What is Working Memory?

Work­ing mem­ory forms part of a person’s executive functioning and is the abil­ity to hold infor­ma­tion in your head and manip­u­late it men­tally. It is essentially the brain’s “jotting pad” or mental workspace where important information is stored temporarily. It allows us to keep track of what we are doing, and what we need to do, while doing everyday tasks. A classic example of working memory activity is doing mental maths e.g. 21 plus 16… the child has to hold both numbers in their hyead and then recall addition rules and number bonds to give an answer. Another example would be if the teacher has read out several instructions, then the child uses their WM carry those instructions out. Other uses include:

  • Following directions from one place to another
  • It helps you think on your feet
  • Helps you to follow conversations
  • Better able to prioritize information
  • It’s easier to learn new information at school / universityWorking memory has shown to be a good predictor of academic success i.e. a child with a good working memory should not have too many difficulties with their learning processes. Children with poor working memories often struggle in either language or maths or may struggle with both. Early identification of WM difficulties can help identify those children who are at risk of having learning difficulties so that early interventions can then be put in place.
  • Working memory acts as the brains “conductor” as it tries to control the constant input of information into your brain. It does this by prioritising what information is important and what is irrelevant so that you can hold onto the information so you can work with it.
  • Interestingly enough, a child with a high IQ but low WM is often seen to be an underachiever. A child’s education or socio-economic status does not necessarily impact a child WM score on a test but it may influence their IQ score.

There are 3 components to the working memory. These are:

  • Visuo-spatal short term memory – this stores images, pictures and information about locations i.e. it’s your “visual sketchpad”.
  • Verbal short term memory – Stores material that can be expressed in spoken language, such as numbers, words and sentences. Also known as “phonological loop”
  • Central executive – Involves higher level mental processes and controls attention
  • (Gathercold & Packiam Alloway, 2008, p.17)

When testing working memory, visual and verbal WM should be assessed.

Working memory capacity

Unfortunately, working memory has a limited capacity. When this limit is exceeded, the child is more than likely going to forget part of what he was going to do. Those children with stronger working memories tend to do better academically than those with it i.e. struggle to retain information. According to Gathercole and Alloway (2011), the following are limits for each age group:

  • Age 5 to 6   – 2 Instructions
  • Age 7 to 9 – 3 instructions
  • Age 10 to 12 – 4 instructions
  • Age 13 to 15 – 5 instructions
  • Age 16 to 30 – 6 instructions
  • Ages 40’s – 5 instructions
  • Ages 50’s – 4 instructions
  • Ages 60’s to 70’s – 3 instructionsWM can be affected by background noise. A monotonous tone does not necessarily effect the memory but sudden or irregular noises can cause one to forget. WM is best preserved in a quiet environment i.e. a quiet classroom. Working memory overload can occur when:
  • The average adult can retain approximately 6 or 7 units of information. A ‘unit’ is the amount of material that can be recalled as one. For example, a random list of letters such as R, O, W, P, S, W would be considered as 6 units while USA, IBM or KFM would be 3 units because the letters are clustered into meaningful (familiar) sets. This confirms that it is so important to help children to make meaningful associations between information so that they can retain and recall it with greater ease.
    • teachers introduce too much material all at once.
    • Too many instructions to follow
    • When information is taught too quickly
    • When too many choices are given

General characteristics of children with poor working memory:

  • Despite good social interaction with their peers, they are often reserved in group situations e.g. carpet time because when it comes to their turn to give the answer, they may have forgotten what they wanted to say. They may also find it hard to keep up with what has already been said and what still needs to be said in the discussion. Because of this, they often do not engage in on going group discussions, and may become withdrawn or appear distracted.
  • Children with poor WM are often described by teachers as:
    • having short attention spans,
    • higher levels of distractibility,
    • failing to adequately monitor the quality of their work,
    • and show a lack of creativity when solving complex problems.
  • Their academic progress in reading and maths is slow.
  • Their limited working memory capacities are frequently overloaded in structured learning activities, leading to failures to:
    • follow instructions
    • difficulty completing tasks that combine storage and demanding mental processing
    • problems in keeping track of their progress in complex tasks
  • The children appear to be inattentive and highly distractible, probably due to working memory overload and forgetting.

