Working memory problems can lead to reading comprehension problems

Working memory is the amount of information a student can hold in his mind while working with it.  If a child has trouble remembering what he just read, he will have comprehension problems.

Think of working memory as a post-it note in your brain, according to reading expert Susan Gathercole.* Like a post-it note,

long directions, kids confused

  • Working memory contains limited information. Once it runs out of space, it can’t hold any more information.
  • Working memory works better with simple information such as lists or easy-to-understand relationships. Complex thoughts and complex sentences need to be simplified for working memory to use them.
  • Working memory doesn’t last long. It has a limited shelf life—minutes or even seconds. Distractions can wipe out working memory like a snap of fingers.

How do working memory problems arise? Let’s look at a few examples.

If a teacher gives multiple-step directions, a child can forget the first direction before the teacher says the last direction.  Or if a teacher gives one long direction, a child can forget most of it before she follows it.  For example, a teacher can spell a whole word  for a kindergartener, but the child’s hand cannot write fast as the teacher can say the letters. The child might write two letters and then look up, confused.

Or a teacher might say, “Okay, class, put away your math workbook and take out your spelling book and turn to page 10.” That is three steps, more steps than some little children can retain in their working memory.

Or test directions might say, “As you read the selection, underline important facts before you answer the multiple-choice questions.” The sentence structure of the directions is complicated: a subordinate clause, followed by an independent clause, followed by another subordinate clause. Complex sentences can be difficult for young children to understand. Also, the sequencing of what to do might confuse a child. “Before” would seem to indicate “Do this first,” but the direction in the “before” clause is the last action the child should do. Children with small working memories might give up and do everything in the order stated.

If a student needs to read a selection of five or six sentences, he might forget what was said in the first sentence by the time he finishes the last sentence.  If you ask him what he read, he might remember only the information in the last two sentences. His working memory can’t hold onto all that information.

In our next blog we’ll talk about how to strengthen a child’s working memory.


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