Working Memory

Written By Elissa Burleigh

9th January 2018


What is Working Memory?

Working memory is the ability to hold information in our minds, while also manipulating this information to use it for a task. It is a form of short-term memory which is essential for completing many functional tasks.

Why is Working Memory Important?

Working memory is highly important to many tasks and skills, including social engagement, academic learning and ability to complete activities of daily living. This is because working memory allows a person to hold onto information that is essential to a task, while engaged in different activities or different parts of the task. For example, when writing a story, working memory will allow a child to remember the sentence that they were intending to write while asking the teacher how to spell a specific word in the sentence.

Examples of Tasks for which Working Memory is Needed:

  • Following multi-step instructions: a person needs to be able to hold all of the steps of an instruction in their mind, while also carrying out the steps of an instruction.
  • Written expression: a person needs to be able to hold the overall plan for their written piece (e.g. narrative, recount, etc.) while also composing each specific sentence. A person also needs to hold the sentence that they intend to write in their mind, while also putting cognitive effort into how they are holding their pencil, how to form each letter, how to spell each word, how to use correct grammar and punctuation, etc.
  • Retracing a route: in order to return home from somewhere that you have gone for the first time, a person not only has to hold the original directions in their mind but also need to reverse the directions to retrace the route.
  • Engaging in games or sports: a person needs to be able to hold all of the rules of the game in their mind, while also carrying out the steps of the game. When rules change, they also need to hold these changes in their mind.
  • Retelling a story or event: in order to tell someone about a story or event, a person needs to be able to recall what happened, while also composing and sequencing sentences in order to explain it to another person in a way that makes sense.

What does a child with difficulties with working memory look like?

  • The child may often lose the goal of the task that they are engaged in: For example, they may have intended to write a recount, but then start writing about things that are going to happen in the future. This is because they were not able to hold the goal of the task in their mind (writing about things that have already happened) while also completing the task.
  • The child may have difficulty following multi-step instructions: For example, the child may only be able to complete the first step of the instruction, as they are not able to hold the other instructions in their mind while completing this step.
  • The child may appear to have poor focus and attention: If a child is losing the goal of tasks and having difficulty holding onto instructions, then this may come across as poor focus and attention, as they frequently do not stay on task or finish tasks.
  • The child may have difficulty with place-keeping within a task: If a child has difficulty remembering where they are up to, they may be observed to omit letters/words or repeating letters/words.

Strategies to Improve Working Memory

  • Ask the child to repeat the information back to you out loud five times before beginning. E.g. when you give them an instruction, ask them to repeat it back to you five times before they start.
  • Ask the child to shut their eyes and picture the information in their head, or visualise themselves drawing the information onto a pretend whiteboard in their head.
  • If the child says they cannot remember something (e.g. the instruction that they repeated back to you), then gently prompt them to “think to remember” and then allow them time to think. They may just require a bit of extra time to retrieve information from their memory.

Activities to Improve Working Memory (incorporating the strategies above)

  • Verbally present the child with three objects/animals, and then ask them a question about this information. E.g. “Chicken, cow, ant. Tell me which one is the biggest. Now tell me which one comes first in the alphabet”. If three animals/objects are too easy/hard, then increase/decrease the number that you give them.
  • Verbally give the child a multi-step maths equation to complete. E.g. “2+1+3”. Increase/decrease the number of numbers in the equation, or the difficulty of the equation, as necessary.
  • Ask the child to spell words backwards. Choose words that they are already able to spell. To increase the challenge, teach the child how to spell a word, and then ask them to spell it backwards.
  • Complete categorisation tasks. E.g. present the child with picture cards and ask them to put them into two categories. When they have done this, ask them to develop two new categories. Keep repeating this until they are unable to continue developing new categories, and then start giving prompts to help them to continue a few more times.
  • Ask the child to say the days of the week backwards. Make it more difficult by asking them to say the months of the year backwards.
  • Take the child’s favourite song, and ask them to say a line from the chorus backwards. E.g. “you, to, birthday, happy” for “happy birthday to you”.




Comments are closed.