Five strategies for helping children to learn by strengthening their working memory

Date Published


Reading time

5 minutes


Stephen Park, MD at Lexplore

The development of working memory is crucial to pupil engagement and academic success, especially when it comes to reading. To retain what they’re learning; pupils need to develop strategies that support their memory and ultimately improve their ability to retain information and learn. The following blog post will look at the various areas of memory and suggest strategies and resources that may help.

Working memory refers to the ability that we have to hold and manipulate information in the mind for short periods of time. In their fantastic Ed Talks, working memory experts Tracy and Ross Alloway refer to it as “the brain’s Post-It note”

There’s a limit to the amount of information that can be held in the working memory and, if this limit is exceeded, at least some of what we are trying to remember is forgotten.

How much information can be stored is affected by many factors, particularly in the school environment, where background noise can affect retention.

Working memory helps children to hold on to information long enough to use it and plays an important role in concentrating and following instructions. Weak working memory skills can affect learning in many different subject areas including reading, writing and maths. Good working memory skills help pupils to retain important information, such as instructions from the teacher, in the face of distractions from classmates, wall displays, noise and their thoughts and feelings.

For those wanting to learn more about working memory, Professor Susan E. Gathercole and Dr Tracy Packiam Alloway have put together a fantastic classroom guide, introducing the learning difficulties commonly faced by children with very poor working memory skills. These are described and illustrated with case studies and an outlined programme of classroom support for schools..

You can access the guide here.

Strategies to enhance working memory

  1. Give directions in multiple formats
    Pupils benefit from being given directions both visually and verbally. Their ability to understand and remember instructions could be checked by encouraging them to repeat the instructions and explain their meaning. Examples of what needs to be done can help to enhance  remember directions
  2. Teach students to over-learn material
    Pupils should be taught the necessity of ‘over-learning' new information. Often, they practice only until they can perform one error-free repetition of the material. However, several error-free repetitions are needed to confirm understanding of the information
  3. Teach students to use visual images and other memory strategies
    Another memory strategy that makes use of a cue is one called ‘word substitution’. The substitute word system can be used for information that is hard to visualise. For example, the word ‘occipital’ can be converted into a word that sounds familiar and can be visualised. The word ‘occipital’ can be converted to ‘exhibit hall’ (because it sounds similar). The student can then make a visual image of walking into a museum and seeing a painting of a brain with big bulging eyes (occipital is the region of the brain that controls vision). With this system, the word that the student is trying to remember actually becomes the cue for the visual image, which then cues the memory and definition of the word
  4. Give teacher-prepared handouts prior to classes
    Lessons should be reinforced by handouts prepared by the teacher. Handouts could consist of a brief outline or a partially completed graphic organiser that pupils complete during the lesson. Having this information will help pupils to identify the information given and organise it effectively in their notes. Both of these activities, along with using Post-It notes to jot down information, can help with remembering
  5. Teach students to be active readers
    To enhance short-term memory and/or working memory when reading, pupils should underline, highlight or jot down keywords in the margin. They can then go back and re-read. To consolidate this information in their long-term memory, they can make outlines or again use graphic organisers. Research has shown that graphic organisers increase academic achievement for all students.

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Stephen Park, MD at Lexplore

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