Working Memory...What Every First Grade Teacher Expects By The End Of The Kindergarten Year


Working memory is slowly creeping into teacher jargon. That’s a good thing. Teachers need to remember this in their planning and teaching.

What is it? How does it differ from short-term memory?

Short-term memory is, at best, temporary. It is limited. It’s the memory you use while writing down an address, a telephone number, or recipe given to you over the phone. Once it is written down, it is promptly forgotten. The need to retain it is no longer there.

If the information is important, you’ll remember that you wrote it down for future reference. Hopefully, you’ll be able to find it when you need it. Because of the urgency of the moment, it’s usually written down on the first piece of paper that is handy – with full intention of recording it where it belongs.

More often than not, it can’t be found at the moment of need. Varying degrees of panic set in and the hunt begins. Short-term memory is inefficient for most of us.

Short-term Memory versus Working Memory

Working memory differs in that it usually requires holding something in mind while adding new information, adjusting the information, or for solving a problem. Solving a math problem is a case in point. It serves as an intermediary step to long-term memory.

What happens is that we receive new information. We see it or hear it. We hold that information in mind while searching in long-term memory to see if we can connect this new information with something we already know.

Working Memory

If the information is completely new, we may rehearse it in short-term memory before sending it on to long-term memory. If it connects with other information, we may need to adjust the old information in light of the new before sending it on to long-term memory.

That’s why it’s called working memory. We work with the old and new information; that is, we think about it and make adjustments, if necessary. We focus our attention on the information and put our thinking skills to work. If we didn’t think about it, we wouldn’t learn very much.

We may, on the other hand, get new information that can be added, to what we already know and understand. The new piece of information gets stored in long-term memory with what was already stored there.

What Are The Components of Working Memory?

Researchers in the area of working memory agree, in general, that there are at least three parts to working memory: a visualization aspect, a hearing aspect, and a thinking aspect. Others argue that the three elements are too simplistic, that emotion, motivation, understanding, long-term memory, and visual spatial aspects make a significant contribution, and more.

They are right, of course. There are many fickle life experiences that have a direct or indirect impact on working memory.

Real-Life Examples

Many years ago, when I first began teaching in a large city high school, I took over, in mid-year, from a teacher who had classroom management issues. I had nine blocks of ninth grade French.

Each class had 30 or more students. To regain control, I knew I had to learn their names, and remember them. They would be hard pressed to misbehavior if I could call them by name. It was a challenge. I had never done it before.

The formality of French teaching, at that time, insisted on using Monsieur or Mademoiselle before the family name. If I were successful in the challenge, it would set the tone for the remainder of the year, right from the start. The typical, gradual learning of names couldn’t accomplish the impact I needed.

Memory Process

Much to my surprise, I learned all 30 names within the first 20 minutes after the signal for the start of the class. As proof that I did, indeed, know their names, I asked them to change places…to sit in a different spot. My accuracy rate was 100 percent in all but one class. Two students’ names were so similar (McLennan, McLellan) that I got them confused.

Nonetheless, 30+ names, in each of nine classes, was a feat for me. For the students, not only did it impress the first class, news spread rapidly among the remaining classes…there was a very different breed of teacher taking over!

How did I do it? First, I asked each student his or her full name. While repeating the student’s name, I made a conscious effort to associate the name with the face, the voice, the body language of each.

As each name was added, in the short term, I would identify each student to that point to help transfer that information to long-term memory. I did this successively until each name was firmly in mind.

With the shuffle completed and each student successfully identified, student expectations for the course were outlined with greater perceived authority and attention. They dared not challenge or misbehave.

I have to admit that the McLellan/McLennan confusion remained until one of them moved away from the school. Although it was dismaying to the students involved, it gave me some latitude…I was human, after all. I was not perfect!

The elements in the challenge are clear. There was a huge emotional stake for me. There was a visual component. There was a hearing aspect. Body language made a contribution. Short-term and long-term memory were at play…along with thinking and understanding. Remember that our names contribute to our uniqueness.
Working memory is a combination of processes that are active in problem-solving.
What did each student look like? How did they tell me their individual names? Was it timid or self-assured? Why was knowing their names important to class behavior? Where did they sit? What was the effect when the exercise was completed?
The answers to these questions presented valuable clues to remembering their names.
Working Memory and Its Effect On Academic Success

Working memory skills are strongly associated with performance in reading, writing, speaking, listening, and math. Working memory has a direct bearing on effective thinking. It affects reasoning and comprehension.

The contribution of working memory to academic success is, perhaps, best illustrated by an experience I had several years later. This is Brendan’s story (not his real name).

Brendan was in sixth grade. He was a constant source of irritation to his teacher. He seemed never to know what to do with assigned work to be completed in class, or at home.

What made matters worse was that even with many one-on-one explanations and attention, he simply couldn’t complete the work. Over and over again, he stated he didn’t know what to do.

