SEN and Working Memory

MeeMo Thinking ChildWorking Memory is our ability to both store and process information. This is one of the most important abilities that children can develop, and provides them with the foundation to learn across reading, maths, and most curriculum areas.

With Working Memory being so important for children’s learning, then what happens for those with poor Working Memory? Without testing for it, you’ll already know who these children are. They are the ones that struggle to follow instructions, who forget what they are doing, and can’t think as quickly as the other children. They are the ones who struggle with reading, spelling, or maths. They are the ones that we intuitively help by acting as their Working Memory and break down tasks for to give them less information to process.

Let’s take a moment to think about why these children struggle so much. To start with, we need to think about how we teach. As the foundations of teaching, we typically 1) give children information in some way (e.g. letters, numbers, spoken ideas), and 2) ask them to think about it (blend / segment, complete a maths calculation, remember what we’ve said). This directly matches children’s Working Memory capacity as they 1) hold in mind / store the information, and 2) apply some phonics / maths rules to process the information.

With this in mind, we can see why we teach a 6 year old differently to an 8 year old; the older children have greater capacity to store and process information (i.e. greater Working Memory capacity).

To give another example, children with poor Working Memory often struggle with writing. If we think about the storage and processing demands of this, we can understand why. When writing, children have to simultaneously try to come up with an idea, store what they want to write, think about the spellings, and form the letters one by one to write this down. A child may be able to do any one of these tasks, but it will take a lot of Working Memory capacity to be able to do all at once. We intuitively help these children by breaking the tasks down for them (e.g. dictating their sentences to them).

Children with poor Working Memory often have Dyslexia, Dyscalculia, Dysgraphia, or general learning difficulties. The difference between these children is often they use their other abilities or develop alternative ways to learn (e.g. learning to read through whole-word approaches). When other strengths aren’t present, or children don’t have strategies to overcome these difficulties, they are often the ones we see struggle across the entire curriculum.

Some of the key areas you’ll have noticed children with poor Working Memory struggling in include:

  • Following instructions
  • Learning to read through Phonics
  • Writing
  • Mental Maths
  • Inferencing
  • Problem Solving
  • Remembering topic knowledge

Having a weak Working Memory capacity creates obstacles for children’s learning. But there are ways to overcome these obstacles. Firstly, we can help children by ‘working around’ / accommodating these difficulties, by drawing on their strengths or developing strategies that reduce the load on their Working Memory. Secondly, recent advances have demonstrated that we can actually improve children’s Working Memory capacity by providing them with a series of specialised activities, thereby providing them with greater foundations to learn across the curriculum. With help and support, children with poor Working Memory can achieve and be happy in school.

This article is written by Dr Richard Skelton, Child and Educational Psychologist and creator of MeeMo. To find out more about this resource and to take a look at MeeMo in action, please click here.


Assessment, Computing and ICT, CPD, English and Literacy, Geography, Grammar, Spelling and Punctuation, History, Mathematics, MeeMo, Reading and Ebooks, Revision and Practice, Science and Technology

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