the old lady can only hold three to five bits of information in working memory, so don’t go beyond that!





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