Cogmed came up with the following checklist that one can go through to see if a child may have poor working memory (www.cogmed.com)

Problems with working memory may exist if the individual:

  1. Is easily distracted when working on or doing something that is not highly interesting.
  2. Has trouble with activities that require both storage (remembering) and processing (manipulating information).
  3. Struggles with reading comprehension and has to read through texts repeatedly to understand.
  4. Struggles with solving problems that require holding the information in mind, for example mental maths calculations.
  5. Is inconsistent in remembering maths facts.
  6. Struggles with completing tasks, especially multiple step tasks – they usually cannot remember the information needed to guide them through the activity and subsequently ‘zone out’.
  7. Has difficulty remembering long instructions given in several steps, for example directions or school/ work assignments – may forget part or all of the instruction.
  8. Struggles to understand the context in a story or a conversation.
  9. Has difficulty when planning and organizing something that needs to be done in separate steps.
  10. Makes place-keeping errors – has difficulty keeping track of what they have done and what still has to be completed.
  11. Has difficulty staying focused during cognitively demanding tasks but attends well when cognitive demands are minimal.
  12. Has difficulty integrating new information with prior knowledge.
  13. When called on, forgets what he/she was planning to say.
  14. Has trouble waiting for his/her turn, for example in a conversation or when waiting in line to get help.
  15. Has difficulty taking notes and listening at the same time.
Working memory in the school phases:
In preschool, working memory is needed for the following:
  • Learning the alphabet
  • Focusing on short instructions such as “Come brush your teeth”
  • Remaining seated to complete independent activities, such as puzzles.
  • Remembering the steps of an activit

Indicators that a child’s working memory my need exercise:

  • Seems unwilling or unable to learn alphabet, numbers
  • Can’t focus long enough to grasp and follow instructions
  • Flits from one thing to another
Working memory in the Foundation phase is crucial for:
  • Reading and understanding the content (reading comprehension)
  • Mental arithmetic
  • Interacting and responding appropriately in peer activities such as playing on the school ground

Indicators that a child’s working memory my need exercise:

  • Reads (decodes) but does not understand or remember material read
  • Problems memorizing math facts
  • Difficulty participating in group activities (e.g. awaiting turn); makes friends but cannot keep them.
Working memory in the intermediate and senior phase of school is crucial for:
  • Doing homework independently.
  • Working on projects independently.
  • Planning and packing for an activity.
  • Solving multi-step math problems, especially word problems.
  • Participating in team sports

Indicators that a child’s working memory my need exercise:

  • Does not begin or persist with homework without supervision.
  • Packs but forgets items essential for activity.
  • Reads the problem but can’t break it into understandable parts.
  • Problems grasping rules of a game, functioning as a “team player”




  • Alloway, T. & Alloway, R. (2013).The Working Memory Advantage: Train your brain to function, stronger, smarter faster. New York: Simon and Schuster Inc.
  • Badderly, A. (1992). Working Memory. Science 225 (1), 556- 559.
  • Gathercold, S.E. & Packiam Alloway, T. (2008). Working Memory and Learning: A practical guide for teachers. California: Sage Publishers.
  • Gathercole, S.E., Packiam Alloway, T., Willis, C & Adams, A. (2006). Working Memory in children with reading disabilities. Journal of Child Psychology, 93 (1), 265-281.
  • Kofler, M.J., Rapport, M.D., Bolden, J. & Altro, T.A. (2008). Working memory as a core deficit in ADHD: Preliminary Findings and Implications. The ADHD Report, 8-14.
  • Packiam Alloway, T. & Gathercole, S.E. ( 2005). The role of sentence recall in reading and language skills of children with learning difficulties. Learning and Individual differences, 15 (1), 271-282.
  • Witt, M. (2011). School based working memory training: Preliminary findings of improvement in children’s performance. Advances in Cognitive Psychology, 7 (1), 7-15.
  • https://www.understood.org/en/school-learning/learning-at-home/homework-study-skills/8-working-memory-boosters