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Working Memory and Learning

Principal: Working Memory Helps All Learning

Talking to Myself Again….
A word can last in working memory for about 2 seconds without any work. To keep a word in working memory, you need to rehearse it, as in the example above of remembering a telephone number. Working memory stores words using a king of “talking to yourself” (although your mouth does not have to move to do this). We know this because:

  1. Working memory mistakes tend to be letters that sound the same, not letters that look the same, even if the words are read silently.
  2. Working memory is much smaller if people have to repeat a nonsense syllable like “tah-tah-tah” while they try to learn a group of letters. Speaking out loud interferes with the “silent speech” used by working memory.
  3. Working memory is also smaller if there are background sounds of speaking, music, or noise that sounds like speech, but not from “white noise.”

Children under five do not make the same kind of errors, so it seems they do not use “silent speech.”

This “talking to yourself” can be just repeating the words, or it can include making connections between the things you need to learn. Repetition is needed when the list is arbitrary, like times tables or a spelling rule. Making connections is a more effective way to remember, when it is possible to connect new information to what you already know. Some memory techniques work because they make a connection between a new word and something well-known like a number.

Adult students may think that repeating something over and over again is a good way to learn it. In fact, this is a good strategy for remembering what to pick up at the grocery store, as long as you keep repeating it. But as soon as you stop saying it, you are likely to forget the information. So repeating is good for short-term memory, but not for long-term learning.

How Does It Affect Learning?
Working memory is crucial for reading, understanding what we hear, and solving problems. Working memory keeps the beginning of a sentence in your mind until you get to the end of the sentence and make sense of it, in both reading and listening. People with working memory damage (from surgery, seizures, or brain injuries) have trouble reading or understanding long sentences. Children who have trouble learning to read, people with learning disabilities, and people who do not have good reading comprehension all tend to have poorer working memory.

Working memory is also related to reading in another way. To read, a person must first understand that spoken words are made up of distinct sounds. The word “night” is made up of three sound—”n,” “I,” and “t.” these sounds are part of your long-term memory, along with the common sound patterns of English (word families like “night,” “fright,” “light”). Some children who have trouble hearing the separate sounds in a word have poor short-term memory. Listening comprehension matches reading comprehension pretty closely. Children with dyslexia are
slower at deciding whether two letters (such as AA or AB) match.

Reading, of course, involves a lot more than working memory. It includes figuring out vocabulary from context, inferring unstated facts, following a plot, and using background knowledge, among other things. But if sound patterns never make it into long-term memory, then learning new words and decoding words on the page become very hard.

Adults’ working memory is larger than children’s. This may be because children have not developed as much of a sense of the patterns of English, including how common certain words are. Unlike long-term memory, the size of short-term memory does not depend on background knowledge.

Working memory is more efficient if new information is linked to what you already know. For example, a word in a list is easier to remember if you already know the meaning of the word. This means that working memory depends on how much you have learned. Being able to “chunk” information so that it is easier to remember if you do not know the categories to sort it into.

Reading Disabilities And Working Memory
Many studies show that a lot of students with reading disabilities have short-term memory problems. Although they can learn non-verbal information and concepts quickly, more than other readers, they:

Students with reading disabilities benefit more from learning self-talk and organizing strategies than other readers do.

© by Jennifer Cromley – National Institute for Literacy
Used with permission.

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