The situation escalated. Everyone involved was beginning to show ill-will toward each other. On any given day, the teacher never knew who would be in his desk or in the classroom: Brendan, his mother, or his father…and…at times, all three!

Brendan’s name cropped up on a regular basis in the staffroom, at recess…at lunch…after school. By spring break, the principal was involved.

My own children were competitive swimmers, at that time. Parent involvement is critical in any successful swim meet. In fact, it takes some 65 volunteers to run a meet. Not only did I officiate at all levels, I was also a member of the state/provincial executive.

Brendan joined the local club of the community in which I was teaching. My concern for the swimmers' academic and athletic well-being led me to tell the teacher that, with permission from the parents, I would administer an abilities test on Brendan. We all knew an achievement test wouldn’t tell us more than we already knew…it was low!

I had specialized training in abilities testing. Perhaps it would pinpoint areas of weakness in a student who, from all appearances, was alert and aware.

The test, which looks at 27 abilities, was scheduled for the first day following spring break, in early April.

The results were astounding!

Brendan’s level of comprehension was in the superior range, one level below gifted.

His problem-solving skills were above-average, two levels below gifted.

With those strengths, why was Brendan in academic difficulty?

His memory score was in the disabling range, at the first stanine, 8 levels below gifted!

The problem: Quite simply, Brendan couldn’t remember anything long enough to be able to put his strong abilities to work in his own behalf. He WASN’T annoying the teacher, deliberately.

He was speaking the truth!

Fortunately, the corrective measures I used in his one-on-one sessions were effective. In fact, within three or four weeks, he self-reported that he could “understand better” since he began remediation.

Brendan’s treatment program was cut off after eight weeks due to year-end testing. In 7th grade, no further difficulties were disclosed by his teacher. His remediation program in memory training had had the desired effect!

Working memory can be improved through training!

A last example...

Damian, my Afghan hound, held to his right of an evening walk around our subdivision in Athens, Georgia while I was pursuing my doctorate in Reading Education. Most every evening, I would hear what I considered to be the sound of an animal in distress.

However I described the sound, no-one could tell me what it was. There it stayed, in my long-term memory, as animal-in-distress, sound – unknown.

One evening, my father-in-law, who lived in South Carolina, accompanied us on our walk. Hearing the sound, again, I asked him what animal was making that sound. He told me it was a screech owl. The native habitat of screech owls doesn’t extend beyond the mid-western States.

My working memory went to work to change the classification from unknown-animal-in-distress-sound to bird sounds…owls… screech owl. The incident remained in long-term memory.

That’s how working memory functions. If you can connect new information to memories you already have, it helps you reorganize and remember new information.

A child with good working memory will learn easily and well.

Learning to read requires the use of working memory. It requires the use of our senses, our ability to relate the incoming information in light of what came before, thinking through and making connections, and storing the information efficiently for effective use.

Can working memory be trained? If those abilities are expected of entering first graders, how do you develop those skills while your child is in Kindergarten?

There is nothing as frustrating to a learner as a curriculum he cannot learn. His sense of adequacy suffers. And that leads to anxiety, depression, and self-messaging that is damaging. His feelings of being a capable learner go down.

Training is most effective if the material used works at building a solid foundation.


What to look for in selecting material for use at the kindergarten level.

Look for material that is consistent. It must build on what was learned before. It must follow a similar reasoning process throughout, refining and reinforcing it over time and exposure. It must develop memory for visual and auditory information, cued and purely mnemonic.

It must incorporate skills that are required in the learning to read process. It must integrate prior skills in new and complex ways, yet following the patterns established, earlier. It must build gradually to develop comfort and confidence in the process. It must be systematic in building the foundation, as baseline information, that can be used as a point of reference in other tasks.

You are looking for material that is comprehensive. It must address the skills expected by the first grade teacher. It must be easy for a parent, without training, to use. It must be easy to manage.

If possible, it should be systematic for strengthening long-term retention. It should include strategies for problem-solving.

In short, method and material should build toward helping your child help herself learn…to become an independent learner. When the method and material are right, the foundation for working memory and independent learning will establish the baseline necessary for success.

For your sake, the program selected shouldn’t break the bank ... or flatten your wallet.

There are many materials on the market that make claims to deliver. Unless you confirm that the content will do that, you will be wasting your money. No return policy! Don’t be taken in by the cute and colorful illustrations.

Understand, also, that NO material is perfect … or 100 percent effective with every student. If you look carefully and think about the points raised, you will probably make a reasonable choice. With your interaction, it most likely will deliver what it claims.

The optimum program is one that over-delivers, that is, it will accomplish more than what it claims. When faced with reclaiming at risk first graders, I was not able to find one that acknowledged and developed working memory. That’s why I designed and wrote an affordable, skills-oriented program called Annie Ape: The Magic Bullet to Literacy after 25 years of experience working with those children.

Check it out. See if it is suitable to your child.

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